Some of the men involved in the search for Albert Johnson. (from l) Sgt. R. F Riddell; Sgt. H. F. Hersey, Royal Canadian Signals Corps; Duncan Bowen; Norman Hancock; Sgt-Major C. Neary; Jack Either; pilot Wilfred “Wop” May.

Some of the men involved in the search for Albert Johnson. (from l) Sgt. R. F Riddell; Sgt. H. F. Hersey, Royal Canadian Signals Corps; Duncan Bowen; Norman Hancock; Sgt-Major C. Neary; Jack Either; pilot Wilfred “Wop” May.

Golden Country: The Mad Trapper part 5

The mystery of Albert Johnson endures to this day

The end of the manhunt for Albert Johnson in Feb. 1932 concluded one part of the case, but almost immediately opened up a new one: who was the man dubbed (erroneously) as the Mad Trapper of Rat River? “Albert Johnson” was quickly determined to be an alias, so who was he really, and why had he reacted so violently when the RCMP arrived at his cabin on the Rat River to ask about possible trapping violations?

As we have seen, a plausible theory soon emerged that Johnson was a man known as Arthur Nelson, who had appeared in Dease Lake, B.C. in the mid-1920s, then travelled north to the Yukon. He was last seen in May 1931, two months before “Albert Johnson” arrived at Fort McPherson.

There were enough similarities between the two to make it probable that they were one and the same. Their physical descriptions matched, they both had a slight Scandinavian accent, they were both loners and men of few words who exhibited considerable back-country knowledge and survival skills, they were both excellent shots, and several of the items Johnson had in his possession when he was killed were similar, or identical, to items Nelson was known to have possessed.

However, no one seemed to know where Nelson had come from prior to his arrival in Dease Lake, and it seemed probable that that name, too, was an alias. After years of researching the case, pursuing leads all over North America, and talking to the remaining people who had personal knowledge of the case, author Dick North put forward the convincing theory that Albert Johnson (and possibly Arthur Nelson) was actually Johnny Johnson, a criminal from North Dakota.

In an article about the Johnson case in the RCMP Quarterly in Fall 1960, Roy Buttle—an outfitter who had met Arthur Nelson in Ross River, Yukon Territory in 1927—said that the man had told him he had been raised on a farm in North Dakota. It was a slim lead, but North began pursuing it vigorously, and eventually came across Johnny Johnson.

In his book Trackdown: The Search for the Mad Trapper (1989), North builds a very plausible case for Johnny being Albert Johnson (and perhaps Nelson). Johnny had been born in Norway in 1898, putting him at about the same age as that estimated for Albert Johnson. Johnny and his family arrived in the United States in 1904 and settled on 320 acres in North Dakota, where the boy was given a rifle so that he could hunt food to feed the family of seven. He became known as a crack shot, able to pick off a crow on the wing at 100 yards.

In 1915, while still only 16, Johnny took part in two robberies—of a hardware store and then a bank—and successfully eluded his pursuers in ways that would be familiar to those engaged in the hunt for Albert Johnson 17 years later. He was eventually arrested in Wyoming, where he was using the alias “William Hoffner”. He was released from prison in 1918 and returned to the family home in North Dakota, but soon left again, this time for good. He was arrested in California—where he was going by the name of Charles Johnson—in May 1921 for horse theft. He was released at Christmas 1922, after which time Johnny Johnson disappears from the historical record.

North also uncovered the fact that in 1932 and again in 1937, the RCMP had contacted American authorities to ask for Johnny’s fingerprints (Albert Johnson’s fingerprints had been taken after he was killed). North was unable to find what prompted the RCMP to make the requests, but the results of the fingerprint comparisons—by the RCMP in the 1930s and North in the early 1980s—were inconclusive. North attempted to obtain an exhumation order for Albert Johnson’s body, but was unsuccessful.

In 2007, however, Johnson’s body was exhumed and DNA samples were obtained. Despite the persuasiveness of North’s theory, and the many similarities between Johnny Johnson and Albert Johnson, DNA tests done with one of Johnny’s descendants ruled out a connection.

So despite the best efforts of investigators over more than eight decades, we are no closer to learning who Albert Johnson was, what motivated him to move to the inhospitable Canadian Arctic, or what prompted him to react the way he did when approached by police. The dramatic events of what we know of his life, the manhunt and the events that precipitated it, and his death have been immortalized in several songs, at least two (highly fictionalized) films, books both fiction and non-fiction, and documentaries. A display of some of his effects can be viewed at the RCMP museum in Regina.

Fast forward 87 years, to another manhunt in the Canadian north. The similarities between the hunt for Albert Johnson in 1932 and the hunt for Kam Mcleod and Bryer Schmegelsky in 2019 have already been noted, from the remote locations of the killings and the manhunts, the involvement of the RCMP, the use of the most modern technology and resources in both cases, the unknown motivations for the killings, the widespread media attention, the fear that residents of far-flung, remote communities lived in while the manhunts took place, and the fascination the cases held for people around the world.

A welcome difference between the two cases is the attitude of the public towards the killers. McLeod and Schmegelsky were universally decried for their crimes, while Albert Johnson was regarded with sympathy by many at the time, who saw him not as a cold-blooded killer but as a defiant loner taking a stand against authorities. It is doubtful that he is still viewed in that light, but it seems certain that his case will continue to fascinate, even if his true identity is never uncovered.

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