The great Canoe Lake mystery

Did Tom Thomson drown—or was he murdered?

ROY MACGREGOR September 1 1973

The great Canoe Lake mystery

Did Tom Thomson drown—or was he murdered?

ROY MACGREGOR September 1 1973

Whitney is hardly the place you’d choose to be born in. It’s a shy little village tucked behind the clumsy hills that form the southwestern edge of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. It serves as a nest for people who work the park: Polish loggers, French-Canadian pulp haulers, Indian guides, some Irish, a few Scots. Places like Whitney slumber and seldom grow. The young either get out or die in super-torqued cars.

I had no choice. I was born in Whitney because it was the closest civilization to Algonquin Park, where my father earned his living, and before him my grandfather, my mother’s father. My father has worked as a lumber inspector for my uncle’s mill since the Depression, and when he drives from work to Whitney he does so on the road that was built over a trail originally blazed by my grandfather. My grandfather had been a park ranger since before the First World War, for the last several years of his career serving as chief ranger. And the chief ranger traditionally worked out of Whitney.

We didn’t stay long. My father knew Whitney was a dead end and in 1950 he moved us to Huntsville, about 20 miles west of the park boundary. My family began to swing like a pendulum between Huntsville and Whitney, the stable point being dead centre: the splendid two-story log cabin my grandfather built on a small lake in the park. I spent every summer there for 13 years, leaving the cottage only to pick up supplies in Whitney or at the tiny store at Canoe Lake.

It was on the cedar docks of the Canoe Lake store that I learned about my first Canadian hero, Tom Thomson — artist, woodsman and mystery all in one. If I went to the store with my father, who leans toward the contemplative, I would hear of an artist skilled with rod and paddle, and I would often be shown the Tea Lake Dam where Thomson liked to fish.

My grandfather would have none of it. He knew Thomson, worshipped hard work and abstinence, and thought the artist was a lazy bum. But he was recalling the years 1912-1917, a time when art was something the Europeans hung in museums. One of the lumber workers described his first encounter with Thomson to Mark Robinson, the chief ranger in those years. “He had three sticks stuck up,” he told Robinson, “and a bit of board, and he was dabbing bits of paint on. I don’t know what he was doing.”

“Well, is he an artist?” asked Robinson.

“A what?”

“An artist.”

“What kind of thing is that?”

So it was little wonder that my grandfather would only tell me about Thomson’s canoe tipping and the bloated body surfacing eight days later. I suppose he felt the artist’s end was the just reward of a misspent life. Live carelessly, die carelessly.

With these differing influences Thomson might have forever remained a shadowy figure in Algonquin Park’s past. Might have, except that the mystery woman of the Thomson legend was my aunt’s sister. Back in Huntsville, three blocks from my own home, lived Miss Winnifred Trainor, one-time fiancée of Tom Thomson. When she was denied Tom, she devoted the rest of her life to casting the longest shadow in town. She died a spinster in 1962 at the age of 82, a lady of the whispers. She liked me, talked to me, gave me candy, and I tried to forget that most of Huntsville thought her crazy.

It was Winnie who was blamed for jamming the till on the riches of the Thomson legend. For who had been closer to him? Who could possibly have known better the inner workings of the artist’s mind than the woman who, presumably, played all the teeter-totter head games that lovers play?

On July 16, 1917, Tom Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake. Accidental drowning? Preposterous, he was a fine swimmer and an expert canoeist. Murder? Suicide? We can’t even decide on where his body ended up. It could still be at Canoe Lake, where it was buried July 17, or it could be at Leith, Ont., where the following day it was supposedly taken for burial. Or it could be, as some people still maintain, a spectre drifting about Algonquin Park looking for revenge. There are even those who claim they uncovered his body in 1956 from a shallow grave in the tiny cemetery at Canoe Lake, a bullet hole through the skull.

A lot of questions which everyone thought Winnie Trainor could answer. But she didn’t. She’s been dead for more than a decade and what does it matter anyway? We have his paintings, and they still pass electrical jolts of color through the Ontario seasons. We have the heritage of the Group of Seven, his friends who encouraged him and learned from his inventiveness.

But we can’t resist. Thomson is a perfect hero for a nation that nail bites over its past: an artist cut down in the first hours of his career, an unsolved mystery. It wasn’t long before the speculations began. In 1935, Blodwen Davies wrote A Study Of Tom Thomson, and in 1970 Judge William Little, who took part in the clandestine 1956 dig, published his book, The Tom Thomson Mystery. There was also the CBC’s Who Killed Tom Thomson? They only whetted the appetite. Nothing proven, nothing solved.

Winnie Trainor, aloof from all these endeavors, became the axis of the mystery over the years. Some called her insane, others odd, still others merely lovable. For myself, I had various opinions of her. When she died, I was 14, an age when every adult seems insane. When she died, her letters — including those Tom Thomson sent her when they were courting — and 13 of his paintings were inherited by a cousin of mine who lives in New York State and who keeps these treasures stashed away in a safety deposit box, away from the public’s eye. All I inherited was a fascination with what can be assembled of her story.

Canoe Lake is one of the many lakes that were scribbled throughout Algonquin Park whën the ice age retreated across the Canadian Shield. It has an erratic shoreline, so that from an airplane it looks like a Martian Madonna, child in arms, both with long antennae where the northernmost creeks empty.

Winnie and Tom met here in the summer of 1913. He was in the park painting; she was staying at her parents’ little cottage on the northern tip of Canoe Lake. Thomson was 35 when he discovered Algonquin, 39 when it claimed his life. From the park his best-known canvases are believed to have come: Northern River, West Wind, Northern Lights and Jack Pine. To support his painting he worked as a guide, and a good one, for he was lithe, patient, and utterly taken by the outdoors.

Winnie was 33 when they met, and they were tall together, dark together, a fine-looking couple. And if Tom Thomson was an enigma to the loggers in 1913, he was surely a godsend to Winnie, single at more than 30. Certainly they were.engaged. In the spring before he died, Thomson had even reserved a cabin for a fall honeymoon.

Tom was, despite the suspicious lumbermen, popular. He had only one known enemy, Martin Bletcher Jr., an American of German descent who was openly pro-Germany in those early years when Canada was at war but America was not. He spent his summers at Canoe Lake, drank a lot and quarreled a lot. He later became a draft dodger, when the States declared war. Much later, in the early 1950s, he died in his sleep. Thomson was a pacifist who supposedly tried to enlist but was turned down because of flat feet.

On July 7, 1917, Bletcher and Thomson found themselves at the same drinking party in a guide’s cabin on Canoe Lake. They argued about the war, and Bletcher was heard to say something along the lines of “Don’t get in my way if you know what’s good for you.”

The next day Thomson’s canoe was found adrift. The canoe had the paddle lashed in portaging position but sloppily, and Thomson was known to be meticulous in such things. His favorite ash paddle was never found.

On July 16 his body floated to the surface, fully eight days after the canoe had been found, highly unusual in warm weather. Fishing line was wrapped around the artist’s ankle but whether he had entangled himself or someone had tied him isn’t known. There was — according to Mark Robinson, who took care of the body — a large bruise on the left temple and no water in the lungs.

A vacationing physician, Dr. G. W. Howland, gave a sworn statement that there was a bruise on the right temple, and he concluded that death was by drowning. There was no autopsy; the body was undressed, wrapped in a shroud and buried in a hardwood box in the little cemetery on the hill behind the Trainor cottage. Winnie Trainor stood quietly with her father and mother as the new grave was covered over.

An inquest was held by a Dr. Ranney, the North Bay coroner, who arrived after the burial and enjoyed a meal in the Bletcher cottage before getting the proceedings under way. Accidental drowning, Ranney concluded, and thanked his hosts for their hospitality.

The next day, H. W. Churchill, a Huntsville undertaker, came to exhume the body for shipment to the Thomson family plot in Leith. No one in the Thomson family has ever said they ordered this but it was done, at least it was apparently done. But if Churchill did do it, he spent less than three hours at his task, finishing at midnight, according to Shannon Fraser, the man who took him to the grave site and later picked him up. A lot of work in a short time, and the undertaker wasn’t even sweating when Fraser arrived with the wagon to load an oddly light casket. But no questions were asked.

Whatever it was that snapped on that dreary day they buried Tom, it followed Winnie for the rest of her life. And people wondered whether beneath that veil of eccentricity lay a genuine prize: the answer to the mystery.

She always kept that tiny cottage on Canoe Lake. Some say she preserved it exactly as it had been in 1917 but that’s not true. It grew old with her, the whitewash erupting in the sun, the years of baking giving the place the sepia air of an old photograph, adding to the eeriness, making the stories better.

Winnie went to work as a bookkeeper for the Shortreed Lumber Company in 1918, at Kearney just north of Huntsville. It was an unusual job for a woman in those days; they say she did it well. She visited her sister’s family in Endicott, N.Y., her parents in Huntsville, and spent many weekends at Canoe Lake. After World War II, she returned to Huntsville, living there until her death on August 12, 1962.


But the Tom Thomson legend doesn’t come from facts, it comes from mystique, from the raw naïvité of the park people, the removal of the body at midnight, and the bizarre web that knit around Winnie Trainor until she died.

Poor Winnie.

What could I have done, as your little visitor swapping candy for my time? What could I do but bend with the prevailing winds and think you crazy? Not even knowing crazy might have reasons, interpretations. And you were eccentric. People still remember when your three nephews would visit, and to make sure you got them downtown neat and orderly you kept two boxes on the porch. One boy was dressed, placed in a box, another was dressed, boxed, and when the third was ready the others would be released. Very ingenious, but small towns suspect ingenuity.

And you let people live in the apartment downstairs for only $50 a month, provided the man would clip your toenails every few weeks. You were old, too old to stoop, but people hoard such stories. And you gave them a long list.

Only one living person claims to have been “her intimate friend,” and that is Dr. Wilfred T. Pocock, now pushing 80 and still shoveling the winter snows off his driveway. He is a small man preoccupied with what his size will be to posterity. All of his spare time has gone toward leaving a literary contribution behind: two historical novels and the embryo of a third. His lifework is in the attic, placed neatly inside a sturdy cardboard box entitled The Pocock Papers, which is addressed to the archives of Queen’s University. When he dies, all it needs is postage.

Dr. Pocock met Winnie in Kearney on October 19, 1919. He became her doctor and her good friend. He is familiar with and scoffs at the rumor that Winnie was pregnant, and that this led to Thomson’s suicide. “She never complained to me of any pregnancies or abortions or anything.”

To the neighbors of the Trainor home in Huntsville it was commonly held that Winnie would marry Tom in 1917. No official announcements, no reading of the banns in the Anglican church; just one of those things everyone knew. Tom visited. Tom stayed over. Winnie and Tom looked at each other.

Addie Sylvester was Winnie’s neighbor during the years before and after Thomson’s death. She’s still tucked away in the same frame home she was born in, keeping busy with choir duties and eight cats. Her home faces where the Trainor home once stood.

Addie recalls the day Tom Thomson painted her house from the vantage point of the Trainor kitchen window. “Daddy had an old photographic gallery here. It was just an old brown building, nothing that you’d think was nice for a painting. But it was a real cold winter’s day and icicles were hanging down. You could look at that picture in the middle of summer and shiver.”

The pictures Tom gave to Winnie were familiar to Addie, as her family would keep them whenever the Trainors were away. “They weren’t anything more to us than a 10-cent postcard. I didn’t realize what they were really until later. If only I’d stolen one . . .”

Winnie seemed much changed to Addie after the summer of 1917. She grew afraid of the dark, and when her parents were away she’d have Addie stay over for the night. Winnie began to keep great bundles of keys, all tagged, all with a role. Padlocks on doors within the house ; locked trunks behind locked doors.

Was there anything Addie could remember that would make Winnie human, like the rest of us?

“Well . . . she went to church.”

She is still in church. On Sundays in Huntsville, the Gospel and Epistle flames in the Anglican church are held by candlesticks left to the memory of Miss Winnifred Trainor. They were donated the year after my cousin and I cleaned out her house and the old cottage. I still remember how Winnie wrapped everything that might go musty in cedar boughs. And it worked.

Winnie was dead. My grandfather had died that spring. I was 14, and the time had come for the sorting out of memories. The Algonquin years were losing their grip.

It was much later that I realized Winnie was an avatar, an embodiment of whatever others cared to imagine. The caricatures other people have painted stand larger in death than the flesh ever stood in life. And nowhere is the issue more confused than at Canoe Lake, where the woman’s mystique mixes with the bizarreness of the Tom Thomson legend, ghost included.

The tale is mostly attributed to Mark Robinson, the old ranger and friend of Thomson’s. In his later years — he died in 1955 at the age of 88 — he began earnestly applying yeast to the mystery. He spent several summers around the Taylor Statten Camps on Canoe Lake, gathering the children in the evenings for long-winded sessions on wolf snaring, poacher capturing and, of course, Tom Thomson. They’d have a fire, and the stage effect was perfect: dying fire, fog circling about the bay, gathering to rise toward the graveyard in the distance. Robinson kept the mystery alive by insisting the injury had been a blow to the left temple, not the right. He suspected Bleicher and he wasn’t convinced that the body had been removed.

Others have their own stories to tell. Len (Gibby) and Lou Gibson, longtime residents of the park, recall that, while Winnie maintained the body had been removed to Leith, she rarely neglected to clean up the presumably empty grave at Canoe Lake.

And Gibby was involved in the 1956 dig, giving him even more reason to suspect Churchill had never removed the body. He describes what happened that rainy October day: “The grave wasn’t deep and when we dug down I hit this board. I felt something so I grabbed it and pulled it out. It was a foot, with part of an old woolen sock on it. So we covered the grave again and took the foot back with us to camp. Pretty soon there was provincial police and mounted police and they dug him up. Sifted every inch of it. And there wasn’t a button. He was buried with just a shroud on, that’s all. But when they were digging, I got a hold of the skull and I was talking to the coroner about it and he said, ‘That’s Caucasian.’ Well, the next thing you know he’s turned Indian.” Gibby is referring to the later decision of the experts, that the remains were not of Thomson, but of an Indian.

And that upset Gibby. He thinks the official investigation by the Ontario Provincial Crime Laboratory was a snow job. Under the direction of Dr. Noble Sharpe, these conclusions were reached concerning the skeleton:

The subject was five-foot-eight plus or minus two inches (Thomson was close to six feet); aged 20 to 30 years (Thomson was 39); Mongolian (either Indian or half Indian); there was a hole in the left temple region of the skull, three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

People called it a whitewash. They could still remember the day Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) came through the park and met Tom. Archie looked Indian enough to fool the British Empire and Tom, with his high cheekbones, was said to have looked like his brother.

Dr. Sharpe determined age by studying dental caries, a method believed inaccurate today. As to the hole in the skull, much too large for a bullet hole, Mark Robinson maintained Thomson had been hit on the left temple with a paddle, and Judge Little has speculated that the hole was initially a partially fragmented bone which may have eroded over the years.

Others, Gibby included, still think it was a gun. Officials ruled that out because, in their sifting of the dirt from the grave, they found no bullet. It wouldn’t have been there, reasons Gibby, because it’s at the bottom of the lake.

That could be. There is a gap in the skull where a few teeth are missing, and Thomson had all his teeth. Bullets popping out of heads can remove teeth.

Or it could be as Dr. Sharpe speculated: a roving band of Indians passing by on a portage, and one who “at some time . . . likely had an operation on his head for hemorrhage following a blow” was killed or died. So his companions buried him naked in the same casket that once held Thomson, leaving the shroud and neglecting to remove one blue, woolen sock.

Gibby’s backyard is Canoe Lake, and he knows of no portage that would even come near the graveyard.

Winnie was furious about the 1956 dig. Gibby recalls talking to her.

“I told her exactly what I thought, and she told me that she gave permission to the Indians to use Tom’s casket to bury this Indian. I said, ‘Well, where’d he come from?’ and she said, ‘Well, they were just going by and he died.’ ”

No one was about to believe that and no one was obviously willing to accept the official report. The people of the lake, looking for an answer, would pounce on the wildest theories. You can’t blame them. Facts are boring; they rob the imagination.

A ghost has no time for facts, and it is the ghost which is the most delectable part of the Thomson story.

Mary Northway says her mother saw the spectre in 1931 as she and her guide paddled home after a fishing trip. A canoe came out to meet them, the paddler dressed in a yellow shirt, kneeling and dipping in that characteristic lean-and-draw motion of Thomson’s. They called out and it vanished.

The ash paddle which was Thomson’s favorite was never found. And the canoe disappeared shortly after 1917.

The best stories, however, are not known, for they were the private property of Jimmy Stringer, the 73-year-old “Mayor” of Canoe Lake, the area’s best-loved resident, who lived there year round with his brother Wam in a toddling old house on the north shore.

When I saw Jimmy last spring, it took me more than a day to loosen him up. But finally, after we had talked about every member in both our families, he put the stem of his pipe to his teeth, drew the string closed on a ruffled tobacco pouch, leaned over and pinched my forearm. “Alright, laddie. Jaime does have some things to tell.” (Jimmy seldom used “I,” preferring a nickname that few others ever used.)

First he told me of how he met Thomson in the summer of 1913. Jimmy was staying over with his uncle Jack Culhane, a ranger at Grand Lake north of Canoe Lake. Thomson painted in this area that summer (many people think it was the setting for West Wind and Jack Pine) and he often called on the Culhanes. Jimmy learned to recognize Thomson from a distance, just by the way he paddled; up close, Jimmy formed a deep impression of Tom Thomson’s features. It served him well years later, when Jimmy and the ghost crossed trails.

“There were two of us, paddling back from a two-week trip. The rest of the group had gone on ahead, leaving Jaime with this American fellow. Jaime had just started a smoke when this fellow up front starts screaming.

“I asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, and he turned around white as a sheet. ‘Didn’t you see him?’ he asks me, and Jaime says, ‘See who?’

“ ‘The guy yelling about my brother having drowned by some mill.’

“Well, Jaime hadn’t seen or heard anyone, but one of the group ahead was this fellow’s brother. So we headed back straightaway. The chap kept describing the man he’d seen . . . tall, long black hair, yellow shirt, looked something like an Indian. Just like Jaime remembered Tom Thomson.

“And sure enough, once we got back by the old mill, the others were still diving for the fellow’s brother.”

Jimmy began to believe firmly in the ghost when several summers later he happened to be paddling down to the government docks very early one morning; the mist was heavy, reluctant to leave even after the sun began to fry it. A grey-green canoe slipped out of this fog and drew up beside Jimmy. It was a grinning Tom Thomson, and Jimmy sat frozen until the apparition dissolved.

The telling of these stories had Jimmy filling and lighting his pipe chaotically, tapping it out and fumbling frantically with the tiny pouch.

“I tell you what, laddie. You and Jaime will settle this once and for all. Just the two of us, this summer. Don’t believe a word of what you hear about that body they dug up being Thomson’s. Don’t believe a word about what Mark Robinson said. Tom Thomson may be a ghost, but he was never shot. Martin Bletcher didn’t have the guts to shoot anybody. And Jaime can prove it. ‘Cause Jaime Stringer is the only one left that knows where the real grave is.”

Once before, and only once, I had come across a dubious story that the friends of Thomson raided the grave before Churchill the undertaker came to exhume the body for shipment to Leith. The story had it that Churchill, contrary to being too lazy to be bothered digging, had actually done the exhumation, found nothing, but had been afraid to admit it. Jimmy Stringer would have been too young in 1917 to have been involved in such a macabre scheme, but he was intimate with such old-timers as might have been involved, but who have long since faded into history.

So neither believing nor discounting, I made plans with Jimmy to get together at Canoe Lake this summer. We’d fish a couple of days, and then go digging.

But summer never came. One April day, when the ice was fed up with the warmer weather, Jimmy’s tobacco pouch came bobbing up in the open waters of Canoe Lake. And after his friends had dragged the open parts, Jimmy Stringer himself surfaced.

He was a fine old man, rough hewn and garrulous, but he tried to open up an old mystery, and that, apparently, cannot be. The park hangs onto its own.