1931 The Mad Trapper of Rat River

It was on July 9, 1931 that a man calling himself Albert Johnson wandered into Fort McPherson (map) and bought supplies from the Northern Traders store. A man of very few words and a secretive nature, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept a close eye on this stranger. On July 21st Constable Edgar Millen questioned Albert Johnson about who he was and were he came from. Even with the evasive answers he received Constable Millen figured Johnson, like many other strangers who came in from the south, simply wanted to be left alone. A week later Johnson was gone, apparently up the nearby Rat River.

During December of 1931 RCMP began to receive complaints, from trappers in the Rat River area, that someone was deliberately springing their traps. The RCMP, in their investigation of these accusations, had three encounters with Albert Johnson at his Rat River Cabin.

During the first, on December 26th 1931, Johnson simply refused to speak to Constables King and Bernard and they then returned to Aklavik for a search warrant. Five days later, armed with that warrant, four RCMP officers surrounded Johnson’s cabin. When Constable King approached the cabin Johnson fired through the door and wounded King. Out positioned – Johnson built his fortified cabin high on a promontory above the Rat River – and now with a wounded officer, the RCMP once again returned to Aklavik.

The third encounter, a fifteen-hour siege, occurred on January 9th, 1932 when a much larger and better-supplied group of local volunteers and RCMP officers surrounded Johnson’s cabin. Hundreds of shots were fired into the cabin, and dynamite was used to blow part of the roof off, yet this failed to chase Johnson from his stronghold. Running low on supplies and food for their dog teams, the RCMP again returned to Aklavik.

Word of the confrontation with Albert Johnson and the wounding of Constable King was relayed south through the Royal Canadian Corp of Signals station at Aklavik. This story became front-page news and it wasn’t long before Johnson was being called the “Mad Trapper of Rat River”.

On January 16th 1932 the RCMP, their guide Lazarus Sittichinli along with civilian volunteers, established a base camp 15 kilometres from Johnson’s cabin. By that time Johnson had fled and search parties were sent out to track him down. One of these search parties, lead by Constable Millen, came across Johnson’s trail and cornered him in a grove of trees. Constable Millen was killed in the resulting shoot-out and Johnson escaped.

Only after Constable Millen’s death did the RCMP realized that Johnson’s bush skills were far better than their own and they requested an airplane join the search. Canadian Airways pilot Wop May and aircraft mechanic Jack Bowan flew north to assist the RCMP. By the time they arrived, the bush between the Mackenzie Delta and the Richardson mountains was literally crawling with searchers, many of them just local trappers.

Flying his Bellanca, Wop May was able sort out which tracks through the valleys of the east slope of the Richardson Mountain belonged to whom and was closing in on Johnson when a blizzard on February 9th 1932 gave Johnson time to cross the mountains into the Yukon. On February 14 Wop May spotted Johnson’s tracks on the Bell River and followed them to where they turned south up the Eagle River.

Police closed in and on February 17, more than a month and a half after the wounding of Constable King and more than two weeks after the murder of Constable Millen, Albert Johnson was killed during a gun battle on the ice of the Eagle River.

 

Timeline Link: 1929 Wilfred Reid 'Wop' May