Albert Johnson (criminal)

Albert Johnson (criminal)

Albert Johnson known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, was a fugitive whose actions eventually sparked off a huge manhunt in the Northwest Territories in Canada. The event became a minor media circus as Johnson eluded the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) team sent to take him into custody, which ended after a 150 mile (240 km) foot chase and a shootout in which Johnson was fatally wounded.

Details of Johnson's life before his arrival in Fort McPherson on July 9, 1931 are unknown. Soon after arriving he built a small 8x10 foot cabin on the banks of the Rat River, near the Mackenzie River delta. Johnson did not take out a trapping license, however, which was considered somewhat odd for someone living in the bush.

In December one of the local 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 31 Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard, each of whom had considerable northern experience, trekked out to Johnson's cabin to ask him about the allegations. They noticed smoke coming from the chimney, and approached the hut to talk. Johnson refused to talk to them, seeming to not even notice them. King approached and looked in the window, at which point Johnson placed a sack over it. They eventually decided to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant.

They returned two days later with two additional RCMP officers and a civilian deputy. Johnson again refused to talk and eventually King decided to enforce the warrant and force the door. As soon as he started, Johnson shot him through the wood. A brief firefight broke out, and the team managed to return King to Aklavik, where he eventually recovered.

A posse was formed – this time with nine men, 42 dogs and 20 pounds (9 kg) of dynamite which they intended to use to blast Johnson out of the cabin. 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 rushed in. Johnson opened fire from a foxhole he had dug under the building. No one was hit, and after a 15 hour standoff in the 40-below weather the posse again decided to return to Aklavik for further instructions.

By this point news of the events had filtered out to the rest of the world via radio. When the posse returned on January 14, delayed because of almost continual blizzards, Johnson had left the cabin and the posse gave chase. They eventually caught up to Johnson on January 30, surrounding him at the bottom of a cliff. In the ensuing firefight, Johnson shot Constable Millen through the heart. [] The troops remained in position, and that night Johnson scaled the cliff to elude the RCMP once again.

The posse continued to grow, enlisting local Inuit and Gwich'in who were better able to move in the back country. Johnson eventually decided to leave for the Yukon, but the RCMP had blocked the only two passes over the local Richardson mountains. That didn't stop Johnson, who climbed a 7,000 foot peak and once again disappeared. This was only discovered when an Inuit trapper reported odd tracks on the far side of the mountains.

In desperation, the RCMP hired Wop May to help in the hunt by scouting the area from the air. He arrived in his new ski-equipped Bellanca monoplane on the 5th. On February 14 he discovered the trick Johnson had been using to elude his followers, when he noticed a set of footprints leading off the center 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 hid his own footprints, and allowed him to travel quickly on the tramped-down snow without having to use his snowshoes. He only left the trail 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 team rounded a bend in the river to find Johnson only a few hundred yards in front of them. Johnson attempted to run for the bank, but didn't have his snowshoes on and couldn't make it. A firefight broke out in which one RCMP officer was seriously wounded and Johnson was eventually killed after being shot nine times. May landed and flew the officer to help, being credited with saving his life.

An examination of Johnson's body yielded over two thousand dollars in both American and Canadian currency as well as some gold, a pocket compass, a razor, a knife, fish hooks, nails, a dead squirrel, and a dead bird. During the entire chase, the Mounties had never heard Johnson say a single word. To this day no one knows for certain who he was, why he moved to the Arctic, or if he was actually responsible for interfering with the trap lines as alleged. Two relatively recent theories regarding Albert Johnson's identity have appeared in print. In the 1989 book "Trackdown" by Dick North, the mad trapper was identified as John Johnson from North Dakota. More recently, in the 2007 book "What Became of Sigvald Anyway" the mad trapper is identified as Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold by Mark Fremmerlid. Other writers such as Frank Anderson, Helena Katz, and Thomas P. Kelley, have considered the case unsolved.

On August 11, 2007, a forensic team exhumed his body and conducted forensic tests on his remains before re-interning it. Forensic examination is now underway in an attempt to conclusively establish his true identity. Results of this testing will be released in conjunction with the documentary film being done for Discovery Channel by [ Myth Merchant Films]

The event has been written about in a number of books, a song by Wilf Carter, as well as a fictionalized account that was later turned into the movie "Death Hunt", starring Charles Bronson.


* 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
* Fremmerlid Mark,What Became of Sigvald Anyway?Was He The Mad Trapper of Rat River? 66 pages, ISBN 978-0-9784270-0-9


* A documentary is under production by [ Myth Merchant Films] including a forensic examination of his remains in an attempt to establish his true identity.
* A new narrative feature length film currently entitled "The Mad Trapper" is being developed by the independent motion picture production company, [ Stainless Steel Productions] .
* A documentary is currently under production in Canada. They have exhumed the body of Albert Johnson and are cross matching DNA samples to try and conclusively determine his identity. The body also had hair, soft tissue and finger nails which can be used to determine his diet and hopefully provide another clue to his unusual behavior before his death.
* A new theory possibly identifying Albert Johnson as Sigvald Haaskjold, along with an explanation of his behavior has been released after 24 years of research by the author, a relative of Sigvald. This develops the idea that he may have chosen the alias Albert Johnson due to a childhood jealousy of his older brother Albert Johannes Rasmussen. It is set out in the book "What Became of Sigvald, Anyway? Was he the Mad Trapper of Rat River?" [] (ISBN 978-0978427009)
* A 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 RCAF Officer Tucker who is shot down and killed by the posse after Tucker wildly shoots up members of the Posse.
* A highly fictionalized film based on these events was released in 1975, called "Challenge to Be Free". [] 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 in harmony with wild animals, similar to the mythical Johnny Appleseed, and whose initial interference with other traps was due to rival trapper's inhumane techniques.

External links

* [ Documentary in Production]
* [ Mysteries of Canada]
* [ CBC Program on the Mad Trapper- part of an online exhibit produced by the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre entitled "Les McLaughlin and the CBC".]
* [ The Ballad of the Mad Trapper]
* [ Alleged Autopsy Photo of the Mad Trapper]
* [ NorthWest Territories and Yukon Radio System Account of the Pursuit]
* [ 1931 The Mad Trapper of Rat River]
* [ What Became Of Sigvald, Anyway?]

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