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Dolly Stolze

Who Was the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

The death of Albert Johnson (also known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River) made headlines in 1932 because it marked the end of a bloody manhunt that spanned 150 miles through Canada's Northwest Territories and Yukon. During the harrowing, six-week pursuit, Johnson evaded capture several times, wounded two Mounties, and killed a third. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) believed that "Albert Johnson" was an alias, but investigators never discovered his real name. Then in 2007, a team, comprising documentary filmmakers and forensic scientists, exhumed the Trapper's body to examine his remains and collect DNA samples to see if any of the theories about his identity could be confirmed.

Trapping the Mad Trapper

In the summer of 1931, a man, who called himself Albert Johnson, arrived at Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories to buy supplies. Witnesses described him as a quiet man, between 30 and 40 years old, with a Scandinavian accent. The stranger lived a remote cabin near the Rat River and hunted for his food.1 By the end of the year, Johnson's neighbors made formal complaints with the RCMP because they claimed Johnson destroyed their hunting traps.

On Dec. 31, 1931, four Mounties made the trek to Johnson’s cabin to talk to him about the trap vandalism allegations. Johnson greeted the RCMP with a hail of bullets and shot one of the officers, Constable A.W. King, in the chest. King was rushed to the nearest town, Aklavik, which was about 80 miles away. The wounded officer somehow survived the gunshot wound.1

When eight more Mounties showed up to arrest him about a week later, Johnson shot at them as soon as they were within range. The RCMP officers camped near the cabin for about a week. Their siege ended when they discovered that the fugitive snuck out his cabin.1

Despite the below freezing temperatures of the Arctic winter and blankets of snow and sheets of ice, Johnson was a hard man to find. The trackers in the posse believed he hid his footprints by walking through the tracks of caribou herds and by doubling back in old prints.1,2 

RCMP officers caught up with Johnson again at the end of January 1932, and another fire fight ensued. After this second shoot-out, one Mountie, Constable Edgar Miller, was dead and the Trapper escaped again. 

On Feb. 17, 1932, the Mounties spotted Johnson near the Eagle River, in the Yukon, and they exchanged gun fire a final time.2 When the smoke cleared another Mountie, Staff Sergeant E.F. Hersey, was wounded and Johnson was dead.3

The Mad Trapper's corpse was flown to Aklavik for an autopsy to see if more could be learned about the man who wounded two Mounties and killed a third. The pathologist reported that Johnson was emaciated at the time of his death, weighing only 145 pounds, which was about 30 pounds less than what was considered healthy for his frame. In his pockets they found $2,410 in cash, gold fillings, some pearls, and some gold dust.1

His body was later buried in an unmarked grave in an Aklavik cemetery.4

Police circulated the outlaw’s pictures, fingerprints and dental charts throughout Canada and the United States in the hopes of learning the Trapper's true identity.1 Although the RCMP received many tips, none of them were viable leads. The Mad Trapper of Rat River eventually became one of Canada's most famous true crime mysteries.

Theories about identity

Historian Dick North published The Mad Trapper of Rat River in 1972 in which he posited that "Albert Johnson" was Johnny Johnson, a criminal who served time in North Dakota and Montana about 10 years before Albert Johnson appeared in Canada.4 According to North's research, Johnny Johnson emigrated from Norway in the 1920's and had an appearance similar to the Mad Trapper.

Another possibility was Sigvald Haaskjold, a Norwegian man who left Norway in the early 1900’s to move to Canada. Sigvald's family did not hear from him after he left and always wondered what happened to him. One of Sigvald's descendants, who lived in Alberta, Canada, believed it was possible that the Trapper was his long-lost great uncle.1

The exhumation and examination

In 2007, documentary filmmakers Michael Jorgensen and Carrie Gour with Myth Merchant Films were granted permission to dig up the Mad Trapper's grave. Jorgensen and Gour also assembled a team of forensic scientists to examine the bones and take DNA samples for genetic and isotope testing. Barbara Smith recounts the exhumation, examination and testing in her book, The Mad Trapper: Unearthing a Mystery.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Owen Beattie, of the University of Alberta, estimated that Johnson was about 5'10" and 35-years-old, give or take nine years. Beattie discovered that he had scoliosis, or a curve to the spine, that would have caused back pain. The forensic anthropologist also found injuries consistent with gunshot wounds in his chest, pelvis and legs.1

Dr. Lynne Bell, a forensic anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, took nail, dental and bones samples for genetic and isotope analysis. From this data, Bell determined. Johnson was either from the midwestern United States or a Scandinavian country, like Norway.1

Smith writes that one of the things that shocked the scientists the most about the Trapper was the "very sophisticated dental work" that indicated "an upper socio-economic situation."1 According to Dr. David Sweet, a forensic odontologist at the University of British Columbia, there was "tooth-colored and gold fillings and a gold bridge." The gold fillings found on his body at the time of his death were likely from his own mouth. Sweet said access to that kind of extensive and sophisticated gold bridgework would have been "non-existent in the Far North” and only available to people with a lot of money.1

The mystery continues

Dozens of Canadians, including relatives of Johnny Johnson and Sigvald Haaskjold, donated DNA samples to see if the notorious murderer was their relative. Unfortunately, none of the samples were a match.1

Although the forensic team was not able to positively identify the Mad Trapper in 2007, they are hopeful that new technology is right around the corner that would enable them to learn more about his life.1

Johnson's skeletal remains were reburied in a new coffin after the examination.

It seems the Mad Trapper remains just as elusive in death as he was in life.

Works Cited

  1. Smith, B. (2009). The Mad Trapper: Unearthing a mystery. Toronto, Ontario: Heritage House Publishing.
  2. LeBlanc, J. (1967, July 28). The Mad Trapper flames needed no fuel. The Ottawa Journal, p. 7.
  3. Mad Trapper slain at last by Mounties. (1932, February 18). Lansing State Journal, p. 1.
  4. Was ‘Mad Trapper’ one-time North Dakota inmate? (1987, May 8). The Bismarck Tribune, p. 12.
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