The iconic paintings by the Group of Seven are synonymous with the Canadian wilderness. The wind blown pines, jagged rocks and still waters of Ontario’s back country were captured by the talented group of painters in the early 20th century. One of the men credited with inspiring the movement was Tom Thomson. His death remains one of Canada’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
The body of Tom Thomson was pulled from Canoe Lake eight days after his upturned canoe was discovered in July 1917. The nearly 40 year old painter was already making a splash in the Canadian art world by producing evocative images of the wilderness that would soon be emulated and captured by the Group of Seven, a famous collection of artists working under a similar style in the early 20th century. The exact circumstances of Thomson’s untimely death are still unknown, but the mystery doesn’t end there – it only deepens.
Listen to our Haunted Talks podcast episode below to learn more about the mystery (see all podcast episodes):
Since his fateful canoeing trip in Algonquin Park, many people have claimed to see his ghost. It is unclear if Thomson’s spirit is alerting people to possible foul play in his death, or simply enjoying the activities he adored during his life. What is clear is that many visitors to Algonquin Park are adamant that there is a ghost patrolling the waters and forests of their beloved wilderness.
Sightings of Tom Thomson’s ghost almost date back to the year of his mysterious death. It seems that the people who frequented Canoe Lake and knew Thomson personally were already convinced that his spirit remained attached to the lake. For years, people reported the image of a man slowly paddling a grey canoe through the still waters of the lake. He would often appear early in the morning, just as the mist was rising. To some, the image was ghostly and terrifying, but others simply discounted it as another paddler making their way through the mist… until it vanished in front of their eyes.
Jimmy Stringer, who spent a lot of time around Canoe Lake and once met Tom Thomson, recalled two ghost stories that were published in Macleans magazine in 1973. On one occasion, Jimmy was returning from a two week trip with a group of paddlers, most of whom had started back ahead of him and an American friend. As the two paddled, the American was suddenly jolted by a vision. He claimed that he saw a man in a canoe with black hair and a yellow shirt who told him that the American’s brother had drowned. Jimmy didn’t see the figure himself, but was certain it was Thomson. Sure enough, when the two caught up with the rest of the group, they found them frantically searching for the American’s brother who was presumed drowned.
Jimmy also recalled the time he was out on the water alone in the early morning hours. The mist was especially thick that morning and Jimmy didn’t initially notice the grey green canoe pull up next to him. When the image came into view, Jimmy froze – he was greeted by the enduring stare of Tom Thomson. Neither flinched until the image of Thomson slowly faded from view. Jimmy was convinced that Thomson’s spirit remained in the park. Not long after recounting these stories, Jimmy Stringer met an untimely end when his body was found shortly after the ice broke up in April 1973. He was presumed drowned.
Perhaps the most infamous sighting of Tom Thomson occurred in 1980 and was possibly captured on film by artist Doug Dunford. He was out on a dock at Canoe Lake early one morning taking some photographs. A thick fog had enveloped the area, reducing visibility to only a few metres. At some point Doug became aware of a noise that he later described as similar to an oar hitting the water. As he examined the fog for a source of the sound, a man in a canoe suddenly emerged. Without thinking, Doug raised the camera towards the image of the man and clicked the shutter button. He had no idea if the photo would show anything, but when the film was developed it perfectly revealed a shadowy figure with indistinguishable features in a canoe.
After a few years of reflection, Doug finally captured the essence of the photograph in a watercolour. It was purchased during an art show and a year later the new owner contacted Doug. He was drawn to the image because he, too, had encountered the same man on the same lake.
The legend of Tom Thomson’s death has held sway within the Canadian imagination ever since his overturned canoe was discovered on that fateful July day. His death has inspired countless conspiracy theories that have been thoroughly examined by dedicated sleuths. His ghost has also been the subject of stories, including a well-known Canadian mystery where two fictional girls work with Tom Thomson’s ghost to solve the mystery of his death. The legend was even captured by the Tragically Hip in the song “Three Pistols”. Visual artists have paid homage to Thomson, nearly a century after his death, but have also attempted to capture the spirit of the famous artist. Even people on Twitter have contributed to the legend, as fictionalized accounts of Thomson’s final days are regularly broadcast on the online platform. Regardless of how he died, Thomson’s spirit continues to remain active within our collective imagination.
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Brittney Anne Bos, PhD
Haunted Walk Tour Guide & Host
Haunted Ontario – Ghostly Inns, Hotels and Other Eerie Places by Terry Boyle
The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson by Gregory Klages