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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.

DEEP CONNECTIONS

It was impossible to grow up in such an atmosphere and not fall under the spell of such a tale. The connections went deeper than passing daily under a large print of Thomson's Northern River that had been hung in the Huntsville Public School hallway as prominently as the photograph of a young Queen Elizabeth II.

Jimmy Stringer and his multiple siblings were close to my mother's family, the McCormicks. She had been born in the park and married a park logger; her father had been chief ranger. Chief Ranger Tom McCormick's brother, Roy, had married Marie Trainor, the only sister of Thomson's fiancée, Miss Trainor.

I knew her only in her elderly years. The neighbourhood children called her a "witch" and played nicky nicky nine doors on her. We once filled a grocery bag with dog dung, lit it and hid giggling in nearby bushes while she came out to stomp out the fire.

In winter, in the years before salted roads, we used to "hitch" rides on car bumpers by sliding along behind them as the vehicles pulled away from her corner and headed up the hill, tire chains jingling and growling. She caught me one evening and lambasted me with both umbrella and threat: " Your mother is going to hear about this, young man!"

I was smarter than she was, though, I thought. I raced home in tears, immediately confessing everything and blaming most of the sorry episode on my friends.

But Miss Trainor proved to be even smarter: The telephone never rang.

She rented out the bottom floor of her brown clapboard house on the proviso that no paint be applied to the living room, a work Tom Thomson never signed. When she grew too old and stout to stoop, she gave a discount to one renter who agreed to trim her toenails each month.

As a youngster in 1963, I helped the cousin who inherited her estate to clear out the house in town and her cottage at Canoe Lake. She had been a hoarder, with newspapers and magazines piled around paths that twisted like rabbit runs. Though she owned a dozen or more original Tom Thomson sketches - usually kept wrapped in newspaper and stashed in a six-quart basket - she had refused herself the luxury of running hot water.

I have spent half a century trying to square the Winnie I knew with the Winnie in the few photographs taken of her as a young woman. The pictures show her tall and square-shouldered, slim of waist, with a lovely, round face, eyes hinting at mischief and unruly hair that couldn't be held down with tent pegs. She seems so full of life, with no hint of the sadness to come.

Almost nothing has ever been said before about her role in the great mystery of Tom Thomson. Her name did not even appear in the first biographies, though over time it would be speculated that she played a role in his fate by demanding he live up to a promise of marriage - a commitment that some believe involved an unexpected pregnancy.

Winnie Trainor was a silent presence at the forlorn backwoods funeral held at Canoe Lake.

The coroner, who arrived after the burial, held a quick inquest without even seeing the body, and concluded that the death was by drowning.

It was Winnie who informed the Thomson family about the hasty burial and Winnie who acted as the Thomsons' intermediary in getting the body exhumed and taken to Leith, where a coffin was buried on July 21, 1917 - supposedly after witnesses, including Tom's father, had checked inside.

All her life, Winnie insisted that the undertaker had done as she had instructed and that Tom was at rest where his family wished.

When romance-struck Canoe Lake campers placed wildflowers where they thought he had been buried, she would travel up the twisting path from her cottage and clear away the ground.

Unknown and unrecognized as part of the Tom Thomson legend in her lifetime, she would be astonished to know that today she features in a song by the Tragically Hip, the "bride of the northern woods" who "waits in the shadows 'til after dark/ To sweep them all away."

A SKELETON, A CONTROVERSY

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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