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Albert Johnson (criminal)

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Albert Johnson


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February 17, 1932, Yukon, Canada

Peter R Hunt, Michael Grais, Tay Garnett, Ford Beebe, David Cobham

c. 1890–1900 (approximate) Unknown

The Mad Trapper Story

Albert Johnson (died February 17, 1932), known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, was a fugitive whose actions eventually sparked off a huge manhunt in the Northwest Territories and Yukon in Northern Canada. The event became a media circus as Johnson eluded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) team sent to take him into custody, which ended after a 150 mi (240 km) foot chase lasting more than a month and a shootout in which Johnson was fatally wounded on the Eagle River, Yukon. Albert Johnson was a pseudonym and his true identity remains unknown.


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Attack on police

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Albert Johnson arrived in Fort McPherson after coming down the Peel River on July 9, 1931. He was questioned by RCMP constable Edgar Millen, but provided little information. Millen thought he had a Scandinavian accent, generally kept himself clean shaven, and seemed to have plenty of money for supplies. After venturing the waterways in a native-built raft to the Mackenzie River delta, he built a small 8 ft × 10 ft (2.4 m × 3.0 m) cabin on the banks of the Rat River. Johnson had not acquired a trapping license, which was considered odd for someone living in the bush. At that time many northern native traditional trapping areas were being invaded by outsiders fleeing the Great Depression and some complaints may have been intended to remove him.

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In December, one of the native trappers complained to the local RCMP detachment in Aklavik that someone was tampering with his traps, tripping them and hanging them on the trees. He identified Johnson as the likely culprit. On December 26, Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard each of whom had considerable northern experience, trekked the 60 miles (97 km) to Johnson's cabin to ask him about the allegations. Seeing smoke coming from the chimney, they approached the hut to talk. Johnson refused to talk to them however, seeming to not even notice them. King looked into the cabin window, at which point Johnson placed a sack across it. The two constables eventually decided to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant.

King and Bernard returned five days later with two other men. Johnson again refused to talk and eventually King decided to enforce the warrant and force the door. As soon as he began, Johnson shot him through the wooden door. A brief firefight broke out, and the team managed to return the wounded King to Aklavik where he eventually recovered.


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A posse was then formed consisting of nine men, 42 dogs and 20 lb (9.1 kg) of dynamite which they intended to use to blast Johnson out of the cabin if necessary. After surrounding the cabin they thawed the dynamite inside their coats, eventually building a single charge and tossing it into the cabin. After the explosion collapsed the building, the men tried to rush in. Johnson opened fire from a five-foot dugout beneath the ruins. No one was hit, and after a 15-hour standoff (ending at 4:00 A.M.) in the −40 °C (−40 °F) weather, the posse retreated to Aklavik for further assistance.

Albert Johnson (criminal) Albert Johnson The Mad Trapper of Rat River

By this point, the news had filtered out to the rest of the world via radio. After being delayed because of blizzard conditions, the reinforced posse returned on January 14 to find that Johnson had left the cabin and they struck out after him. Eventually, they caught up with him on January 30, surrounding him in a thicket. In the ensuing firefight, Johnson shot Constable Edgar Millen through the heart, killing him. Millen was later to have a tributary of the Rat River, Millen Creek, named for him. A memorial is located in the area. Once again they fell into retreat. The posse continued to grow, enlisting local Inuvialuit and Gwich'in who were better able to move in the back country. Johnson had clearly decided to leave for the Yukon, but the RCMP blocked the only two passes over the Richardson Mountains. That did not stop Johnson, who climbed a 7,000 ft (2,100 m) peak and once again disappeared. This was only discovered when the airplane saw his tracks on the far side of the mountains.

In desperation, the RCMP hired a leading post-war aviator named Wop May of Canadian Airways to help in the hunt by scouting the area from the air. He arrived in the new ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane on February 5. On February 14, he discovered the tactics Johnson had been using to elude his followers. He noticed a set of footprints leading off the centre of the frozen surface of the Eagle River to the bank. Johnson had been following the caribou tracks in the middle of the river, where they walked in order to give them better visibility of approaching predators. Walking in their tracks had hidden his footprints and allowed him to travel quickly on the compacted snow without having to use his snowshoes. He left the trail only at night to make camp on the river bank, which is the track May had spotted. May radioed back his findings and the RCMP gave chase up the river, eventually being directed to Johnson by February 17.


The pursuit team rounded a bend in the river to find Johnson only a few hundred yards standing in front of them. Johnson attempted to run for the bank, but did not have his snowshoes on and could not make it. A firefight broke out in which one RCMP officer was seriously wounded and Johnson was killed after being shot in the left side of the pelvis at an acute angle. It is believed that the bullet passed through vital tissues, bowels, and main arteries, which led to his death. May landed the plane, picked up the injured officer and flew him to help for which he was credited with saving his life.

After Johnson's death, RCMP officials realized that he had travelled over 137 km (85 mi) away from his cabin in less than 3 days, burning approximately 42 MJ (10,000 kcal) a day. Seventy-five years later in 2007, forensics teams found that his tailbone was not actually symmetrical, causing his spine to curve left and right slightly. In addition, one foot was longer than the other.

An examination of Johnson's body yielded over $2,000 in both American and Canadian currency as well as some gold, a pocket compass, a razor, a knife, fish hooks, nails, a dead squirrel, a dead bird, a large quantity of Beecham's Pills and teeth with gold fillings that were believed to be his. During the entire chase, the Mounties had never heard Johnson utter a single word. The only thing they heard was Johnson's laugh after he shot Constable Edgar Millen. To this day people debate who he was, why he moved to the Arctic, or if he was actually responsible for interfering with the trap lines as alleged.


The RCMP issued a series of photographs and sent them throughout Canada and the United States in an unsuccessful effort to learn his real identity, which has never been definitively established.

In the 1930s the initial investigation about the identity of Albert Johnson primarily focused on an obscure individual named Arthur Nelson. Details of Nelson's life are recorded by Yukon researcher and author Richard North. Nelson apparently travelled from Dease Lake, British Columbia up into the Yukon in the 1927 to 1931 period. He had similar guns (a Savage Model 99, a .30-30 Winchestercalibre lever action rifle and a .22 Long Rifle) as Albert Johnson. Nelson is also remembered by Kaska Dena elders Art John Sr. and others who knew him by the alias "Mickey Nelson" when he trapped and prospected in west central Yukon; Ross River region. Yukon author Dick North published his theory that Albert Johnson, Arthur Nelson, and John Johnson from North Dakota were one and the same person in his 1989 book "Trackdown". John Johnson did time in San Quentin Prison and Folsom Prison and his physical description is well documented. North traced John Johnson's identity back to Norway. "Johnny Johnson" was born Johan Konrad Jonsen (1898) in Bardu, Northern Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. Recently DNA tests have ruled out the Johnny Johnson theory.

The Johnston family of Pictou, Nova Scotia have long believed that Albert Johnson is actually Owen Albert Johnston, a relative who had left Pictou at the beginning of the depression to find work in the United States. The family's last letter from Johnston was posted from Revelstoke, British Columbia early in 1931. They never heard from him again. According to the radio interview a relative was arranging for DNA tests.

Previous theories were challenged with the release of Mark Fremmerlid's What Became of Sigvald Anyway book. He proposed too many coincidences to ignore the possibility of Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold from Norway emerging as Albert Johnson. Sigvald was last known as a highly self-sufficient 32-year-old in 1927, 4½ years before the chase and death of Albert Johnson, who was estimated between 35 and 40 years. Sigvald had become obsessed with the notion that the authorities were still looking for him after evading conscription during the First World War. He had built a fortress like cabin on Digby Island on the north coast of B.C. before disappearing. This author points out circumstantial evidence for this case. This theory, along with the others tested, was 100 percent excluded through DNA testing.

In 2009 a televised exhumation of Johnson's corpse was aired in which DNA comparisons were made to confirm Johnson's identity. A forensic team sponsored by the Discovery Channel exhumed Johnson's body on August 11, 2007 and conducted forensic tests on his remains before re-interring it in an attempt to confirm his true identity conclusively. All candidates tested against were eventually excluded with 100 percent certainty. By analyzing isotopes in Johnson's teeth, it was determined that Johnson was not Canadian but likely grew up in the Corn Belt of midwest America or possibly Scandinavia. It was also reported that he was aged in his 30s when he died.

Films and music

  • The event has been written about in a song called "The Capture of Albert Johnson," by Wilf Carter; by Stanley G Triggs, in the song "The Mad Trapper Of Rat River", on his 1961 album "Bunkhouse And Forecastle Songs Of The North West" (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), and also by Doug Hutton in his 1974 song "Rat River Trapper".
  • The Mad Trapper, a highly fictionalized film based on these events, was released in 1972, and in 1975 Challenge to Be Free was released. An American production, it relocated the events to Alaska and referred to Johnson's character merely as "Trapper", or in the theme song, "Trapper Man". It portrayed Johnson as a man who lived in peace and harmony with wild animals, similar to Johnny Appleseed and whose initial interference with other traps was due to rival trappers' inhumane techniques.
  • Another highly fictionalized version of Johnson's story appeared in Charles Bronson's 1981 movie Death Hunt. The film reverses the facts, making Johnson a sympathetic, freedom-loving character and changing RCMP hero Edgar Millen from the young and popular figure that he was into a broken-down, middle-aged alcoholic (played by Lee Marvin) who rather than being shot by Johnson actually leads the pursuit to capture him. Furthermore, bush pilot Wop May is represented as a Royal Canadian Air Force captain, Hank Tucker, who is shot down and killed by the posse after Tucker wildly shoots up members of the posse.
  • The story is also retold within the song "The Ballad of Trapper John" by Devon Coyote, a Canadian folk rock group based in British Columbia.
  • A metalcore band in Toronto, Canada has adopted the name "Mad Trapper."
  • Books

  • Rudy Wiebe, The Mad Trapper, 1980, Jackpine House Ltd., 186 pages, ISBN 0-88995-268-X
  • Thomas York, Trapper, 1981, Avon Books, 476 pages, ISBN 0-380-63156-3
  • The Death of Albert Johnson Mad Trapper of Rat River, 1986, Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 94 pages, ISBN 0-919214-16-9
  • Dick North, The Mad Trapper of Rat River, 2003, The Lyons Press, 338 pages, ISBN 1-59228-771-9
  • Hélèna Katz, The Mad Trapper, 2004, Altitude Publishing Canada Ltd., 133 pages, ISBN 1-55153-787-7
  • Dick North, The Man Who Didn't Fit In, 2005, The Lyons Press, 259 pages, ISBN 1-59228-838-3
  • Barbara Smith, The Mad Trapper: Unearthing a Mystery, 2009, Heritage House Publishing Co., 160 pages, ISBN 1-894974-53-0
  • Mark Fremmerlid, What Became of Sigvald Anyway? Was He The Mad Trapper of Rat River? 66 pages, ISBN 978-0-9784270-0-9
  • Thomas P. Kelley, Rat River Trapper, 1972, Paper Jacks, 141 pages, ISBN 0-7737-7004-6
  • Dick North, Trackdown, 1989, Macmillan of Canada, 202 pages, ISBN 0-7715-9209-4
  • References

    Albert Johnson (criminal) Wikipedia