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Mad Trapper, Part 2

2/17/2006:

Yesterday’s Dakota Datebook told of a tow-headed little Norwegian immigrant boy who grew up in Williams County, North Dakota, turned to a life of crime at age 16 and did time in three western state pens before vanishing in the early 1920s. Johnny Johnson knew how to handle a gun and was at home in the outdoors…when he wasn’t locked behind bars. He frequently changed his name and stayed on the moved.

On this day in 1932, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ‘got their man’ after an eight-week chase through some of the wildest and coldest territory in North America. The fugitive was known as Albert Johnson, now dubbed “The Mad Trapper of Rat River.” News of the epic chase was published far and wide, and as pieces of the puzzle were revealed down through the years, some, including Williams County historians, were convinced the Mad Trapper was in fact their very own local desperado…Johnny Johnson.

For years, Albert Johnson, a.k.a. Arthur Nelson had worked as a laborer for Canadian sawmills and mining operations and, in winter, turned to the solitary and more lucrative business of trapping. He didn’t usually stay in one place too long, and he volunteered little information about himself to those he encountered at trading posts and along the rivers and trails of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Trouble began when another trapper accused Johnson of encroaching on his territory—a fairly common complaint in the business. When the police made a routine call at Johnson’s cabin to investigate, Johnson made the mistake of letting his gun do the talking.

He didn’t seem to understand that wounding a Royal Canadian Mounted Police would not persuade them to leave him alone. A week later a larger and better-armed posse returned and was amazed to find smoke still rising from Johnson’s chimney. A seemingly lopsided battle ensued. When the smoke cleared and silence returned to the woods, Johnson’s log cabin was completely dismantled by explosives employed by the Mounties, and Johnson was gone.

The odds were against Johnson, who was alone on snowshoes, carrying a heavy pack. The Mounties had dogsleds and an airplane for surveillance and supplies. But Johnson was incredibly strong, and he knew how to use the mountainous terrain and life-threatening weather conditions to his advantage. Zigzagging and backtracking toward Alaska, he confused and evaded his pursuers for eight weeks.

But escape was not to be his. After one of the most arduous manhunts in Canadian history, a Fargo Forum headline read, “Mad Trapper – Killer Slain in Fight With Posse: Mounties ‘Get Their Man’ But Quarry Exacts Bloody Price.” In all, Johnson killed one Mountie and wounded two others before the “dramatic denouement of one of the greatest man hunts ever…Johnson fell under a hail of lead from a half dozen blazing rifles.”

Growing up in North Dakota, 16-year-old Johnny Johnson was inspired by stories of Wild West outlaws like Butch Cassidy, and one has to wonder if he hadn’t often imagined his own demise “under a hail of lead.”

But, was the Mad Trapper actually Johnny Johnson? The Williams County Historical Society thinks so. And so does Dick North, whose well-researched book describes his dogged pursuit of this story.

But, absolute certainty remains as elusive as Johnson himself.

Sources:

North, Dick. The Mad Trapper of Rat River: A True Story of Canada’s Biggest Manhunt Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2003.

“Mad Trapper – Killer Slain in Fight With Posse: Mounties ‘Get Their Man’ But Quarry Exacts Bloody Price” The Fargo Forum 18 Feb 1932, p.1.