Who Was the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

By: Nathan Chandler  | 

Mad Trapper
A man named Albert Johnson led the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on one of the greatest chases in Canadian history in 1931. But "Albert Johnson" was most likely an alias and, to this day, the Mad Trapper of Rat River has not been identified. Wikimedia Commons/HowStuffWorks

In 1931, what started as a simple knock on the door from police quickly spiraled, as one man on the lam sparked the largest manhunt in Canada's history, generated a media frenzy, caused the wider adoption of a new technology, and resulted in a brutal, anonymous ending — one that could now see a resolution of sorts thanks to DNA testing.

But for the moment, we're left with as much legend as fact for the man known best by his sobriquet: "The Mad Trapper of Rat River."

We know little of his life story because no one really knows who he was. What we do know is that during the Great Depression, poverty pushed many people into frontier areas where wildlife was plentiful and there was the opportunity to perhaps live off the land and make a little money trapping.

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A Stranger in a Strange Land

And that's how our story begins. In July 1931, a stranger who became known through his alias, Albert Johnson, arrived in the vast remoteness of the Northwest Territories near Fort McPherson. He ventured farther from the fort and set up a small cabin near the Rat River.

A few months later, he reportedly interfered with traplines previously set by First Nations trappers, who complained to local constables about the matter. Three days later, two constables knocked on Johnson's door, but he ignored them.

Undeterred, Constable Alfred King traveled 80 miles (128 kilometers) to Aklavik for a search warrant, and then returned to the cabin in the wilds with three other constables. Just as Constable King knocked, a bullet blasted through the door and into his chest. After a brief gunfight, the other constables loaded King onto a dogsled and frantically dragged him to the nearest hospital — all the way back in Aklavik.

Officials, alarmed that a stranger would shoot an officer for no apparent reason other than a minor trapping squabble, assembled a posse led by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Inspector Alexander Eames.

Another gunfight ensued, but to no avail.

The constables threw dynamite onto the cabin's roof, which caused it to collapse. Still, Johnson kept shooting. After 15 hours, in the life-threatening temperatures near —45 degrees Fahrenheit (—43 degrees Celsius), the officers were forced to withdraw.

They returned four days later to find the cabin empty. One of the greatest chases of the 20th century had begun.

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The Chase Begins

"Inspector Eames led the RCMP posse that pursued the Trapper for seven weeks across the desolate Arctic landscape," says Michael Jorgensen, a filmmaker and producer for Myth Merchant Films in Alberta. "During one the firefights the Trapper shot and killed Constable Millen. In what, by all accounts is the first use of an aircraft in a manhunt, WWI Canadian fighter pilot Wop May helped narrow the search."

The story caught the public's imagination. A lone man, on the run in the dead of a brutal winter, through heavily forested mountains, relying on nothing but his wits for survival. His exploits trickled into the world via radio, which was at that point a new technology.

"This was the first big news story broadcast by electronic media across the continent as it was happening," says Jorgensen. Radio sales spiked.

And there were other odd twists along the way. As the story goes, the Mad Trapper never spoke to his pursuers. In each of his encounters with the authorities he was silent, with one exception — he may have laughed out loud when he shot and killed Constable Edgar Millen.

"I think what further captured the public's imagination was how an individual with the clothes on his back and carrying several firearms and little food out witted and outgunned the RCMP in one of the harshest environments on the planet," says Jorgensen.

Time and again, the pursuers thought they'd trapped their quarry. Time and again, he escaped. On the day he shot and killed Millen, Johnson, pinned in by a steep canyon, scaled a nearly vertical wall and vanished.

Finally, on Feb. 14, pilot Wop May (who'd taken part in the famous WWI dogfight that ended the Red Baron's life) spotted evidence of Johnson's trail. Three days later yet another shootout occurred, and Johnson shot another constable, who survived.

The Mad Trapper, however, was struck by several bullets and killed.

Mad Trapper
This post-mortem photograph of the man who called himself Albert Johnson was distributed throughout Canada after his death.
Flickr/Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Wikimedia Commons

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So Who Was That 'Mad' Man?

But there was still a burning question: Who was this man? Albert Johnson was clearly an alias.

In hopes of finding out, officials circulated the Mad Trapper's photograph. Although many tips poured in, none resulted in pinpointing his identity or motive.

"The 'who' of this story is the big mystery that would answer the 'why'," says Jorgensen. "Why did a Caucasian man leave society behind and move to the most northerly point of the continent and build a cabin on the edge of the Arctic Ocean? Why did he shoot an RCMP officer unprovoked and why was he so motivated and determined? Once we know the 'who', we can fill in the blanks of the Trapper's origin story."

Jorgensen says that while the media at the time dubbed him the Mad Trapper, he was neither a trapper, nor was he likely mad.

"If we hope to have any insight into his character and what motivated him we need to know his back story and the only way we can know that for certain is by using the DNA recovered from his exhumation in 2007 to uncover his family line."

A company named Othram is using genome sequencing to generate a genealogical profile for the mystery man. So far, the data show that the Mad Trapper had ties to Sweden and was Swedish-American.

“Othram uses advanced DNA testing to identify people from crime scenes, victims or suspects,” says David Mittelman, Othram’s CEO. “Michael (Jorgensen) heard about the work we were doing and asked if we could help. The case is obviously very old, but I think there is an importance to bringing answers to even the oldest cases. This case in particular also has historical significance and so I think many folks are interested in who this man was.”

To further connect the dots, Othram officials ask that if this matches your family history and you've ever participated in commercial DNA testing, you share your DNA profile them.

With a bit of luck, perhaps the 90-year-old secrets of Canada's most elusive fugitive may finally be unearthed.

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