Should the Thomson Case Be Re-opened?
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 35

Should the Thomson Case Be Re-opened?

Author: Jan Maynard Nicol

Editor: Ilan Danjoux, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case

A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11 to 14

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Unsolved mysteries are sometimes referred to as "cold cases." A cold case is one in which there are no active leads to follow. When the available evidence has been examined as much as possible, the case grows cold. An interesting cold case involves the death of Tom Thomson, a famous Canadian painter. Thomson was 39 years old when he died in 1917. He had completed over 200 artworks and was beginning to achieve wide recognition. Some say he was at the start of a brilliant career. Today Thomson's paintings sell for over a million dollars.

The facts show that Thomson set out alone on a fishing trip in northern Ontario. He had visited this area many times as a fire ranger, fishing guide and painter. Shortly after his departure, someone spotted his empty canoe floating not far from the dock from which he had left. A week later, his body surfaced in the lake. How did Thomson die? Over the years, three theories have emerged. At the time in 1917, Tom Thomson's death was ruled accidental. However questions remained about the cause and many people were not satisfied with the ruling. Some suggest that Thomson might have committed suicide. A third theory is that he was murdered. Supporters of each theory point to difference pieces of evidence. Some question the condition of the body and when it was found. Others mention rumours of conflict over debt, a love interest, or differences of opinion about the world war that was raging at the time.

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In this MysteryQuest, you will focus on one of the three main theories about his death - murder, suicide or accident. First, you will learn more about Thomson's life and his death to help you identify the one theory you wish to investigate further. Next, you will examine a list of facts to determine whether these facts support your chosen theory, challenge the theory or are simply not relevant. You will gather additional facts and judge whether or not they support your theory. Finally, you will rate the overall plausibility of all of the evidence you have collected to help you decide whether the evidence about your chosen theory justifies re-opening the case.

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STEP 1: Identify the theory to explore

Tom Thomson died on or about July 8, 1917. He was last seen at noon that day when he set out for a fishing trip. He said he was going to catch a large trout that had been getting away from him. Three and a half hours later, his canoe was found drifting. There was no storm and only a slight breeze. One report stated that both paddles were fastened in the canoe as if Thomson was planning a portage - to carry his canoe across land. Another reported that only one paddle was awkwardly strapped to the canoe and that Thomson's favourite paddle was missing. His light fishing rod and supply bag were missing. However, another report stated that all of his provisions were found packed in the canoe. Eight days later, Thomson's body rose to the surface. This is an unusually long time given the temperature of the water. The body was in a state of decomposition. There was a violent mark on his head, some bleeding from one ear, and a fishing line wrapped around one of his ankles. Reports indicated that there was air in the lungs. Seven witnesses testified as to what they knew in the inquest into his death. A visiting doctor pronounced that Thomson died by accidental drowning.

Before deciding which theory to pursue, examine the three documents listed in the Secondary Sources section of Evidence in the Case:

With this information in mind, decide which theory you will pursue - Thomson's death was (a) suicide, (b) accidental or (c) murder? Pick the one that you believe is the most likely to generate new interest in this cold case.

STEP 2: Decide on the relevance of facts

Facts are a record of what something that actually happened. Some facts are more relevant than others. Facts become evidence only if they support or reject a conclusion. For example, it is a fact that July 8, 1917 was a Sunday. This information is not likely to be useful as evidence because it does not seem relevant to the case - it doesn't help us decide how Thomson died.

What kind of evidence should you look for? Here is an example. One report stated that Thomson had fishing line wrapped around his ankle when his body was recovered. Think about how this fact might support any of the three theories

  • Thomson might have wrapped the line around his own ankle (suggesting suicide).
  • Thomson might have tripped and got tangled in the fishing line (suggesting an accident)
  • Someone else tied the line to Thomson's leg (suggesting murder).

Examine the 10 facts about Thomson's death listed in the left-hand column on Identifying Relevant Evidence. Decide whether each of these facts supports or challenges your chosen theory, or perhaps it may not be relevant to your theory. For each fact, explain your conclusion about its relevance in the column on the right.

STEP 3: Test your theory with primary evidence

The documents you have read thus far were written long after Thomson's death. Test your theory about how Thomson died by examining documents written at the time of his death. You will find eight documents in the Primary Sources section of Evidence in the Case. Many of these are only a few sentences long. Read at least five of the following documents:

Record each piece of possibly relevant information from these documents in the left-hand column of activity sheet Finding Additional Evidence. You many need to use more than one copy of the sheet. In the middle column, indicate your assessment of each of these facts (supports, challenges or not relevant). For each fact, explain your conclusion in the right-hand column.

STEP 4: Decide on the plausibility of your theory

Review your evidence to help you decide whether your chosen theory is plausible. Is there sufficient evidence to support it? Is all the evidence believable? Do you still have questions? To help you determine whether the theory is plausible or not, consider three criteria:

  • amount of relevant evidence: Is there a lot to support the theory or a little evidence?
  • degree of believability: Is the evidence believable or do you doubt that much of it is true?
  • completeness of the evidence: Does the evidence answer all the crucial questions or are there unexplained gaps in the theory?

Use a copy of Reaching a Conclusion to summarize your evidence and record any questions or concerns you may have about your theory. Then rank the overall plausibility of your chosen theory on a scale from +2 (highly plausible) to -2 (very implausible). Finally, referring to the criteria, give three reasons for your conclusion.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing the Evidence, Ratings and Conclusion may be used to assess how well you were able to identify many pieces of evidence from the historical documents, rate and explain their relevance, and draw a plausible overall conclusion about one theory concerning Thomson's death.

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Activity Sheet: Identifying Relevant Evidence

Activity Sheet: Finding Additional Evidence

Activity Sheet: Reaching a Conclusion

Evaluation Rubric: Assessing the Evidence, Ratings and Conclusion

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Locate additional relevant facts
Locate other historical documents in Death on Painted Lake: The Tom Thomson Tragedy that provide additional evidence about his death. Identify the relevant evidence that supports and potentially challenges your conclusion about the likely cause of Thomson's death. Indicate whether or not you still agree with your original conclusion.

Test another theory
Using the procedures you have just followed, gather evidence to test one of the two other theories about Thomson's death.

Develop a storyboard
Use the key pieces of information that you have gathered for your chosen theory of Thomson's death to create a TV documentary storyboard. Your storyboard should introduce the cold case, present the most important evidence related to the chosen theory and offer three reasons for or against a recommendation that this cold case be re-opened.

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Secondary Sources

Book Chapter: Edwin C. Guillet, "Chapter III - Reflections", in The Death of Tom Thomson, Canadian Artist, October 31, 1944

Letter: from Mark Robinson to Blodwen Davies, March 23, 1930

Journal article: Dr. R. P. Little, "Some Recollections of Tom Thomson and Canoe Lake," Culture, 1955

Primary Sources

Letter: from Tom Thomson to Dr. James MacCallum, July 7, 1917

Letter: from J. S. Fraser to Dr. James MacCallum, July 12, 1917

Journal entry: Mark Robinson, Daily journal, July 10-15, 1917

Journal entry: from Mark Robinson's daily journal, July 16-18, 1917

Affidavit: Copy of Dr. G.W. Howland's affidavit of July 17, 1917

Letter: from J. Shannon Fraser to John Thomson, July 18, 1917

Letter: from Margaret Thomson to Dr. James MacCallum, September 9, 1917

Letter: from T.J. Harkness to J. Shannon Fraser, September 12, 1917