Dad's Saving Bonds: I Was
A new book published in May, 2016, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact
from Fiction, by Gregory Klages, confidently concludes that he died accidentally, by drowning.
He does so by serial attrition -- closely reviewing and rhetorically demolishing the contrary
work of almost every earlier researcher and writer.
That's a too easy non-conclusion for an academic scholar who had the time and resources to
gather lots of original records and claims that his "forensic archival sleuthing does provide,
for the first time in almost a century, some degree of certainty surrounding this event."
And he never firmly decides where the body remains today. He left the issue, up-in-the-air,
saying there are "strong reasons to conclude that the body was exhumed and moved from
Canoe Lake to Leith. That being said, the mystery in this case may very likely have less to do
with where Thomson is buried and more to do with who it is that's buried at the site where
Thomson may have been originally buried." (Emphasis added.)
Klages is a sessional instructor at several Toronto area universities. He received his doctor
of philosophy degree in communications and culture from the York University in 2009. He
was part of a group that created an on-line teaching resource regarding great unsolved
Canadian mysteries – Death on a Painted Lake. – that gathered historical evidence regarding
Thomson’s death. For his book, Klages went far bit further.
Klages methodically tackles and tries to bring down the research and writing of Blodwen
Davies, Edwin Guillet, Audrey Saunders, Dr. Robert P. Little, Judge William Little, Ottelyn
Addison, Joan Murray, David Silcox, Charles Plewman, and S. Bernard Shaw before
dismissing off-hand Wayne Larsen, Jim Poling and myself as "purposely fictional or
grounded in lamentably poor research" and before reserving his particular scorn for the work
and conclusions of Roy MacGregor, national columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, MacGregor worked for the National Post, the
Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine, the Toronto Star, and the Canadian Magazine. He has
won numerous awards for his journalism, including two National Newspaper Awards,
several National Magazine Awards and twice the ACTRA Award as the best television drama
writer in the country.
He is also the author of nearly 40 books, 23 of them in the internationally-successful Screech
Owls Mystery series for young readers. His adult books include A Life in the Bush, which won
the Rutstrum Award as the best book on the wilderness published in North America between
1995-2000. His book, Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey, was nominated for the
Governor-General's Award in 1996. In 2005 he was named an officer in the Order of Canada.
Moreover, MacGregor is related to Winnifred Trainor and grew up with her living nearby in
Huntsville. His grandfather personally knew Tom Thomson. So, it should be evident that
Klages needed to be careful before taking on MacGregor who has spent a lifetime on the
story of Tom Thomson.
Klages fully devotes seventeen pages and much more of his book to a critical and often
caustic review of MacGregor’s two magazine articles about the death of Tom Thomson – The
Great Canoe Lake Mystery, MacLean’s, 1973, The Legend, The Canadian Magazine, 1977,
and two books, Shorelines, 1980 (republished as Canoe Lake, 2002) and Northern Light:
The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, 2010.
“Unfortunately, much of MacGregor’s work is hung on the flimsy claims that had been offered
by William Little in The Tom Thomson Mystery,” Klages says. “Along with his uncritical
repetition of Little’s imaginative speculations, MacGregor introduced some of his own
rhetorical flourishes. His interpretations are overwhelmingly weighted towards building a
sense of suspicious dealings, while giving a false sense of journalistic balance and
In discussing how MacGregor seized upon the 1977 interview of Daphne Crombie
conducted by Ronald Pittaway, furthermore, Klages garbles what she said happened
between her and Dr. James M. MacCallum, M.D., Toronto ophthalmologist, art expert and
Thomson’s long-time patron.
Park Ranger Mark Robinson’s journal, the most reliable if threadbare written record of daily
events during Thomson's last spring, notes that Lt. Robin Crombie and his wife, Mrs.
Crombie left Mowat Lodge on May 31, 1917 and that they returned in November 1917. She
and her husband probably stayed all winter of 1917-1918 as they had the year before. It was
during this visit that Mrs. Shannon Fraser, co-owner of the Mowat Lodge, told her a story Mrs.
Crombie later said she repeated to MacCallum. In Mrs. Crombie's interview with Pittaway she
“I don’t know what happened after they picked him out of the water because I wasn’t there. I
do know that we were there shortly before that, and I went down to MacCallum. The first thing
that MacCallum said was you don’t think he committed suicide, do you? I said, ‘Utter bosh!
Rubbish!’ He was getting all excited about his paintings because they were being
recognized. He told me with big round eyes that he’d just sold one to the government for
Klages embarrasses himself in reaction by showboating what he knew while unwittingly
revealing what he did not know.
“While MacCallum could possibly have met Crombie during his May 1917 visit to Canoe
Lake, he would not have been speculating as to whether Tom had committed suicide over a
month before the man disappeared,” Klages says. “As there is no record of him later visiting
Canoe Lake, Crombie’s ‘memory’ must be treated with doubt.”
Without any doubt, however, Mrs. Crombie was describing a meeting with Dr. MacCallum in
Toronto several months after she re-visited the Mowat Lodge and talked with Annie Fraser
over the winter of 1917-1918. Mrs. Crombie probably sought him out in Toronto to seek his
help selling a Thomson painting that today’s art dealers would describe as very
valuable. It was a rare, personally signed ten by eight-inch oil on wood painting,
Path Behind Mowat Lodge. Thomson gave it to her that last spring of his life. Joan Murray
reached this same general conclusion in her book, Tom Thomson: The Last Spring.
“Crombie was upset, and when she returned to Toronto, went to MacCallum. When she told
him her suspicions, he didn’t seem to listen. He spoke of the sale of a painting to the
government for $500 (presumably The Jack Pine),” she wrote. The Jack Pine, an iconic
Thomson canvas, was sold along with many others to the National Gallery of Canada by the
estate of Tom Thomson with MacCallum’s assistance in 1918.
“MacCallum, perhaps due to his aloof nature or to his desire to leave Thomson’s name
unsullied, apparently kept Crombie’s suspicions to himself,” Murray continued. “Nor did
Thomson’s friends discuss the circumstances of his death in public. There was a further
poignant dimension in what one must regard as a predictable reaction of the day; they
disliked the unseemliness of what in time they may have come to feel was a misadventure.”
Klages evidently read part of what Mrs. Crombie said literally, failing to understand the
limitations of transcribed recordings and how to put what she said into its proper context,
inexplicably ignoring the obvious clue on how to do so provided by Dr. MacCallum boastful
remark to her about selling one of Thomson’s painting to the government for $500. The error
Klages makes casts doubt on his knowledge of the full story and his judgment.
It is ironic to note that Klages may have let himself be misled by none other than MacGregor,
whose Northern Light also misunderstood Dr. MacCallum's boast as, instead, coming from
Thomson in conversation with Mrs. Crombie some weeks before his death. Thomson,
however, neither exhibited anywhere nor sold any painting to the government in 1917. They
both got it wrong. Klages, however, reached an absurd conclusion in his zeal to raise doubts
about MacGregor's reliance on Mrs. Crombie.
Klages also takes issue with the work of forensic artist Victoria Lywood, who rendered
visually for MacGregor’s book, Northern Light, what the person whose skull was found by
William Little in the Mowat Cemetery in 1956 would have looked like. She was given
photographs of the skull “and the following extra information: ‘John Doe’ would likely be a
Caucasian approximately 40 years of age. He would have lived in the early twentieth century
and wore his straight black hair medium length, parted on the left.”
Klages unduly ridicules how MacGregor's book build ups tension regarding the image that
“MacGregor describes how he is informed by email to 'take a Valium' before he looks at the
artist’s interpretation,” he says. “The reader knows, of course, what to expect. The face
produced by the forensic artist looks remarkably like Thomson’s”
He also questions MacGregor’s methodology.
“It should raise significant doubt that the depiction in any way authoritatively resolves the
identity of those remains,” he writes. “In particular, the conclusion that the remains must be
Thomson’s – based on the leading instructions provided to the artist interpreting the remains
– suggests some careful stage direction was at play.”
Klages seems to think that MacGregor's "take a Valium" remark is so ill-suited to a serious
writer that he mentions it twice in his book at pages 166 and 222 in self-congratulatory
ridicule. Frankly, I think MacGregor ought to have more carefully introduced and presented the
remarkable work of Virginia Lywood but I appreciate that MacGregor was writing for a popular,
not an academic audience to which Klages needs to appeal.
Interestingly, nonetheless, Klages fails to note the difficult to reconcile coincidence
between most photographic images of Tom Thomson and the Lywood rendering even
though both depict hair falling over the right side of his forehead. My own conclusion was that
the bare sweep of falling hair depicted in MacGregor's book is, indeed, suspect, not to
mention the sharp nose for which forensic artists need the help of eyewitnesses or
photographs to draw both.
The diligent research done by Klages for the Canadian Mysteries website in 2008, and, likely,
some since then, for the book, produced previously unreported records providing new
information about events surrounding the mystery of Tom Thomson’s death and his place of
final burial. Unfortunately, Klages, his publisher, or both decided against supplying any full
source citations. This renders the book academically deficient and subject to the same
shortcoming of which he complains of earlier researchers and writers.
For example, missing from the website and without citation, Klages found what he says is
Frank Braught’s version of the Mowat Cemetery dig, recorded on October 6, 1956, likely, he
says, by Taylor Statten. It is so much different from either the recollection of William Little or
Dr. Harry Ebbs that it is disturbing Klages provides no clue whatsoever where he obtained
the recording, or, more likely, its transcription. Nor does he contrast these three stories to dig
into why they are so different.
He also reports finding a margin note on Winnifred Trainor’s August 11, 1917, letter to Tom
Harkness, Tom Thomson’s brother-in-law, a lawyer who was administering the estate,
saying that she was accompanied to Thomson’s burial at Canoe Lake by the “unwed
daughter of a Huntsville neighbor, Dr. Terry.” (Such a note and its instructive letterhead is
missing from the transcription appearing on the Canadian Mysteries website and, which,
moreover, is of particular interest. I have obtained and confirmed that it is, indeed, a
remarkable part of the original document.)
Klages instead paraphrases what Winnie wrote upside down at the top of page 4 on
letterhead of Stephenson & Anderson, wholesale and retail grocers and provision
merchants, Huntsville. It listed phone no. 153. She said: “Our neighbor (Dr. Terry) daughter
went with me to Canoe Lake so I was not alone ---“ This margin note suggests at least three
important tidbits of fact only the last of which Klages ever mentions only to poke fun at me.
First, she had ready access to a telephone if she was employed as a bookkeeper for
Stephenson & Anderson. Second, she wanted to impress Harkness that she was properly
accompanied to Canoe Lake by another lady. Third, it explains the note in Mark Robinson’s
daily journal that immediately following the burial she went out on the evening train with "Miss
terry," a person missing from all other accounts of the story. I tell a fuller story about Miss
Terry here at Mystery went out on the evening train.
Overall, ultimately, the book barely strays from what can be learned from the Canadian
Mysteries website despite the fact that there remained for him since 2008 many unexplored
avenues of research, suggested by several of the other essays on this website from which he
borrowed, including to what letters was Tom Harkness referring he said were produced at
the inquest into Thomson's drowning, why George Thomson so easily dissuaded William
Little about his role in what happened, the burial place of Antoine Chouinard, Gilmour
Lumber worker who died at Canoe Lake in 1897, details of the coffin in which Tom Thomson
was buried described by his Mowat Cemetery undertaker as a 619c panel, and the serious
discrepancies among the three versions of Dr. Noble Sharpe’s 1956 report.
It is disappointing that Klages did not dig into these questions that a Canadian-based
historical researcher such as himself has a distinct advantage in answering. In its tone and
approach, Klages draws too heavily, without acknowledging, upon Sherrill Grace’s 2004
book, Inventing Tom Thomson: From Biographical Fictions to Fictional Autobiographies and
Reproductions. His book’s heavy-handed criticism of Roy MacGregor's Northern Lights
weighs down its reading without supporting his own conclusion.
Klages seems to think that by knocking down all the other theories that the only conclusion
left standing is for accidental drowning for which there is no possible further explanation.
What he refuses to do is to draw any inferences from the deep research he oversaw. His
stubborn reluctance to do so results in his reaching a non-conclusion. Roy MacGregor
warned me many times that most everyone who has ever fully engaged the story has come
away confident that they own the truth. Klages reveals that he has succumb.
Finally, I had hoped, vainly, perhaps, that Klages would address the editorial decisions he
made over the Canadian Mysteries website regarding the submission he requested from me
and wrongly criticized in his own essay there. He also never mentions our subsequent
struggle over the Canadian Mysteries website version's citation of Dr. Sharpe's report, which
was only finally corrected, in part, by June 1, 2016. Our year-long argument over why Sharpe's
report he found differed so much from William Little's version is described in another essay
here called Canadian Mysteries: Dr. Gregory Klages .
This is particularly disturbing because Dr. Sharpe produced at least three versions of his
report. The final one introduced a series of questions Klages knows I am trying to answer. He
tried to hinder my getting Dr. Sharpe's final version before publishing his book because, he
said, he was trying to do the same.
I think it's likely that Klages simply gave up doing the investigation and research needed to do
so because it would mean taking on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Ontario
government. Klages knows that the report he reproduced on the Canadian Mysteries website
is still misleading because it had been significantly altered by Dr. Sharpe in response to CBC
inquires. Yet he never either delves into why or even discloses that fact.
I expected much more from the book than he delivered. I think that newcomers to the Tom
Thomson story will be baffled by his disdain for all earlier researchers and writers and that
those more familiar will be both dismissive and greatly offended.
Dr. Gregory Klages Fails to