Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

“The Mad Trapper of Rat River,” a 1930s Mystery in Canada’s North

Surviving several gun battles and eluding manhunts by the Mounties for weeks, trapper Albert Johnson was cornered and shot dead. Who was Albert Johnson?

The stark beauty and unusual possibilities draw adventurous spirits to Canada’s far north. Men – and women – make the arduous journey, some exploring for riches in gold or furs, others in search of seclusion and privacy. In the summer of 1931, a stranger, Albert Johnson, appeared one day in the northern community of Fort Macpherson in the Northwest Territories’ Mackenzie Delta. Flouting of the law and bearing a hostile need for seclusion, Johnston’s actions led to tragedy and confusion. Who was Albert Johnson?

Constables Visit Johnson’s Cabin

Settling on Rat River, Johnson built a cabin and began trapping for his living. He did not get the required trapper’s licence. In his mid-30s, Johnson gained a reputation as a malicious man, especially with the Louchoux Natives living in the region. RCMP Constable Edgar Millen was informed that Johnson “threatens and terrorizes them,” stated “Historical Highlights: The Mad Trapper” by the RCMP. On complaints by the natives, Constable Millen sent two of his men to get answers from Johnson.

Making the 20-kilometre trek from the hamlet of Aklavik to Rat River, Constables Alfred King and Joseph Bernard were not welcomed into Johnson’s cabin. He ignored their presence. The officers temporarily gave up and returned to the RCMP post. (Aklavik is located at the northern-most westerly corner of NWT bordering Yukon Territory.) Gathering two reinforcements, supplies and a warrant, the Constables returned to the Rat River cabin, arriving in the icy cold of December 31, 1931. This time, Johnson acknowledged their presence – with gunfire.

RCMP Constable Wounded

Constable King was badly wounded. “A hasty retreat and a 20 hour dog sled ride back to Aklavik saved the life of the Constable,” said Jack Harley in “The Mad Trapper of Rat River” in Mysteries of Canada. Police strategy was forced to change: Johnson was now a wanted man.

Johnson's cabin in splinters after he used dynamite on his own home

Johnson’s cabin in splinters after he used dynamite on his own home

In early January 1932, “with 9 men 42 dogs and 40 pounds of dynamite, a posse was determined to bring this fugitive in,” said Harley. Tossing the explosives into the cabin, “a massive explosion ripped the roof clean off with one of the walls caving in.” The Mounties were certain Johnson would have been killed in the tremendous blast and entered the cabin rubble to find his body. Emerging from a dugout formed in the cabin floor, Johnson fired at the unsuspecting policemen. After a 15-hour standoff, the posse departed for Aklavik, still without their man.

Manhunt on for Trapper

The RCMP returned to Rat Lake on January 16th with a larger band of officers and eleven Louchoux. This time there was no scuffle. Johnson was gone. Four members of the group lead by Constable Millen began a manhunt in the frozen winter terrain for the man dubbed the Mad Trapper of Rat River.

Pilot Wop May Assisted Manhunt

Almost two weeks later, the fugitive was located. Guns firing, Constable Millen took a direct hit to the chest and died. Johnson made a daring, improbable escape, “climbing a sheer cliff in the dead of night,” said Harley. The RCMP enlisted the help of World War One flying ace and bush pilot Wilfred “Wop” May to fly over the region and look for signs of the wanted man. In his monoplane equipped with skis, May spotted Johnson on February 17th in the Yukon. The pilot “directed the Mounties to a hairpin turn in the middle section of the Eagle River where a gun battle eventually brought Johnson down,” said Harley. “It took 9 bullets to Johnson’s body to finally end this 5 week ordeal.” No Mounties were killed in the fight, but one was injured in the shootout, Staff Sergeant H.F. Hersey of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.

Pilot Wop May and crew loading up the aircraft in Aklavik, NWT in the hunt for the Mad Trapper

Pilot Wop May and crew loading up the aircraft in Aklavik, NWT in the hunt for the Mad Trapper

Albert Johnson remained a mystery. “On Johnson’s person were found 32 kidney pills, $2,410 in large bills, both Canadian and American (worth approximately $60,000 today),” said the RCMP. The fugitive was carrying Winchester and Savage rifles and ammunition. No further identification was found, no information on where he came from, who was his family, where he belonged. Did he move to the north five years earlier under the name Alfred Nelson, as surmised by the RCMP? He was thought to be Canadian… but was he? Johnson’s remains were buried in the Aklavik cemetery.

Outlaw Johnson’s Past Unknown

Such a mystery spurred investigations over the years and again in 2007. Funded by Myth Merchant Films, Johnson’s remains were exhumed from the cemetery in proper manner, with respect and religious ceremony, said CBC News in “Mad Trapper’s remains surface in historic dig,” August 13, 2007; only bones, fingernails and hair remained. Samples were taken for DNA tests and Albert Johnson was re-interred. Tests suggested Johnson was not a Canadian but either an American from the mid-west states or of Scandinavian nationality. The man remains a mystery.

The outlaw exploits of Johnson became the foundation of poems, songs and stories. Author Dick North wrote two books about the mysterious Albert North: “The Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story of Canada’s Biggest Manhunt,” Lyons Press 2003, and “The Man Who Didn’t Fit In: How Canada’s Most Wanted Outlaw Began His Life of Crime,” Lyons Press 2006.


This article first appeared on in February 2013.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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