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The skull removed from Tom Thomson's Canoe Lake grave in 1956. (Courtesy of the Statten family)
The skull removed from Tom Thomson's Canoe Lake grave in 1956. (Courtesy of the Statten family)

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A break in the mysterious case of Tom Thomson, Canada's Van Gogh Add to ...

It was raining that late winter day in 1973 when Jimmy Stringer told me that he had Tom Thomson's shinbone stashed in his woodshed.

"The truth's still not told, laddie," Jimmy kept repeating as he sat on the edge of a rumpled bed in the $9 room he had taken at the Empire Hotel in Huntsville, Ont.

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Hard to believe it would take nearly 40 years and a CSI-level investigation to prove that Thomson never left Canoe Lake.

The "truth" eluded Canadians for nearly a century, right back to July 16, 1917, when the missing painter's body surfaced on Algonquin Park's most famous lake - a bruise over his left temple, one ankle wrapped round and round with fishing line.

That suspicious death - accident? murder? suicide? - and the subsequent question as to whether his body remained at Canoe Lake, where his friends had buried him, or had later been exhumed at the Thomson family's request and taken to Leith, Ont., has made Tom Thomson Canada's greatest enduring mystery, his famous works inextricably tied to his fate.

Thomson long ago reached iconic status as the wilderness painter who blazed the way north for the Group of Seven. His best-known paintings - The West Wind, The Jack Pine - stand with the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway as symbols of this nation coming into its own.

"He's really our Van Gogh," Winnipeg art dealer David Loch has suggested. But he is also our Tom Thomson: tall, dark and handsome, shy but romantic, dead far too young at 39 - and humble, as Canadians insist in their precious few heroes.

Shortly before his untimely death, Thomson wrote to a friend that if he "could get $10 or $15" for a sketch, he would be delighted, but would take whatever was offered. Today, those tiny sketches command upward of $2-million each.

JIMMY STRINGER'S TALE

Jimmy Stringer had lived most of his 72 years at Canoe Lake and claimed to have once painted with Thomson when he had been staying with relatives in the park and Thomson, then serving as a fire ranger, had visited.

The elfin Jimmy - tiny, but with large hair the colour of the snowbanks melting below in this early thaw - had come to town to pick up supplies and go on a bit of a late-winter bender. He was into a second bottle of Brights President sherry - then $2.20 a bottle - and well into his reserve of Tom Thomson tales when he mentioned the shinbone.

Jimmy was absolute that Thomson's body had not been exhumed. He believed, as did others, that the undertaker hired for the job had balked at digging up a bloated, decomposing body and had, instead, shipped an empty, sealed casket off to the family.

As soon as the ice went out, Jimmy promised, he would take me to the little Canoe Lake cemetery and prove, once and for all, that Tom Thomson had never left the lake he loved. This was where he came each spring to paint, and where he had met the love of his life, Winnifred Trainor.

"Miss Trainor," as she was known to all, had lived both at the lake and in town, kitty-corner to the Empire Hotel and only a short walk from where my family lived on Reservoir Hill.

"We'll settle this thing once and for all," Jimmy promised.

I was not convinced that Jimmy, who had a reputation for tall tales, had any shinbone - the Stringer woodshed is now long gone - but he was so adamant that Thomson remained buried at Canoe Lake that I was certainly willing to play along.

That Friday, Jimmy paid for his room, collected his groceries and headed back to Canoe Lake by taxi. He would walk the rest of the way in over the ice to the ramshackle home near the mouth of Potter Creek that he shared with his bachelor brother, "Wam."

When he didn't show, Wam went looking and called in help. Police eventually found a hole in the softening ice and, on the bottom, could see broken eggshells from the fallen groceries.

Jimmy Stringer - right after he had sworn to let the truth be known - was taken by the same lake that had taken Tom Thomson.

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