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The Mad Trapper part 4: The quest to identify Albert Johnson begins

To this day, the identity of the ‘mad trapper’ has not been established, but he certainly was not mad
Some of Albert Johnson’s effects, including his distinctive snowshoes. Several of the items are on display at the RCMP Museum in Regina.

It is difficult to overestimate the grip that the case of the so-called “Mad Trapper of Rat River” had on newspaper readers and radio listeners as it played out in the winter of 1932. Newspapers around North America had published stories about an RCMP officer—Cst. King—being wounded during the second approach to Johnson’s cabin in Jan. 1932, and then the killing of Cst. Millen days later. These were both big stories, but it was news of the manhunt in the wilds of the Canadian Arctic that transfixed the public: not only in newspapers, but via the still fairly newfangled medium of radio.

Historian Dick North, author of two books about the Mad Trapper of Rat River, has said that the saga is credited with “boosting radio from a curiosity piece to a place of importance in the news media field.” He also writes that a boom in radio sales across North America in early 1932 can be attributed to coverage of the manhunt, with people eager to hear the latest developments in the case.

In an attempt to explain why Johnson had done what he had, he began to be identified in the media as “crazed” or “demented”, from which probably arose the “Mad Trapper” sobriquet. However, most of those who took part in the search were adamant that the man they had been pursuing was far from “mad”. He had, after all, eluded skillful trackers, armed with the latest technological innovations—a two-way radios, a spotter airplane—for several weeks in challenging terrain, after frustrating many of those same searchers by escaping from a dynamite siege on his cabin. He survived, without shelter, for weeks in temperatures that hovered well below zero Fahrenheit. He was a skilled backwoodsman, a crack shot, someone adept at surviving in a hostile environment. The man was many things, but “mad” he clearly was not.

It was widely suspected that the man was someone who had, at some point in his life, fallen foul of the law in another jurisdiction, and sought safety and anonymity in the Arctic wilderness. When—shortly after Christmas Day 1931—he saw three police officers arrive at his isolated cabin on the Rat River, he might have feared that his past had caught up with him. Despite the fact that the officers almost certainly told him that he was wanted on suspicion of meddling with traps and not having a trapping licence, he may well have suspected that they had learned more about him in the interim, which is why he immediately opened fire on Cst. King.

A telegram to the Superintendent of “G” Division in Edmonton had said that “Millen had conversation with Johnson last July … [Johnson had] slight Scandinavian accent.” The autopsy of Johnson revealed that he was five feet, nine-and-a-half inches in height, with blue eyes and brown hair, and was aged between 35 and 40 years. His weight was 150 pounds, but he had been on the run for weeks and showed signs of emaciation; it was estimated that his normal weight would have been around 175 pounds. His estimated age of 35 to 40 years at time of death means he could well have served in World War I, which would possibly explain his accurate marksmanship and his calm under fire.

Appeals to the public about the man’s real identity yielded many leads, but no positive identification, and the body was never claimed. It was later buried in the cemetery in Aklavik, NWT.

Which leaves the question: who was Albert Johnson? The name seems to have been an alias, which has prompted much speculation over the decades. At the time of the manhunt the RCMP received many tips from people claiming they knew who Johnson was, and each lead was followed up, but in every case the response was the same: “We find that XXX is not identical with the man known as Albert Johnson.”

One of the earliest leads came on Feb. 11, 1932—while the manhunt was in full swing—when a picture of “Albert Johnson”, showing a trapper in a fur hat, appeared in newspapers across Canada. It had been sent in by a prairie farmer who said that this was the Albert Johnson who had killed Cst. Millen, but there was little other information with the picture, and no more was forthcoming.

That was because upon seeing the picture, Albert Johnson of Princeton, B.C. walked into a newspaper office in Vancouver demanding that the picture be retracted. He said that he was the man in the picture, and had indeed trapped in the Northwest Territory, but he was not mad, had not shot anyone, was not wanted by police, and furthermore was in Vancouver, B.C., not being pursued across the Arctic.

Pilot Wop May came across an account out of Idaho about the search for a murderer known as “Coyote Bill”, and felt there were enough similarities between him and Johnson that they could be the same person. While there was a good deal of circumstantial evidence to support this theory, the fingerprints did not match.

In 1937 some trappers read an account of the Johnson case and saw a picture of him. They identified him as a man named Arthur Nelson they had known at Dease Lake, B.C. in the mid-1920s. Nelson had turned up in the Yukon in August 1927 and moved around the area until May 1931, after which he was apparently never seen or heard of again. In July 1931, “Albert Johnson” turned up in Fort MacPherson.

The two men were a match physically, and both spoke with a faint Scandinavian accent. They were both loners and men of few words, extremely proficient with firearms, at home in the wilderness, and built the same type of dwelling place, more dugout than cabin. The firearms that Johnson had with him when he died matched firearms that Nelson was known to have purchased, and one of the Canadian $50 banknotes Johnson had in his possession when he died had been sent to the Bank of Montreal branch in Mayo in March 1928; six months later Nelson received a payment of $680 in cash from the sale of furs from the same branch. Johnson had a quantity of small white pills on him when he died, and Nelson had purchased six boxes of kidney pills in Mayo before leaving there in May 1931.

A photo taken at Ross River, Yukon Territory in 1930 shows a man who several people positively identified as Arthur Nelson. Even though it was taken from a distance and loses most of the detail when enlarged, there are enough similarities—including a marked stoop—to suggest Nelson could have been Albert Johnson.

If so, then who was Arthur Nelson? And is there a connection between Johnny Johnson, a criminal from North Dakota, and Arthur Nelson or Albert Johnson … or both?

To be continued

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