A photograph taken by bush pilot Wop May shows Albert Johnson (small black dot in lower centre) lying dead on the Eagle River on Feb. 17, 1932.

Golden Country

The Mad Trapper part 3: Shootout on the Eagle River

By Feb. 17, 1932, the search for the man known as Albert Johnson had lasted for almost five weeks, with searchers tracking their quarry—who had shot and wounded one RCMP officer and killed another—for more than 240km through the harsh and frigid landscape of the Northwest and Yukon Territories near the Arctic Circle. Even though the search party was equipped with the latest technology—such as a two-way radio and a supply/spotter plane piloted by bush pilot legend Capt. William “Wop” May—Johnson continued to elude them, until May spotted the man’s distinctive snowshoe prints on the frozen Eagle River.

The searchers could tell, from the freshness of the tracks, that they were getting closer to their man, but they could have had no idea how close. On Feb. 17 they set off down the twisting river in pursuit of Johnson.

A reconstruction of subsequent events shows that just before noon on that day, Johnson left the centre of the river, where he had been walking, and climbed a tree on the bank to see where the search party was. He appears to have believed that the party was moving away from him to the south, when in fact they were approaching a bend in the river that would take them northward again.

Johnson returned to the river and began moving away, he presumably thought, from the search party. He had covered about half-a-mile when he rounded a bend and saw, 300 yards in front, the searchers heading straight towards him.

Johnson strapped on his snowshoes and headed for the shelter of one of the river’s banks, shooting as he went. Staff Sgt. Earle Hersey, who was driving the lead dogsled of the search party. had grabbed his rifle from the sled and was crouched down on the ice, firing at Johnson, who was returning fire has he headed to riverbank. One of the bullets struck Hersey on the knee he was resting an elbow on, deflected upward and struck his elbow, and then penetrated Hersey’s chest.

The remaining members of the search party had arrived, and some of the men moved to the riverbanks and began approaching Johnson in an effort to draw level with him and cut off any avenue of retreat. The bank Johnson had chosen was too steep to climb, so he headed back onto the river and began making his way to the opposite side, where the slope was easier and he could potentially make it to cover in nearby trees. He was under constant fire as he ran, and it is unclear whether he was struck and injured, or whether he decided to make one last stand, but as they watched, Johnson dropped to the ice in the middle of the river and began burrowing into the snow. He pushed his backpack in front of him and, coolly and methodically, resumed shooting at his pursuers.

Throughout the entire encounter Johnson had remained completely silent. There had been no shouts, no words of defiance, nothing. Did he still think, at this stage, that he might once again be able to escape? He had managed it twice before; perhaps he felt his luck would hold.

By the time Johnson was in position on the ice and firing at the men in front of him, others in the posse had managed to take positions immediately above where Johnson lay in his trench. They called at him to give up, but there was no reply. Keeping up a steady fire, they had Johnson pinned down, and watched as he rolled onto his side to reload his rifle. As he did so, a bullet hit him in the spine.

Johnson had already been hit by six bullets, but this was the fatal shot. Johnson’s rifle dropped from his hand and he lay motionless in the snow. Conscious that Johnson had once before “played possum” to deceive the police into thinking he was injured or dead, the pursuers watched him for 10 minutes but did not approach. It was not until Wop May flew low over the scene and dipped his wings to show that it was over did they realize the pursuit had come to an end.

Hersey was treated by the men at the scene. May landed his plane on the frozen river and the injured man was loaded into it; then May set out for Aklavik. Since Hersey was not dressed for the cold temperature of high altitude flight over the Richardson Mountains, May kept low, flying through valleys. In less than an hour after being struck, Hersey was being treated by a doctor in Aklavik.

Back on the Eagle River, Johnson and his few possessions were loaded onto a dogsled, and the party travelled to nearby La Pierre House, where they stayed overnight. The next day, Johnson’s body was flown to Aklavik, and a subsequent inquest came to a foregone conclusion.

“We, the jury, find that the man known as Albert Johnson came to his death from concentrated rifle fire from a party composed of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and others, Johnson having been called upon to surrender by several members of the party and still deliberately resisted arrest, we are satisfied that no responsibility rests with any member of the party, or the party as a whole.

“We are further satisfied from the evidence that the party had no other means of effecting Johnson’s capture except by the method employed.”

An examination of Johnson’s meagre effects yielded no clue as to his identity. There were three firearms with ammunition, an axe, a bedroll, a compass, a tin used for cooking, and some smaller items, including 32 pills and a bottle with five small pearls. There was also more than $2,400—a huge sum of money in 1932—most of it in Canadian banknotes, although there was some American currency as well.

What there was not was any personal item that might identify the man. Johnson’s fingerprints were obtained, two photographs of his corpse were taken, and a physical description of him was drawn up. The photographs were taken from an awkward angle, and Johnson was, at the time of his death, suffering from starvation and the intense physical efforts of the preceding weeks. He had also suffered frostbite, so his face was gaunt in some places, swollen in others.

The best chance of identifying Johnson was through his fingerprints. All the information was passed along to Washington, in the hope that the police in Canada or the U.S. might find a match, but nothing was found. “Who was Albert Johnson?” became the burning question of the day, and almost immediately people began coming forward with suggestions.

To be continued


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