WHO WAS THE MAD TRAPPER OF RAT RIVER?

AA3Albert Johnson, known as the Mad Trapper of Rat River, was a murderer and a fugitive from the largest manhunt in the history of Canada, leading a posse of Mounties through the Arctic on a six week, winter wilderness chase in 1932. He killed one Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and wounded two others before dying from police bullets in a firefight on a frozen river. Today, the Mad Trapper tale is symbolic of the North American frontier. He is an icon. A legend. But was he really Albert Johnson? Find out what modern forensic science tells us.

AA14The story began on July 9th, 1931, in the Northwest Territories when a stranger arrived in Fort McPherson. Constable Edgar Millen of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police routinely questioned the newcomer who identified himself as ‘Albert Johnson’ but provided no other personal information. Millen satisfied his responsibility to ensure Johnson was equipped for survival in a frontier land with sufficient money and supplies but thought it odd that Johnson declined to buy a trapping license. He noted Johnson was slight of stature, clean in appearance, and spoke with a Scandinavian accent.

Albert Johnson ventured far into the McKenzie Delta and built a small, log cabin on the banks of the Rat River where he reclused. Come the winter, local natives found their traps being raided and concluded the only suspect was Albert Johnson. They complained to the RCMP in Aklavik, causing two Mounties to dog-sled 60 miles through waist-deep snow, arriving at Johnson’s cabin on December 26th, 1931. Johnson was there but refused to speak, forcing the police to return to Aklavik and get a search warrant.

On December 31st four Mounties returned to Rat River. As they attempted to force into Albert Johnson’s shack, he shot at them with a 30-30 Savage rifle, seriously wounding a constable. The police retreated to form a larger posse.

AA1They came back with nine, heavily-armed men, forty-two dogs, and twenty pounds of dynamite. Johnson again opened fire, causing the police to hurl in explosives which blew the cabin apart. Rather than himself also being in pieces, Johnson emerged from a foxhole under the cabin and blasted back with his rifle. A 14-hour standoff, in -40F temperatures, took place until the posse backed-off to Aklavik for more help.

A severe blizzard delayed the return, but on January 14th, 1932, a huge squad of police and civilians arrived to find Albert Johnson long gone. The pursuers caught up with Johnson two weeks later far up the Rat River where Johnson opened fire from a thicket of trees on the bank and shot Constable Edgar Millen dead. Again the police retreated.

AA11By now the news of the manhunt had reached the outer world through an emerging medium called radio. Listeners all over Canada, the United States, and the world, were fixed to their sets to hear the latest on the cat and mouse game between a lone, deranged bushman and the might of the famed Canadian Mounties who ‘always got their man’. It was like the OJ Simpson case of the time.

The ‘Arctic Circle War’ represented the end of one era and the beginning of another as the police turned to technology to capture Albert Johnson. They embedded radio into another new tactic – the airplane. World War One flying ace W.R. ‘Wop’ May and his Bellanca monoplane were hired to find Johnson from the air and radio his position to the dogsled and snowshoe team on the ground.

On February 14, May spotted Johnson on the Eagle River in the Yukon Territory, confirming Johnson had traveled an incredible 150 miles, crossing a 7,000-foot mountain pass in white-out conditions, in temperatures with windchill hitting 60 below Fahrenheit. He’d eluded his trackers by wearing snowshoes backward and mingling with migrating caribou herds.

AA7The police overtook Johnson on a river bend on February 17th, 1932. It ended in a mass of bullets leaving another Mountie seriously wounded and Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, dead on the snow.

They sledded Johnson’s body back to Aklavik where it was examined, fingerprinted, and photographed. Remarkably, dental examination showed sophisticated, gold bridgework which indicated this man, age estimated at 35 – 40, came from an affluent background. In his effects was $2,410 in Canadian money (worth $34,000 today) but absolutely no documents on his identification. An extensive investigation ensued to find his true identity. His death photos and description were circulated word wide, causing some leads to come in, but nothing definite. No one came forward to claim the body and ‘Albert Johnson’ was buried in a perma-frost grave near the village of Aklavik.

Here are the GPS coordinates for significant Mad Trapper locations.

These latitudes and longitudes can be plugged into iTouch Maps for satellite viewing. https://itouchmap.com/latlong.html

  1. Cemetery / Gravesite at Aklavik:   +68.222979N   -135.010579W
  2. Trapper’s Cabin on Rat River:  +67.713444N  –135.127873W
  3. Settlement of Fort McPherson:  +67.436700N  -134.88100W
  4. Richardson Mountain Pass:  +67.278236N  -136.122161W
  5. Eagle River Death Scene:  +67.165926N  -137.172716W

AA12The Mad Trapper case was of enormous public interest, many sympathizing how a loner – almost super-human – could endure the environment, living off the land for forty-eight days and outwitting some of the most bush-wise and toughest people of the time. As with the mystery of Albert Johnson’s identity, so was the question of his motive.

Over the years, a number possible identities were offered for who ‘Albert Johnson’ really was.

AA8The most widely accepted theory was Arthur Nelson, a prospector who was known to be in British Columbia from 1927 to 1931 and had left for the Arctic. Photos of Nelson appeared to be a dead-ringer for ‘Albert Johnson’ and descriptions of Nelson’s effects (rifle, pack, and clothing) were identical to those recovered from Johnson.

Another promising lead was a man known as John Johnson, a Norwegian bank robber who’d done time in Folsom Prison. Again, the physical description was similar and the Scandinavian accent noted by Constable Millen seemed to fit.

The Johnson family of Nova Scotia identified the Mad Trapper as their lost relative, Owen Albert Johnson, who was last heard of in British Columbia in the late 1920’s. Again all the pieces fit – physical appearance, personal effects, and disposition.

AA6Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold was suggested as being the real ‘Albert Johnson’. Haaskjold, who was last seen in northern British Columbia in 1927, was a recluse who was paranoid of authorities because he’d evaded conscription in the First World War. He’d built a fortress-like cabin near Prince Rupert before disappearing. Once more the looks, age, accent, and mentality fit the Trapper’s profile.

As with advances in 1930’s technology like the radio and the airplane which tracked ‘Albert Johnson’ down, forensic technology in the twenty-first century came into play for a once-and-for-all attempt at solving the mystery of who the Mad Trapper of Rat River really was.

AA10In 2007, seventy-five years after his death, ‘Albert Johnson’ was exhumed for another look. As part of a Discovery Channel documentary, a team of eminent scientists including forensic odontologist and DNA extraction expert Dr. David Sweet, forensic pathologist Dr. Sam Andrews, and forensic archeologist Dr. Owen Beattie, examined the skeletonized remains.

This forensic story is every bit as exciting as the hunt for the Trapper himself.

It took a pile of wrangling to get legal approval for exhumation, then obtain the consent of native peoples who laid claim to the land in which the Trapper was interred. Due to permafrost, there was only a slight window of time when the archeological dig could be made. And the exact location of the grave was in doubt.

AA9Perseverance came down to the last available day when the team and film crew zeroed-in on a shallow grave with a rotten, wooden casket. Using archeological skill and precision, the forensic scientists carefully detached the lid and exposed a perfectly preserved male skeleton. There were no longer traces of flesh or fabric, but what gleamed in their faces was gold bridgework from a sneering skull. Dr. Sweet used dental records made in 1932 to positively identify the ghostly remains as that of the Mad Trapper.

The team cataloged the bones, making three interesting observations. One was a deformity in the spine which led to questions as to how the man could have performed the physical feats described in legend. Second was that one foot was considerably longer than the other, again questioning his mobility. And third was the entry and exit marks of a bullet path through the pelvis which was consistent to the reported fatal wound.

AA13The team had the right remains but were no further ahead in determining identity. Dr. Sweet sectioned the Trapper’s right femur and extracted bone marrow samples as well as pulling four teeth for DNA examination. The remains were replaced in a new casket and re-interred in the original grave.

Back at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Sweet and his colleagues developed a perfect DNA profile of the Trapper. Extensive field investigation located relatives of the primary suspects – Arthur Nelson, John Johnson, Owen Albert Johnson, and Sigvald Pedersen Haaskjold. Descendant DNA profiles were developed for these men and compared to the known biological signature of the Trapper.

And guess who’s DNA matched?

AA4No one’s.

All four suspects were conclusively eliminated by modern forensic technology as being the Mad Trapper – as were a number of other remote possibilities. One sidenote is that oxygen isotopes developed from the teeth enamel indicated that the Trapper originated from either the mid-western United States or from Scandinavia.

So who really was Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

The mystery of who lies in the Aklavik grave remains unsolved.

*   *   *

Here are links to the fascinating made-for-television documentary on the forensic exhumation of the Mad Trapper’s skeleton.

http://www.mythmerchantfilms.com/index.php/mnu-library/mnu-lib-madtrapper

https://vimeo.com/channels/vidalbdoc/65414821

And author Barbara Smith wrote The Mad Trapper – Unearthing a Mystery which documents the forensic adventure.  Click Here

36 thoughts on “WHO WAS THE MAD TRAPPER OF RAT RIVER?

  1. Eija Ferring

    I have been fascinated by this story for so many years and can’t help but think he must be a Finn. Has this theory ever been checked out? As I am Finnish myself I’d like to consider myself somewhat of an expert here and his features (the snub nose, cold blue eyes and light brownish hair), not to mention his Scandinavian accent and cold silent demeanor are very characteristically Finnish. The Finns were noted for their tough hardiness and survival skills. Their performance during the Winter War and Continuation War against Russia is a perfect legendary example. It is also known that the German soldiers have said the Finns were the dreaded and most feared soldiers. Over a million emigrated from this small country for probably as many countless reasons. Many completely cut ties with family so it’s not surprising that no one came forward at the time, however, other generations of this family might well be interested now in knowing who this long lost relative was. There are great records kept in Finland, although many had name changes once they arrived whether for simplicity sake or anonymity. I’d be eager to hear more on this theory and awaiting your response. Thank you in advance. Eija

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      There’s certainly a possibility that he might have been Finnish. The best profile anyone’s been able to make is that he was from the Scandinavian area and that would include Finland. Most people involved with the case believe that “Albert Johnson” was not his real name but may have been somewhat similar like Johannson. There’s an interesting possibility surfaced in Norway and our first DNA link test was negative. However, there may be a break in the biological chain and we’re now looking at a second avenue for the same suspect. Thanks for your comment, Eija.If you have a name to a possible suspect I’d be happy to look into it!

      Reply
  2. Robin

    Has there been any consideration into a White Army/Russian connection? If he was upper class Russian military, he could have been on the run. Possibly he could only speak a few words of English, hence his reticence to communicate. The high quality dental work would be explained, as well as his familiarity with firearms and cold terrain. The cultural differences could also explain some of his disposition- perhaps he was incapable of trusting anyone. And if he was White Army, he could have been a spy- which would mean a great deal of motivation to flee and stay hidden, considering what happened to White Army military personnel who were caught.

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      I’ve never heard a Russian connection suggested, Robin. It’s strongly suspected the Trapper was Scandanavian as the few people who spoke to him reported a Scandanavian accent. Also, his teeth isotopes indicate he either originated in lower Scandanavia or the mid-western US which is full of Scandinavian immigrants. I understand White Russians are from Belarus which is not that far southeast of lower Sweeden/Norway – so you never know. Whoever the Trapper was, he certainly had some motivation for being on the run. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  3. Carol Gagnon

    I understand that Albert Johnson ” Mad Trapper” was the father of Plessy Johnson, who married William roloson. OF Delhi, Ontario. Could she have been the DNA link to Albert Johnson.

    My interest is my – Grandmother was Helen Marlatt , also married to William Roloson. I believe after Plessy Johnson died? ( nataive american)

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Canada history: Feb 17, 1932: The end and beginning of the mystery of the Mad Trapper

  5. Pingback: Largest Manhunt In Canadian History- The Mad Trapper

  6. Jennifer

    Is there any truth to the clue in Kelley’s book, ie. that he was born in Bismarck, ND in 1897 to wealthy parents? Trapper George Case related that Albert told him that his mother was killed when he was 20 (1917) – she was 38 – and he murdered the person who killed his mother – hence his flight to Canada.

    Reply
  7. GW

    I recall the discovery channel special some years ago, and it was then that I realized that movies I had seen as a child in the 1970’s were based on this man’s story. In fact, as I write this Challenge to be Free is being shown on a movie channel !

    Is there any active investigation still being pursued at this time ? Or are there no more avenues left to investigate ?

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      There is a very good case to be made that Karl Stamnes (Stamnesfet @Johannson) may be who the Mad Trapper really was. I had a DNA test done on who we thought was the closest blood relative but that person was excluded as being genetically related. There’s a distinct possibility there was a break in the blood line and this still is the real Mad Trapper. I’m open to suggestions as to another relative on the male side to test.

      Reply
      1. James M Peters

        Has anyone tried tracing the guns serial numbers back to the original buyer and where they were shipped to by the manufacturer. If any of this could by found it might help in where he came from. If he bought the guns secondhand the trail will be much longer and harder to find but might prove worth the trouble.

        Reply
        1. Garry Rodgers Post author

          From what I’ve read in historical documents and the books written on the Mad Trapper case, the RCMP did follow up on the origins of the firearms. They reached a dead end because back in the late 1920’s there were no records of sale as there are today. I think it’s even less likely they could be traced today. Thanks for your comment, James.

          Reply
          1. James M Peters

            Thanks Garry for your reply I agree with you about record keeping in the 1920’s. My grandfather bought guns from the local hardware store this was the go-to place for hunting and fishing items back in the day. Not sure of the make of the trappers guns but have read Savage and Winchester. Again this is a long shot but original manufacturer might just still have the shipping records of where shipped when they were new. If they have any records my bet is some hardware or old catalog company if in the U.S. I agree this will probably lead to a dead end but might lend a little sport to where he might have come from. I am an outdoorsman from Western New York where we get lots of snow and cold weather. So I know from reading what the trapper did this was not his first rodeo in the cold and wild country. He was an expert in the field and this takes years to learn not a few months in the north country.

          2. Garry Rodgers Post author

            The Trapper’s main rifle was a Model 99 Savage chambered for the 30/30 Winchester cartridge. He had two other firearms – one was a sawed-off 12 Guage shotgun and the other was a .22 rimfire that had the stock removed. The Savage 99 was a very common rifle back in the 1920s and it could have originated from any supplier or outfitter across North America. There were no permits required then and it’s highly unlikely that records would have been kept regarding who bought rifles and shotguns in that era.

            I agree with you that this was not the Trapper’s first rodeo, James. What he did in attempting to outrun the police in those harsh conditions is virtually super-human.

  8. Peter

    Any News about this case. Did they ever test the Stamnesfet story. Good point about blood relatives. People where often adopted in Norway at the time.

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      Yes, the Stamnesfet test came back as not a match. That doesn’t mean it’s not where the Mad Trapper came from. It’s just that the person who we took a DNA sample from is not genetically related.

      Reply
  9. Lisa Parsley, RN, MSN

    Was the Mad Trapper’s DNA ever submitted to CODIS in the US, the DNA criminal national database? It could be useful to ID relatives. A request need only be submitted by the RCMP, and especially due to this being an unsolved killing of a law enforcement officer. The FBI will assist. Since most felons in the US must submit DNA to CODIS, this could be the key for finding the rest of the Mad Trapper’s fascinating story.

    Reply
  10. Geir Haaversen

    Hi
    I have gone through at lot of old letters and stuff after my father in laws parents and ancestors in Stamnes outside Bergen in Norway. Four of my wifes grand parents went to USA, and one if them was called Karl Johan Stamnesfet, he was born in 1877 (in Stamnesfet).If you google Stamneshella you will find it. He changed his name to Albert and his brothers Mons, Karl and sister Bertha lost contact with him. Mons then tells the others that Albert, the hunter that was killed by “the North west mountainpolice” was their brother Karl Johan. Some say Karl Johan Stamnesfet also called himself Karl Johnson before crossing when he was in USA, and that he was a crimminal there. I have not found anything about that. Googeling Albert Johnsen Canada 1932 i read about Tha mad trapper histories and found your page.
    All the best
    Geir

    Reply
  11. Dan

    Excellent article! There is a DNA sharing site known as gedmatch.com and if “Albert Johnsons” DNA was listed, it could be compared with anyone that submits their raw DNA to that site. This would be the easiest way to go about doing it, but I fear the DNA is property of Discovery and will never be released in such a manner. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

    Reply
  12. Garth

    are they still looking to do any test of DNA , where would you look to get tested ? This story was told by our grandparents in the 60’s

    Reply
        1. Garry Rodgers Post author

          That’s a hell of a good idea, Dan. Thanks for sharing this. I’d think that Discovery, or whoever holds the DNA sample, would be more than willing to share the profile. After all, the whole purpose of this exercise was to identify the “Mad Trapper”.

          Reply
  13. Dairn

    Was it ever confirmed that all of these suspects were blood relatives of those whose DNA was tested? If a suspect was an adopted child, DNA testing would not have worked.

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      Dairn – This is a brilliant question. You’re absolutely right about adoption not being associated to DNA. I have no idea if the suspects were looked at as blood relatives. Excellent comment!

      Reply
  14. Diana Frajman

    Great read Gary! I remember seeing the discovery channel doc a while back. What I love best about the story is the fact that this mystery is meant to stay just that. In today’s world of technology a story like this could never happen.

    Reply
  15. Cyd Madsen

    Amazing story. What gets me about things like this is how sturdy and powerful those in the grips of evil can be. It’s a common device in film to have the villain to get hit over and over again but still keep coming after the good guy. It seems that’s not just a convenience for the story but a reality. Any idea what gives evil so much power and resilience?

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      I think the age old struggle is good vs. evil, Cyd. It seems to be the universal story and I guess evil tries to find an equilrium because there is so much good in the world.

      Reply
  16. Sue Coletta

    Wow. It’s amazing that with today’s technology we still don’t know who is buried in this grave. I suppose it comes down to not having enough suspects to test against, and the age of the crime adds layers of problems as well. Fascinating story, Garry!

    Reply
    1. Garry Rodgers Post author

      Hi Sue! It’s great story and can be easiy solved if a suspect name surfaces and they test the mitochondrial DNA of a relative. That’s the hard part … finding a suspect name. I know one of the members of the forensic team involved and the group was really disappointed that they failed to identify the Mad Trapper. As each year goes by, I’d say it’s less likely as people die off and memories fade.

      Reply
      1. Karla

        I wonder if Ancestry.com could help? They have a huge amount of DNA samples from members all over the world. Submitting a DNA sample on yourself to find relatives is all the rage now.

        Reply
        1. Garry Rodgers Post author

          Very good suggestion. I think it’s just a matter of time before a DNA link finally identifies the Trapper. Somewhere out there, he’s related to someone. Thanks for commenting, Karla.

          Reply

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