to Tom Thomson?
by S. Bernard Shaw
It was a hot, sultry Sunday afternoon
on July 8, 1917 when Tom Thomson set out in his canoe from
Mowat Lodge on the west shore of Canoe lake in Algonquin Park.
He disappeared behind Little Wapomeo Island and was not seen
again until his body was recovered on July 16. His death sparked
a series of questions that have never been satisfactorily
How did he die? Where is he buried? Who
is the Indian found buried in his temporary grave at Canoe
It seems that the Indian will never be
identified, and its certain (well, almost) that Tom
was buried in the family plot at the Auld Kirk in Leith, near
Owen Sound, on July 21. Left for resolution is the mystery
of how he died.
An endless series of theories have been
advanced, none convincingly answering two key questionswhy
a wound on Toms temple and why at least 16 turns of
fishing line around his left ankle? Was he murdered?
It has been suggested that he was shot
and decomposition disguised the bullets entry. But Dr.
Goldwin Howland, who found the body, and ranger Mark Robinson,
recently returned from Flanders after being wounded at Vimy
Ridge and no doubt seeing many bullet wounds, jointly described
it as a bruise. . . about four inches long.
Perhaps someone hit him with a paddle?
There is a record of animosity with Martin Bletcher, an American
thought to be a draft dodger (he was not), who was the only
person in a position to murder Tom that Sunday afternoon.
He was, however, accompanied by his sister Bessie, and it
is unlikely that they collaborated in killing Tom. Anyway,
why the coils of fishing line? To anchor the body, some surmise.
There are better ways.
Discounting murder then, how did the accident
happen? There are as many theories as there are interested
people. None really answer the questions of the bruise and
the fishing line. Tom was an experienced canoeist and it is
difficult for even a novice to bang his head falling out of
a canoe. If he fell on a rock, he must have been near the
shore, but his upturned canoe was seen in deep water.
Tom was known to have hurt his ankle and
may have bound a strengthening bandage with fishing line.
No mention of this was made by the guides who examined his
body, but they may have wound the line around a leg to anchor
the body overnight. Sixteen turns, however, seems excessive.
Tom was in the habit of trolling with the line tied to his
ankle as he paddled along, which may be the clue to what REALLY
Tom Thomson may have been killed by a
whirlwind. Not one of the Kansas tornadoes that whipped Dorothy
into the Land of Oz, and not one of the little dust devils
we see in the summer, but something in-between.
Meteorologist Bernard A. Power witnessed
such a phenomena on Lac de la Fourche in Mont Tremblant Provincial
Park, north of Montreal, in 1987. Apprehensive for the safety
of himself and his wife in their vulnerable little row boat,
Power paid particular attention to a whirlwind that lasted
only 10 to 15 seconds before disappearing as quickly as it
had arrived. He remembers, a violent whirl of spray
suddenly erupted over the calm surface of the lake in a little
bay about 50 to 100 feet from the shore. The violent little
vortex gave off a hissing or whistling sound. The whirlwind
was about six feet in height and four to five feet in diameter.
The park warden told Power that he had
personally witnessed a tourbillon two or three times during
his 24 years in the park. Intrigued, Power went to work and
conservatively calculated that a wind of 100 mph would readily
move a 175-pound man. But were winds of this speed possible?
He noted that structures are frequently
damaged by relatively small dust devils, and the hissing he
heard matched the sound given off by high velocity wing tip
vortices from jet aircraft landing at close to 200 mph. He
observed during the event that water spray from the whirlwind
was similar to that whipped up from the surface by strong
winds. He also calculated that centrifugal force acting on
a body in a high speed vortex would be very large, as much
as 200 times the force of gravity in a 100-mph wind.
Power concluded that Tom could have been
surprised by a sudden whirlwind that whipped him out of his
overturning canoe and whirled him around, winding the fishing
line around his ankle in the process, while his flailing paddle
hit his temple. He then fell unconscious into the lake to
drown, the cause of demise stated on his death certificate.
Power also introduced another piece of
evidence that has never been investigated: Dr. Howland noted
bleeding from Toms right ear. Power offered this as
additional evidence of the vortex possibility because the
bleeding could have been caused by the enormous G-forces imposed
But do such whirlwinds invade the Algonquin
highlands? They certainly do; not often, but once is enough.
An informal request for information blew in one report from
a hillside farm outside Barrys Bay. In 1989, Derry Mihell
heard a noise in the bush and went to investigate, only to
be whipped around by a strong wind that downed his terrified
dog and went on to demolish his ¾-ton trucks
fibreglass cap. Student Victor Solman, later a meteorologist,
recorded his scary experience with a water spout on Algonquin
Parks Lake Opeongo in 1936. And more recently on the
same lake, Phyllis Kmith saw one estimated at over 20 feet
tall in July, 2001. Brent Connolly has seen several mini-tornadoes,
10 to 12 feet in diameter, usually in lumber yards, and has
helped to clear the extensive damage from downbursts
on the Petawawa River, near Brent. On the Great Lakes, water
spouts estimated at 300 feet high have been seen. And then
there are the ones unseen and unreportedlike, perhaps,
the one that killed Tom Thomson.
As a footnote to this story, Bernard Power
suggests that the whirlwind theory could shed new light on
some other cases of accidental drowning. It may provide
police and coroners with assistance, he said, and
help them avoid drawing some painful, unmerited conclusions
that deaths are due to incompetence in a canoe or boat, or
to negligence on the part of the victim, when in fact they
may be due to a totally unexpected, and so far unavoidable,
natural weather event. There have been several such
deaths on notoriously windy Lake Opeongo.
The complete circumstances of Tom Thomsons
death are described in the authors book, Canoe Lake.
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 40, Summer/Autumn 2002. Copyright S. Bernard Shaw.
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