Star public editor: A case of mistaken identity

 By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

 By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

As feature writer Oakland Ross told you in a riveting story last week, the mystery of Pte. Thomas Lawless’s long-lost bones has been solved at last, the result of decades of sleuthing and science.

I am pleased to report that the mystery of the photograph of a man the Star told you was Pte. Thomas Lawless, a Canadian soldier killed in France in the First World War, has also now been solved.

Ross’s brilliant account of the astonishing efforts that went into identifying the remains of Lawless and another Canadian soldier who were lost near the town of Avion in northern France nearly 100 years ago included a prominent photograph published on the front page of the Insight section. The photo caption said the picture showed Lawless in an undated photo with his cousin Eilleen.

Related content on J-Source:

Almost immediately, numerous Star readers raised questions about the photo, expressing doubt that the picture could have been taken in the First World War years, largely because the hair and clothing of both the man and woman do not appear consistent with the Great War era.

“I believe you have printed a picture of someone else,” reader Eleanor Stephen, 74, wrote, suggesting that the hair and clothing look to be more in line with the fashions of the Second World War years.

“At the time of the First World War, I don’t believe any man in an undershirt would pose for a picture with his arm around a woman — the moral standards of the day would not allow it,” Stephen said.”

Seeking answers for our puzzled readers, we went to the source of the photo and the caption information — The Canadian Press, which first distributed the image in 2011 when it reported that the remains of a First World War soldier discovered in France in 2003 had been identified as those of Lawless, a 28-year-old Irish immigrant from Calgary who had come to Canada in 1909.

The Star published that 2011 wire story and the accompanying photo. Strangely, given the sharp-eyed response of our readers this week, no one raised questions about the authenticity of the Lawless image then. Certainly, the editors who selected the photo from the Star’s photo archive last week had no reason to question its veracity.

Graeme Roy, the CP’s director of news photography, told me the photo came to the wire service from Veterans Affairs in Ottawa. The photo has been published on news websites around the world and no one had previously questioned it. Indeed, a check of Veterans Affairs’ Canadian Virtual War Memorial website on Thursday showed the same photo of Lawless, albeit cropped tightly as a headshot. And the Veterans Affairs spokesman I spoke with that day seemed surprised to learn there were questions about whether the photo is indeed Lawless.

You might now conclude that this time Star readers were wrong. Not so fast, Sherlock. Like the mystery of the Lawless remains, the mystery of the Lawless photo required more sleuthing.

Mid-week, reporter Ross told me he believes the photo is not Lawless and, in fact, there are no known photographs of Lawless in existence. The only depiction of Lawless’s image is the three-dimensional facial reconstruction sculpture created by Moncton-based artist Christian Corbet that is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Several sources had told Ross that the photograph had surfaced at some point during the remains identification project, having been submitted by a distant relative of Lawless from Alberta. It was subsequently ruled out as Thomas Lawless’s image.

To continue reading this column, please go where it was originally published.

Related content on J-Source: