Was it Murder? The Fate of Iconic Canadian Artist Tom Thomson

by TerryMcNamee

On July 8, 1917, Canadian artist Tom Thomson paddled away for an afternoon of fishing in Ontario's Algonquin Park. A few hours later, his empty canoe showed up near the dock.

By Terry McNamee © 2013

Eight days after his canoe was found, artist Tom Thomson’s body was discovered floating on Canoe Lake, a piece of fishing line wrapped around one ankle. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened on that summer afternoon in northern Ontario. How could this experienced wilderness guide who knew this lake very well fall overboard and drown? The mystery has intrigued Canadians for nearly a century, and helped launch Thomson from up-and-coming artist to a cultural icon known today as a member of Canada's famous Group of Seven.

Artist Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven


Thomas John "Tom" Thomson was was born August 5, 1877, and grew up near Owen Sound, Ontario. After trying several different careers from business to iron worker, he joined an artistic design firm in Toronto, where he met several artists who shared his love of the north. A year later, he left to pursue a full-time art career, and soon was exhibiting his work in shows.

Before moving north to Canoe Lake, Thomson often shared studio space and sometimes living quarters with his fellow artists. They created a new, vibrant style of painting as they set out to depict the wild beauty of the Canadian north in particular.

Three years after his death, six of Thomson’s colleagues formed the Group of Seven, with Thomson as the honorary seventh member. Reaction to their first Group show was immediate. Harsh landscapes lit by an unusual light captured Canada as it had never been painted before. Once critics got over their shock, the Group was hailed for creating a distinctive Canadian style.


Portrait of Tom Thomson
Portrait of Tom Thomson
Tom Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park.
Tom Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park.

Thomson's Death: Accident, Suicide or Murder?

Thomson’s death was ruled an accident by a coroner who never even saw the body. It was believed his canoe had struck a deadhead (submerged log), throwing him overboard. Some thought his death was suicide, but he loved his work, was becoming a successful artist and reportedly had just become engaged.

Questions arose. How did he get the 10-centimeter bruise on his temple? Why was there blood in one ear, and why was air coming from his lungs if he had drowned? If he was murdered, who did it?

To this day, theories abound. People have suggested that German spies, poachers or a rival for his girlfriend could have killed him. Perhaps his favourite paddle, which was never found, was a murder weapon.

At different times in 1977, both Ronald Pittaway and journalist Roy MacGregor interviewed Daphne Crombie, who knew Thomson and the others living at Canoe Lake. She told them that her friend, Annie Fraser, told her that her husband Shannon, who owed Thomson money, got in a fight with Thomson during a drinking party and hit him. Thomson fell, hit his head on the fire grate and was knocked unconscious. Shannon Fraser panicked and put Thomson in his canoe, then towed it onto the lake and overturned it.

This contradicts an eyewitness who said he saw Thomson paddle away just after noon on July 17, but the man was a quarter-mile away at the time. Was it Thomson he saw, or Fraser?

Head Injury Possible Cause of Thomson's Death

Several years ago, researcher Peter Webb visited Canoe Lake to search for answers. He found the lake riddled with deadheads and hidden rocks. He concluded Thomson’s death was accidental.

“Thomson had set out to fish on the day he died,” Webb said. “Suppose his line snagged on the log-riddled bottom of the lake and he stood up in his canoe to free it. I have seen many fishermen do a similarly foolish thing. In such an instance, the canoe might have tipped him onto a rock or deadhead, or onto its own gunwale.”

Alternatively, he said, “The force of hitting a deadhead ... could easily have overturned his canoe, and a rock or a second deadhead could have knocked him unconscious, whereupon he'd have drowned.”

Perhaps the initial investigators were right, and Thomson’s death was accidental. He could have died of a severe head injury acquired when he fell from his canoe. But doubt remains.

The truth may never be known, but Tom Thomson remains one of the most fascinating and talented artists Canada has ever produced.

Tom Thomson's Legacy

Nearly a century after his death, despite a very short artistic career, Tom Thomson remains one of Canada's best-known artists. Some of his most famous paintings include The Jack Pine, Aspen Leaves and The West Wind. Many of his paintings can be seen at major art galleries, in particular he Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Prints of his work are readily available for purchase.

There is a memorial cairn on Canoe Lake at the spot where he died, and a commemorative heritage plaque is on display in Leith, Ontario, where he grew up.

Thomson's art inspired the work of many artists who came after him, including Emily Carr, Harold Town, Dennis Lukas and Joyce Wieland, and it continues to inspire Canadian artists today.

Tom Thomson's art showed a wonderful use of light to depict Canada's wild places.
Summer Day
Summer Day
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
April in Algonquin Park
April in Algonquin Park
Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery
The Jack Pine
The Jack Pine
National Gallery of Canada
Pine Island, Georgian Bay
Pine Island, Georgian Bay
National Gallery of Canada

Additional Reading

There have been many books written about Tom Thomson. If you would like to delve deeper into the Tom Thomson story and the mysteries surrounding his death, here are some books, articles and other media you might find interesting.

Updated: 05/10/2013, TerryMcNamee
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KathleenDuffy on 04/16/2014

Enjoyed this article. The painting of the jack pine is one I have on a leaflet which I have framed as I really like it. I knew nothing about the artist before this, so thanks very much. I do like his paintings.

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