On 8 July 1917, Canadian artist Tom Thomson disappeared on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. His body was found eight days later. While the iconic painter’s death was initially deemed an accident by drowning, compelling alternative theories that Thomson was murdered or that he died by suicide have emerged over the last century, gripping the public imagination. In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact from Fiction, Gregory Klages presents readers with a fascinating look at primary documents, oral accounts, and historiographical works about Thomson’s death. Writing a history that covers new ground about Thomson is no easy task. Myriad popular publications about the painter have been written over the last century, in addition to important scholarly works such as Sherill Grace’s Inventing Tom Thomson (McGill-Queens University Press, 2004). Nevertheless, Klages has produced a welcome addition to this literature, arguing that accounts of Thomson’s death merit critical examination. The author traces how speculation, gossip, and rumours fuelled the production of powerful myths about the artist’s death that “have gradually displaced the simpler facts found in the historical evidence” and created stories that “spiralled further and further away from what documents produced at the time of Thomson’s death indicate” (14). Klages is clear that his work is not intended to offer a definitive answer of how Thomson died. Rather, his goal is to re-examine the historical evidence and assess what likely happened that fateful day on Canoe Lake. In the process, Klages investigates secondary sources to uncover how myths about Thomson’s death were propagated. The result is a meticulous analysis of both the documents related to the artist’s death and the sources used by authors to support theories about how Thomson met his fate. [End Page 161]
The book is divided into three sections. Part 1, “The Life of Tom Thomson,” details the artist’s life and death, his development as a painter, and the central role that Algonquin Park played in his work. Part 2, “The Many Myths of Thomson’s Death,” surveys the writings, oral accounts, and the origins of theories about Thomson’s death and how those narratives gained traction with the public. In Part 3, “The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson,” Klages weighs the evidence for three scenarios of how Thomson died–murder, suicide, and accident–and concludes that “the most sensible conclusion” is that the artist died from an accidental drowning (234).
The most compelling and significant section of Klages’s work is found in Part 2. Here, the author offers a detailed critical analysis of those sources relied on by authors in their assessments of how Thomson perished. The selective use of evidence and the unreliability of certain sources, Klages asserts, contributed to the proliferation of myths in both scholarly and popular accounts of the artist’s death. For example, Klages traces how inconsistencies in a 1950s interview with Algonquin Park ranger Mark Robinson contributed to the theory that Thomson was murdered. Similarly, Klages traces the intrigue following the 1956 discovery of a body in Mowat Cemetery, where Thomson was first buried, that fuelled conspiracy theories. Although the body was not Thomson’s, this discovery and a subsequent 1968 documentary by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about the event added another layer of mystery to this narrative and triggered stories of “conspiracy and dark dealings” (113). Klages also critiques notable works by curator Joan Murray and journalist Roy McGregor for their reliance on “often flawed secondary accounts” (147) that only served to perpetuate myths about Thomson’s death. In the case of McGregor, Klages argues that the journalist’s work elevated stories of Thomson’s death to the level of “historical fiction” (162). It is here that Klages’s work is strongest, tracing how speculative and poor evidence “set an unfortunate standard for researchers” (144) whose works, collectively, produced narratives that “spiralled further and further from the historical record” (99).
There are, however, issues with this work, notably Klages’s decision not to include footnotes. He defends this decision, stating...