Tom Thomson's Disappearance and Death

No one can be certain what happened on Sunday,  July 8th, 1917, the day that Tom Thomson disappeared.  Some eyewitnesses saw Thomson that morning, but many are convinced he met his end the night before.

What is known, is that Tom Thomson’s body surfaced 8 days later and was sighted by a vacationer on the lake who happened to be a doctor. He examined the body and believed Thomson had simply had a mishap in his canoe. Others on the lake felt it was no accident.

What do you think?

Here are the stories of what may have happened:

  1. Accidental Drowning:
    •  “Body of Tom Thomson, artist, found floating in Canoe Lake, July 16. 1917. Certified to be the person named by Mark Robinson, Park Ranger. Body clothed in grey lumberman’s shirt, khaki trowsers and canvas shoes. Head shows marked swelling of face, decomposition has set in, air issuing from mouth. Head has a bruise over left temple as if produced by falling on rock. Examination of body shows no bruises, body greatly swollen, blisters on limbs, putrefaction setting in on surface. There are no signs of any external force having caused death, and there is no doubt but that death occurred from drowning.” 

      Dr. G. W. Howland, Toronto July 17, 1917 
(examined body before burial at Canoe Lake)
    • “We buried his remains in the little cemetery at Canoe Lake, Martin Blecher Sr. reading the Anglican funeral service at the grave. Later his remains were taken up and went to Owen Sound for burial. Dr. Ranney of North Bay conducted what inquest was held. Tom was said to have been drowned. It may be quite true but the mystery remains.”

      Mark Robinson to Blodwen Davies, 1930
  2. Manslaughter:
    • “Tom and George…they’d had a party. They were all pretty good drinkers, Tom as well. Well, they went up and had this party. They were all tight and Tom asked Shannon Fraser for the money that he owed him because he had to go and get a new suit…Anyway, they had a fight and Shannon hit Tom, you see, knocked him down by the grate fire, and he had a mark on his forehead…Annie [Fraser] told me all this and also Dr. MacCallum. Tom was completely knocked out by this fight. Of course, Fraser was terrified because he thought he’d killed him. This is my conception, and I don’t know about other people’s. My conception is that he took Tom’s body and put it into a canoe and dropped it in the lake. That’s how he died.”

      Daphne Crombie to Ron Pittaway, 1977
    • “I had heard that there was some ill feeling between Tom and some man in that region [Mowat]. It was somewhat casually referred to by some one at Canoe Lake possibly one of the Rangers, but as this was while we were still looking for Tom and I was still hopeful of his safe recovery, I didn’t at the time attach any serious importance to the report.” 

      George Thomson to Blodwen Davies, June 8, 1931
      George Thomson to Blodwen Davies, June 8, 1931
    • “I assisted Roy Dixon undertaker of Sprucedale, Ontario, to take the body from the water in the presence of Dr. Howland there were no marks on the body except a slight bruise over the left eye. His fishing line was wound several times around his left ankle and broken off.  There was no sign of the rod his Provisions and kit bag were in the front end of the Canoe when found. The lake was not Rough.”

      Mark Robinson to biographer Blodwen Davies, 1930.
    • “J. Shannon Fraser and wife of Canoe Lake Ont., and daughter Mrs Arthur Briggs all knew Tom extra well, and if Fraser will tell the truth, much could be got from him, but weigh well his remarks.

       “You might interview Martin and Bessie Blecher but again be careful. They possibly know more about Tom's sad end than any other person.” 

      Mark Robinson to Blodwen Davies, 1930
  3. Subdural Hemotoma:
    • I do not criticize Dr. Howland for failing to make an internal examination. Decomposition would have masked indications of drowning as the cause of death. Even the absence of water in the lungs would not rule out the possibility. I am, however, puzzled by the bleeding from the ear. If this, whatever the cause, occurred in the water, it would in all probability have been washed away. Dried blood implies a time lapse before immersion. 

      Dr. Noble Sharpe, "The Canoe Lake Mystery", Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal, June 1970, 34-40
  4. Murder With A Paddle:
    • “I was there in 1924, that's 7 years after the event – and the person who was suspected or whose name was whispered most often was Martin Blecher […] I had 75 workmen up there and I had to bring all my food in from the train and I had to get my order out every day […]. I could see the smoke from the train and I was late […] could see Martin Blecher coming down the creek in his little boat, there was quite a big curve and I knew that if I didn't get there first, that I would have to go way out around him and I would lose quite a lot of valuable time. Well I did beat him […] as I went by, he picked up a paddle and swung it, and if I hadn't ducked he would have crowned me right there on the spot.”


      Dr. Harry Ebbs, Ahmek Camp on Canoe Lake, interviewed Nov. 26, 1975 with Rory MacKay
    • “Tuesday, July 10   Morning wet and cool Mr. Shannon Fraser came to house about 9:15 am and reported that Martin Bletcher had found Tom Thompson’s Canoe floating upside down in Canoe Lake and wanted us to drag for Mr. Thompsons body.  We went to Canoe Lake and interviewed Miss Bletcher who was with her Brother on Sunday in his little motor Boat. Going to Tea Lake dam they passed a canoe floating upside down between Statton’s Point and the Bertram Island. They didn’t stop to examine the canoe as they had heard there was a canoe that had drifted away from its moorings and had not been found, but they intended to pick up the same as they returned. They passed canoe at 3pm on Sunday the 8th.

      Mark Robinson journal entry, July 10, 1917
    • “J. Shannon Fraser, Canoe Lake PO, Ont. was at the lake as Tom left and was the last man (as far as the Public know) to see Tom alive. He left at about 12:50 pm and at the inquest it came out that Martin and Bessie Blecher, American German tourists with cottage at Canoe Lake Ont. found Tom’s canoe floating not 3/4 of a mile from where he started out from the Trainor cottage at about 3 p.m. An east wind was blowing and this canoe could not have been there under ordinary conditions. They did not report finding the canoe until the following morning when the canoe was brought in from behind Little Wapomeo Island.”

      Mark Robinson to Blodwen Davies, 1930.
  5. Murder with a Gun:
    • “When the body was found Miss Winnie Trainor, Tom’s girl friend from Huntsville, whose parents had a cottage on Canoe Lake in front of the Lodge, appeared on the scene and demanded the right to see the remains, saying that there must have been foul play as she was certain that Tom didn’t drown by accident in a small lake like Canoe Lake. This, Mark Robinson stoutly refused to grant. (The body had been in the lake about eight days and was not very presentable).

      Charles F. Plewman, "Reflections on The Passing of Tom Thomson", Canadian Camping Magazine, 1972
    • “Tom was socially inclined, and he was said to be interested in a local lady. (I had a telephone conversation with this charming person in 1956, and she told me she was engaged to him.) It was also said Tom had a rival and they had quarrelled. Their altercations reached a climax when Tom accused the other man of being a deserter from the American Army. Tom, incidentally, had been rejected on account of flat feet. Rumours relating to his rival’s implication were rife. It was stated that on the night before Tom Thomson disappeared that a man threatened him. Still later it was rumoured a shot had been heard coming from the direction Tom had taken when he was last seen.” 

      Dr. Noble Sharpe, "The Canoe Lake Mystery", Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal, June 1970, 34-40
  6. Suicide:
    • “After the funeral, Shannon Fraser who operated Mowat Lodge where Tom had stayed, and who was more intimate with Tom than anyone else, confided in me what he felt had actually happened. Tom Thomson […] was engaged to marry Miss Trainor. She was pressing him to go through with the marriage. He intimated that she was coming up to see Tom to have a showdown on the fatal week. He mentioned that Tom was a shy and sensitive person and that he felt he just could not face the music. The impression Shannon left me with was that somehow Tom had come to the conclusion that a settled, married life was not for him, but that he just could not say so to Miss Trainor. Recalling Tom’s previous statements of not to worry if he didn’t return on time, Shannon said that had made him feel that Tom had contemplated doing something on earlier occasions but had not mustered sufficient courage to go through with this intention.” 

      Charles F. Plewman, "Reflections on The Passing of Tom Thomson", Canadian Camping Magazine, 1972

“Thus ends a career of unselfishness, of a gentleman, sportsman. Artist and friend of all.”

-Mark Robinson

What do you think?


I don't think he committed suicide


I think, if he were suicidal, he would have left some sort of note. People close to him might have detected signs, like depression. Also, the way in which he died is quite untypical for a suicide.

this is what I heard


That Shannon and Tom had a bit too much to drink, got into a scuffle and Tom accidentally fell on the fire grate. Shannon with the help of his wife, put Tom's body in the lake.

Absolutely Agree But...


Timing was Sunday night - early Monday morning. Tom arrived back on Canoe Lake after dark and it was not hard to go unnoticed in those days. Tom's body hit the water at around 12:15 am Monday morning when his watch stopped - waterproof watches didn't arrive until the mid 1920's. He died Sunday evening. Shannon might have been asked to rough Tom up a bit to encourage him to live up to his responsibility to Winnie. Roy MacGregor has the story about her pregnancy etc. Shannon had brought in some kegs of beer and they consumed too much... The Park Superintendant then made the park "dry" because of all of the hub bub. Tom's art is still all that really matters.

Tom's Head Injury


I believe after a night of drinking at the cabin, Tom got into a scuffle with Shannon Fraser and did hit his head on the fire grate. If it caused a brain bleed it might not have affected him until the next day when he went out canoeing to go fishing and sketching for a few days with a canoe full of supplies. After exerting himself canoeing and causing a faster bleed he could have fallen to the side and over the gunnels of the canoe, which capsized it. The skull does show a pretty nasty looking hole on the left temple. Is that from the fire grate? In my best estimation I would say his death was accidental. Shannon never meant for him to hit his head. Would he have been charged with manslaughter? I do believe he is still buried at Canoe Lake under the shade of the biggest birch tree I have ever seen.

Look to Shannon Fraser


Interesting that two of three new pictures have Shannon Fraser's image on them as well. These two men are strongly connected in life and in death. Research into Shannon Fraser's early life in Kingston has found several of his residences still standing. I believe Shannon was closely associated with Tom's death. I also believe that the Thomson art recently discovered in B.C. may have some association with Shannon's grandson, who lives in British Columbia to this day. More work needs to be done. The truth is still out there, floating just below the surface of Canoe Lake. We owe it to Tom, and to Winnie, to continue to seek the full truth.

Look to Shannon Fraser


Mark, I did some of the research on the West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson. I'm always interested in new leads. Do you have a name or contact info, town that Shannon Fraser's grandson lives in. Something to go on..... Feel free to contact me at

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