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The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson:
Study Guide

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Theories & Hypotheses

Engraving of Thomson buried

The last block in The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson was fashioned from wood taken from a limb that may have fallen from a tree that appears in Tom’s painting called Byng Inlet.

No one can know for certain what happened on Sunday, July 8th, 1917, the day Tom Thomson suddenly disappeared. Some contemporaries, including Ranger Mark Robinson, Mrs Thomas (wife of the local railway section head) and Mrs Colson (wife of the owner of the Hotel Algonquin on Joe Lake), have claimed they saw Thomson alive that morning ... walking down to Joe Lake dam with Shannon Fraser, but many were equally convinced he must have died the night before.

What is known, is that Tom Thomson’s body surfaced eight days later and was sighted by a vacationer on Canoe Lake who happened coincidentally to be a physician and a neurologist. Dr G.W. Howland examined the body and determined Thomson had suffered a mishap in his canoe. Others on the lake, who knew Thomson well, felt his death was no accident.

A hundred years later there are still half a dozen theories as to what might have occurred; some, perhaps, more persuasive than others, but all six theories have their advocates, and in each case there is source material to support the various suppositions.

Click through the following pages for a discussion of the evidence and analysis for each theory.

But wait! There’s still another mystery to investigate: Interment

Further Reading:

For extensive access to primary source material as well as password-protected access to a suite of so-called ‘expert’ interpretations of the Tom Thomson mystery visit

Curriculum Notes:

Using Reading Comprehension Strategies
According to the Ontario secondary school curriculum, students must be able to select and use appropriate reading comprehension strategies to understand texts. The wordless novel and its attendant focus on visual literacy requires students to engage a different set of comprehension strategies than might be occasioned by reading a novel or a poem. The exercises, activities and discussions fostered by this Guide invite students to analyse emotions, reactions, behaviours and motives that are implied through visual cues rather than through word choice, dialogue or reported thought.

Making Inferences and Extending Understanding of Texts
One of the specific expectations of the high school English reading curriculum is to encourage students to make and explain inferences derived from texts. The exercises in the Guide test students’ ability to understand visual narratives by asking them to explain their own creative interpretations of the images and what they reveal about characters, situations, historical context and other relevant story elements. Furthermore, students are expected to make connections between the ideas presented in a given text and with the world around them.

Interconnected Skills
The curriculum articulates a need for students to be able to explain how a variety of skills can help them read more effectively. To address this goal, the Guide asks students to demonstrate a mix of reading, writing, artistic and communication strategies. For example, students may be asked to write a vignette inspired by images in The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson; to draw a graphic novel that incorporates people or places from the book; to write a poem or series of poems about specific scenes depicted in the book; or to present a short speech on an issue important during Tom Thomson’s lifetime. After each of these, students may reflect on how their creative endeavours have deepened their appreciation of the text.


Look closely at each of the images towards the end of George Walker’s The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson.

  1. Are there clues, worked into the images (starting around p 171) that would suggest which of the various theories George Walker believes to be the correct one?
  2. What are they?
  3. Do you agree with this interpretation?
  4. Why or why not?


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Printable ‘Theories & Hypotheses’
2.3 MB


This Study Guide is available as a free download in Pdf format to anyone interested in using it as an aid to teaching George A. Walker's The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson (2012). The Guide may not be copied and offered for sale by any third party. This Study Guide is produced with the support of the Ontario Media Development Corporation and the Ontario Ministry of Education.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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