The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson

Canada’s vast wilderness contains a great deal of beauty – and a great deal secrets. Of all it’s mysteries, one of the biggest concerns the death of painter Tom Thomson.


ABOVE: Tom Thomson, Artists Camp, Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park, oil on wood, 8.6 x 10.7 inches, Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Algonquin Provincial Park and while there, visited Canoe Lake. Arguably the parks most famous lake, it was here that the body of Tom Thomson was found on July 16, 1917. To this day, his death remains a mystery.

Thomson’s body was found floating on Canoe Lake eight days after he disappeared, and his death was quickly ruled an accidental drowning. He was buried within a day of being discovered, then exhumed and reburied two days after that.

In the years after his passing, his art became more and more beloved, and owing to that, people began looking into his death, and the circumstances surrounding it. Suspicions arose.

As this all occurred nearly a hundred years ago, we’ll probably never know what really happened. Nonetheless, here are a few theories:

  • In 1956, Thomson’s original resting place was dug up and human remains were found. Medical investigators determined that the body was that of an unidentified aboriginal, but there are those who believe it to be that of the great artist (the remains have since been lost).
  • Although ‘accidental drowning’ is the official, and most widely believed cause of death, there are a few that believe Thomson took his own life. One theory suggests he did so because he had failed to garner any recognition as an artist. Another, that he had impregnated a local woman.
  • Even darker, there are those that suggest murder and believe that Thomson was killed in a fight, or struck down by poachers.

Whatever the cause, there can be no denying Tom Thomson’s role in the defining of an era. While his death may forever remain a mystery, his work will live on for generations to come.

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