Is Tom Thomson Popular Because He Died Mysteriously?
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 34

Is Tom Thomson Popular Because He Died Mysteriously?

Author: Judy Wearing

Editors: Ilan Danjoux, Ruth Sandwell

Senior Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14 to 16

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When artists die in a dramatic way their popularity is often increased: Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose, and Freddie Mercury died of AIDS. Public interest in these stars increased after they deaths. Tom Thomson is a well-known Canadian artist who died in the prime of life. He launched his canoe in Algonquin Park for the last time on July 8th, 1917 less than a month before his 40th birthday. Within hours of his departure, his empty canoe was spotted floating not far from the dock he had left from. A search of the surrounding shores turned up no sign of him. Eight days later, Thomson's body surfaced in the lake. The coroner ruled the death was caused by accidental drowning, but over time suspicions of murder and suicide were also mentioned. No matter what the cause, the life of a talented Canadian painter was cut short. As time passed, he became increasingly famous and today ranks among 'the great Canadians.'

Did the mysterious circumstances of Thomson's death influence his popularity as an artist? Would he be nearly so famous if he had died in his sleep?

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In this MysteryQuest, you will decide to what extent Thomson's popularity as an artist has been influenced by his mysterious death. To accomplish this task, you will need to learn about Tom Thomson's death and the intrigue surrounding it, as well as his art and popularity. You will use information about Michael Jackson's death to practice identifying the kind of information that suggests an artist's death has influenced his reputation. Then, you will read primary documents written by people who knew Thomson and his art. You will identify relevant information and indicate what we can conclude from each piece of information. Finally, you will offer and explain your overall assessment of the extent to which Thomson's death influenced his popularity as an artist.

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STEP 1: Learn about Tom Thomson

In the spring of 1917, things were starting going well for Tom Thomson. His efforts to recreate the Canadian landscape he loved so well were paying off; his work had a fresh, bold style that was generating public excitement. On the afternoon of July 8th, Thomson set out for a brief fishing trip in his canoe, from his 'home base' in Algonquin Park, a post office where he was boarding on the shores of Canoe Lake. Several hours later, his canoe was seen though this was not reported until the next day. His paddles were found secured inside. His food was untouched, but his fishing rod was missing. Local residents and friends searched for him for several days, assuming that Tom had been stranded when his canoe floated away. Eventually, his body was found floating in Canoe Lake eight days later. There was a gash in his forehead about four inches long. The death was ruled an accidental drowning by the coroner, but some people were suspicious. Rumours of suicide were started and, decades later, suggestions that Thomson was murdered emerged.

After Thomson's death, the National Gallery in Ottawa purchased some of his artwork. In recent times, his paintings have sold for over a million dollars. He is widely regarded as one of the best artists in Canadian history. Learn more about Thomson's death and his art and legacy by watching the two very short videos and reading an article found in the Secondary Sources section of Evidence in the Case:

As you review these sources, look to notice aspects of his art and aspects of his death that may have contributed to his fame.

STEP 2: Learn to recognize evidence of influence

What does evidence of influence of an event, such as a mysterious death, look like? To help you recognize what to look for we have assembled facts about Michael Jackson's death and popularity. On the activity sheet Exploring Michael Jackson's Popularity read each statement, and indicate whether it supports the notion that Jackson's death influenced his popularity, challenges this notion, or doesn't offer clear evidence either way.

STEP 3: Consider the factors that influence

Before considering how much the circumstances of Thomson's death influenced his popularity, it is useful to think about the factors to use when judge whether this influence was significant or minor. We can judge the extent of the influence of Thomson's death on this popularity based on three criteria:

  • Intensity of interest: How much importance is attributed to the artist's death? Strong emotions surrounding the death might be expressed with highly charged language, for example "devastating death." The location of the discussion of the death in the document may also indicate strong interest, for example, if the death appears in the headline of an article, or in the opening sentences of a letter.
  • Frequency of interest: How much space is dedicated to the artist's death in a particular piece? This may be the number of times it is mentioned in a document, but also the proportion of discussion that is dedicated to the death.
  • Breadth of interest: widespread is the interest in the artist's death? Is it only a few articles that mention it, or is the artist's death discussed widely in documents written by the art community and the general public. Also, did the interest in the artist's death continue over a long period of time, or quickly disappear?

STEP 4: Gather evidence of influence

Your next task is to examine the documents describing Tom Thomson's art and legacy found in the Primary Sources section of Evidence in the Case. Record the evidence you gather on the activity sheet Evidence of Influence. Make note of relevant information from the documents in the left-hand column, indicate the factor or factors that seem relevant, and explain what each piece of information says about the influence or lack of influence of Thomson's death on his fame. Remember, the evidence you gather might include weak or strong language used to describe Thomson's death and its prominence or lack of prominence in a document, the small or large proportion of discussion of his death in relation to artwork; and the wide or limited range of authors connecting Thomson's death to their interest in his art. Work on your own or with a partner to examine the following documents:

STEP 5: Judge the overall level of influence

When you have examined the documents, you are ready to decide whether Thomson's death influenced his popularity a lot, some, or very little. Use the activity sheet Summary of Evidence to assemble the main pieces of evidence you have gathered for and against the influence of his death on his artistic reputation. Indicate your overall conclusion and explain your assessment in light of the three criteria: intensity of interest, frequency of interest, and breadth of interest.


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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence, Explanations and Conclusions may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant evidence from the historical documents, explain their implications, and offer a convincing explanation about the overall extent to which his mysterious death has influenced his fame.

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Activity Sheet: Exploring Michael Jackson's Popularity

Activity Sheet: Evidence of Influence

Activity Sheet: Summary of Evidence

Evaluation rubric: Assessing the Evidence, Explanations and Conclusions

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Look for additional evidence
Locate other documents in Death on a Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy that provide additional evidence about the influence of his death on his popularity. Indicate whether or not you still agree with your original conclusion.

Explore other challenges
Learn more about this famous Canadian artist by exploring other mysteries associated with Tom Thomson:

  • MysteryQuest 35 challenges you to decide whether the evidence supporting one of the theories about his death - suicide, murder or accident - justifies re-opening an investigation into this cold case.
  • MysteryQuest 36 invites you to decide how Thomson's reputation has changed since his death in 1917

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Secondary Sources

Video: Background 2 - Who is Tom Thomson? Dark Pines: a documentary investigation into the death of Tom Thomson, Laughing Mountain Communications, 2005

Video: Background 3 - Thomson's Early Work, Dark Pines: a documentary investigation into the death of Tom Thomson, Laughing Mountain Communications, 2005

Web article: Tom Thomson Biography, David Huff, Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound, ON

Primary Sources

Letter: Dr. James MacCallum, Sept. 1st, 1917 [to John Thomson?]

Magazine article: Studio Talk, International Studio, September 31, 1919

Journal article: Canadian Pictures at Wembley. The Canadian Forum, Aug. 1924

Magazine article: The Ten Greatest Canadians, New Liberty, 1949

Magazine article: The Legend, The Canadian, Oct. 15, 1977

Chapters in books: Introduction, Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm, 1977

Magazine article: The Mystery of Tom Thomson, CBC Times, Feb. 1-7th, 1969