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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)


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


In the fall of 1956, four men, who admitted to having had a few drinks, went exploring at the Canoe Lake cemetery with shovels and eventually dug up a skeleton with a hole in the left temple of the skull. The media of the day immediately concluded that it had to be Thomson, but the Ontario government produced a forensic analysis that claimed the skeleton was that of a young aboriginal man.

The hole in the skull, the experts of the day maintained, had been caused by a trephination, a rare medical procedure used to relieve pressure on the brain.

The first medical person to examine that skull had been Harry Ebbs of Taylor Statten Camps on Canoe Lake. He was certain that it was Tom Thomson, believed that the hole had been caused by a rifle shot, and left behind an interview that he asked not be disclosed until after his death.

Dr. Ebbs had gone to Queen's Park with his concerns about the official findings. He found it preposterous to suggest the remains belonged to an "Indian," as reported, and that this young aboriginal man who had had a rare operation happened to be passing by, had died, and, unknown to anyone, had been buried in Tom Thomson's old gravesite.

But Dr. Ebbs got nowhere. The government forensic experts wouldn't listen to him. The attorney-general of the day, Kelso Roberts, held a meeting with him in which it was suggested the official report stand so as not to upset the family and, as Dr. Ebbs put it, "to put an end to the furor" that had erupted in the media.

Dr. Ebbs spent much of the rest of his life trying to prove that Thomson had been murdered. He kept a special photograph of the skull unearthed that day in 1956, a photograph never before published.

That photo became pivotal this past year when Ottawa dentist Bob Crook and orthodontist Jim Hickman began a fresh examination of the 1956 evidence. Their amateur findings were then pursued further by forensic experts in Toronto.

The Toronto investigation was led by Ron Williamson, an adjunct professor of archeology in the department of anthropology at the University of Toronto and founder of Archaeological Services, a company that specializes in the investigation of exhumed remains.

The contention that the 1956 remains belonged to an aboriginal man was based on the fact that "shovel-shaped incisors" were found in the skull. Such thinking is now considered outdated, as similar teeth have been found in northern England and Scotland, where both sides of the Thomson family originated.

Dr. Williamson set his staff and outside expertise to work using sophisticated CSI-style computerized equipment. Scientists working "blind" with the material concluded quickly that the skull was not aboriginal but "European."

Susan Pfeiffer, a past dean of graduate studies in the department and a recognized international expert in forensic analysis, declared the skull to be that of a Caucasian, middle-aged male - not a 22-year-old aboriginal man, as argued by the government scientists of 1956.

As for the trephination, she found such a procedure unlikely in the extreme. Such an operation would not only have been extraordinarily unusual for a young aboriginal person, but the drilling required would be unlikely at the temple of the skull, where the bone is thickest.

Another scientist, Andrew Riddle, later used sophisticated photogrammetric software to compare photographs of the skull to photographs of the painter, concluding that "there is no morphological characteristic that suggests the skull belongs to anyone but Tom Thomson."

Dr. Williamson then turned to forensic artist Victoria Lywood of John Abbott College in Montreal. Ms. Lywood spent months building a "face" on the skull, unaware that there might be any connection to the late painter.

When Dr. Williamson finally received her finished product, he e-mailed from Toronto: "SIT DOWN, TAKE VALIUM, OPEN SLIDE."

When the slide came up, it held a perfect Tom Thomson.

The truth, as Jimmy Stringer might say, is finally known.

(Victoria Lywood's sketches appear in this slideshow.)

Adapted from Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson. Copyright © 2010 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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