Albert Johnson: The Mad Trapper’s Northwest Odyssey

The Enigmatic Figure of Albert Johnson

In the vast wilderness of the Northwest Territories and Yukon in Northern Canada, a mysterious fugitive known as Albert Johnson, or the Mad Trapper of Rat River, left an indelible mark. Born around 1890–1900, his true identity remains shrouded in uncertainty. This article delves into the gripping tale of Johnson’s escapades, exploring the events that led to a colossal manhunt and a dramatic showdown with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

Arrival in Fort McPherson

Royal Canadian Mounted Police photo issued in a series of Albert Johnson, 1932. Source: Wikipedia

Albert Johnson’s journey into notoriety commenced when he arrived in Fort McPherson on July 9, 1931, after navigating the Peel River. His encounter with RCMP constable Edgar Millen raised suspicions due to his Scandinavian accent, well-groomed appearance, and apparent abundance of resources. Johnson, however, divulged little information about himself, setting the stage for a series of dramatic events.

A Cabin in the Wilderness

Venturing further, Johnson constructed a modest 8 ft × 10 ft cabin on the Rat River banks, bypassing the conventional trapping license. This unconventional move caught the attention of indigenous trappers, who complained to the local RCMP in Aklavik about Johnson’s alleged interference with their traps. The subsequent investigation revealed conflicting stories, depicting Johnson as a confrontational figure who brandished a gun at those who approached his cabin.

Confrontation and Gunfire

Albert Johnson kept fighting from a hole in the ruins of his cabin on Rat River after Royal Canadian Mounted Police besieged and destroyed it with dynamite.Source: Wikipedia

The tension escalated on December 26 when Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard trekked to Johnson’s cabin. Ignoring attempts at communication, Johnson shot King through the door, initiating a brief but intense firefight. The wounded King was successfully evacuated, but the elusive fugitive remained at large.

Intensifying the Pursuit

In response, a posse comprising nine men, 42 dogs, and 20 lb of dynamite was assembled to extract Johnson from his stronghold. After a failed attempt to blast him out using dynamite, the standoff endured for 15 grueling hours in subzero temperatures. Contrary reports surround the aftermath, with some suggesting the cabin’s destruction, intentionally or otherwise.

The Global Manhunt

News of the Mad Trapper’s resistance reached the global audience through radio broadcasts. As blizzard conditions delayed the posse’s return, Johnson seized the opportunity to flee, prompting an extended manhunt. Local communities joined the pursuit, but Johnson’s strategic evasion persisted, leading him to the Yukon and scaling the formidable Richardson Mountains.

The Aerial Pursuit

A few of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police involved in hunting the “Mad Trapper”. Left to right: Constable A. W. King, was wounded; Mr. Hutchinson; Corporal Hall; unknown; Mr. Melville; Corporal R. S. Wild; Constable E. “Newt” Millen, was killed; unknown. Source: Wikipedia

In a desperate move, the RCMP enlisted the expertise of First World War flying ace Wilfrid “Wop” May to scout from the air. Using a ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane, May identified Johnson’s tracks, revealing the fugitive’s ingenious tactic of walking in caribou tracks on the frozen Eagle River. This discovery propelled the RCMP closer to their elusive target.

The Final Showdown

On February 17, the relentless pursuit culminated in a final confrontation on the Eagle River. A shootout ensued, resulting in Johnson’s fatal wounds. Constable Edgar Millen, who had been at the center of the manhunt, tragically lost his life in the firefight. The Mad Trapper’s true identity remained an enigma even in death.

Conclusion

The saga of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, remains a compelling chapter in Canadian history. His defiance against authority, the extensive manhunt, and the dramatic finale on the Eagle River have etched his story into the annals of mystery and adventure.

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