From: The Yukon and Northwest Territories, by Edward McCourt, 1969

The Mounties, we are told, always get their man. They donít, of course, but the legend, as is the way with all legends, has some foundation in truth. In the north country, until the airplane and automobile opened up fast escape routes to the criminal, the Mounties did in fact nearly always get their man, thereby creating the legend of their universal infallibility. But the men of the force would probably be the first to acknowledge that the nature of the country itself made the tracking-down of a criminal a relatively easy job.

In the big city a hunted man can often lose himself in the anonymity of the crowd, become one of the faceless millions. If he has the right connections he can find men and women of his own stamp to help him, hide him, if need be smuggle him out of the country. But the man who commits a crime in the far north is naked, exposed, and vulnerable under heaven; he has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. He may lead the pursuing policemen on interminable patrols, but the end is all but inevitable, for they know where he is and where he is heading. There is no town in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories big enough for a stranger to hide his face in, and a lone man wandering through the Yukon valleys or across the Barren Lands is an object of gossip and wonder to all who see him. In winter his chances of escape are even slimmer than in summer, for wherever he goes he leaves his trail behind him. So it is that the man who defies the law in the far north is almost certain sooner or later to be brought to justice; so it is, too, that the man of the north who holds the law at bay over a long period of time and wages a sustained, even though hopeless, struggle against all the forces it is able to pit against him must command the respect of all who admire cunning, courage, endurance, and a reckless disregard of odds.

Albert Johnson made his first known appearance in history at Fort McPherson in the summer of 1931 when he arrived in the settlement from points unknown and asked for mail. There was no mail for him, and there was no evidence then, nor has there been since, to show that Albert Johnson was the manís real name. But if not, why did he ask for mail? To call attention to himself? His immediate behaviour would suggest not. He bought a substantial grub-stake, paying for it from a fat roll of bills later estimated to contain about three thousand dollars, let slip to someone that he was bound for the Rat River country northwest of McPherson, but was generally uncommunicative and morose. After that he vanished from the sight of men as silently and mysteriously as he had come into it, and nothing more was heard of him until Christmas Day 1931, when several Indians [sic] came into the McPherson police station to report that a trapper living in a cabin near the mouth of the Rat River was interfering with their traplines.

On December 28 three policemen made the eighty-mile trip by dog team to the cabin where the man who called himself Albert Johnson was now holed up. They found themselves looking at a fortress -- a cabin built on an exposed point of land jutting out into the river and commanding an extensive view in three directions. The cabin was loopholed on all sides, and the door was only three feet high. The logs in the walls were a foot thick. Surrounding the cabin was a two-foot log barrier.

Johnson was inside the cabin when the patrol arrived but he refused to admit the policeman who knocked on his door. This without a spoken word. The police went away and returned with a search warrant. And this time, through a loophole in the door at little more than rifle-barrel range, Johnson shot Constable A. W. King through the body. The wounded policemanís companions opened fire on the foot-thick walls of the cabin, and under cover of the fusillade King crawled away on hands and knees and slid down the riverbank to shelter. The others then abandoned their futile firing and hurried their desperately wounded mate to the Anglican hospital in Aklavik, where he was shortly declared out of danger.

Inspector Eames, in charge of the Fort McPherson detachment, agreed with his men that the case was a freakish one. Why had Johnson built himself an almost impregnable fortress? Loopholed cabins were nearly unknown in the north country, but everything about Johnsonís set-up suggested that the man expected sooner or later to be under seige. Was he a man with a past who believed that pursuers were hot on his trail seeking vengeance for some long-since-committed crime? But if so why should he call attention to himself by deliberately and purposelessly interfering with the Indiansí traplines? Or was he simply a man gone queer in the head -- by no means an unusual occurance in the north country -- now suffering from a persecution complex and driven by some perverted instinct to seek a fight to the finish with the police? Was he a man who, hating life, hating people, was determined to show his contempt for both by thus summoning death, but only after he had shown his superiority to those who were attempting to make him conform to their pygmean laws?

It is unlikely that the Mounties at this time speculated much about Johnsonís nature or motives. It was sufficient to call the case an odd one and to seek to resolve it by an extravagantly dramatic and risky head-on assault on Johnsonís fortress. Inspector Eames himself led the storming party armed not only with rifles and revolvers but also with dynamite.

Accounts of the actual attack are inevitably confused; but it seems that the police formed some kind of flying phalanx, made a sudden rush and knocked the door off its hinges, then scattered, in the face of rapid rifle fire from inside the cabin. Johnson put the door back in place, and thereafter covered every move of the policemen from one or another of his various loopholes. Later, under cover of darkness, the police managed to toss a few pounds of dynamite against the cabin door. It exploded all right, but expended nearly all of its for in the wrong direction and did no damage to the door. One of the would-be attackers had his flashlight shot out of his hand, and they all withdrew to the shelter of the riverbank.

The temperature was sixty degrees below zero and food was running out. The policemen cursed the trapper, who was holed up warm and well-fed in his bullet-proof shelter, and trailed off through the bitter winter weather to Aklavik, their nearest source of supplies. When Eames returned ten days later with an augmented force and supplies to last a week or more, it was to find that Johnson had fled his cabin and vanished into the wilderness.

So began one of the longest and most dramatic pursuits of a wanted criminal in the history of the Mounted Police. The word was out, spread far and wide by newspaper and radio reports, that Johnson was mad. There was not then, of course, and never has been, any evidence to support the claim beyond the actions of the man, which conformed to no acceptable standards of normal behaviour. What earned Johnson the nickname of the Mad Trapper was not so much the violence of his actions as their seeming lack of motivation, their utter senselessness.

There was nothing senseless, though, about the conduct of his flight from the police, for it was now that he displayed that knowledge of the wilderness, that superlative cunning and endurance which won the admiration of the men whose task it was to track him down. Once, and only once, before the actual end of a three-weeks pursuit were the police able to close in on their quarry, although even then they did not actually see him -- this when Johnson was still in the Northwest Territories, doubling back and forth up and down countless ravines and creek beds, reluctant, it would seem, to be hunted out of the Rat River country he obviously knew so well. Six days after the start of the chase the four policemen of the pursuing patrol spotted smoke rising from the grove of heavy timber in the valley of a stream called Bear Creek and knew they had caught up with their man. And he was off guard, or he would never have lit a fire. Two of the constables at once took up a position from which they could cover the advance of their comrades on Johnsonís camp and shoot it out with the man if he chose to break out and fight rather than surrender.

Johnson, warned perhaps by the crunch of snow under a boot or the sound of a snapping twig, snatched up his rifle and through an opening in the trees shot at the two men who were closing in on him. At once the constables on the opposite bank of the creek who were covering the advance of their comrades poured a heavy fire into the timber grove, spraying what they thought was the campiste with bullets. There was no answering fire, and presently all four policemen moved in through the timber towards the spot where they expected to find Johnson lying helpless or dead.

Constable Millen was in charge of the patrol, Inspector Eames having gone back to Aklavik a day or two previously for fresh supplies. Constable Millen -- young, handsome, dashing, and brave, the beloved of the ladies wherever he had been posted -- now suddenly became the beloved of the gods. For he died instantly from a bullet through the heart. And Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper, a murderer now, vanished like a wraith without a member of the patrol having caught so much as a glimpse of him, fleeing far and fast in front of what was soon to be the greatest manhunt in the history of the north.

Johnson, after a period of indecision and backtracking, apparently made up his mind to make a break across the narrow northern end of the Yukon Territory, perhaps in the hope of finding sanctuary on the foreign soil of Alaska. He travelled with amazing speed, covering up to forty miles a day in weather that ranged from thirty to forty degrees below zero, camping cold in the brief daytime, travelling mostly by night, and living off the land on a diet of ptarmigan and rabbit as he travelled -- all the time displaying the most extraordinary cunning in either hiding his tracks or leaving behind him a trail whose complexities at times slowed his pursuers to a standstill.

Eight days after he killed Millen, Johnson was spotted from the air. The man was a murderer, and perhaps insane, but the airplane, piloted by Wop May, one of the most famous of all northern pilots, seems an unfair addition to the paraphernalia of pursuit, tipping the odds as it did hopelessly against the fugitive. Although, no doubt, it mercifully speeded up the inevitable end. The police patrol, still under the command of Inspector Eames but now made up almost entirely of veteran northerners who had been sworn in as special constables, followed hard on the trail that Johnson broke for them, but it was not until three full days after Wop May had reported spotting Johnson crossing into the Yukon that a policeman caught sight of the fugitive -- this for the first time in six weeks. Sergeant Hersey of the Royal Canadian Signals saw Johnson backtracking towards him down a riverbed less than three hundred yards away. Both men were taken by surprise, but Johnsonís reactions were the quicker. Hersey took two bullets in the body and dropped seriously wounded in the snow. Johnson wheeled in his tracks and fled upriver with the police in full cry behind him.

Albert Johnson the Mad Trapper, on the run for six weeks in savagely cold weather, half-starved, exhausted, burdened with rifle and pack-sack, was none the less drawing away from the pursuing policemen in that last desperate race, when the airplane moved in to decide the issue. Wop May swung in slow circles over the fleeing man and shook him out of his hitherto indomitable poise and assurance. For some reason Johnson panicked. He zigzagged back and forth across the river -- perhaps he expected to be shot at from the air -- then broke into the open where he could find no cover of any kind. And there he dropped suddenly in the snow behind his pack-sack and shot back at the encircling policemen as long as there was life left in his incredibly tough, bullet-riddled body.

From that day to this no one has cast any new light on the circumstances leading to the death of Albert Johnson in the bleak Yukon wilderness. The man remains the Mad Trapper, the killer who without motive, without cause, seems to have deliberately gone out of his way to challenge the authority of the law in the Canadian north and to have successfully defied that law for six terrible weeks, being in the end beaten not by the powers of earth but of air. His memorial is significant as a revelation of the impact he made on the people of the north. No headstone, no plaque, but a ballad which is sure proof of the way in which the story of the Mad Trapper has become a part of our nationís folklore:

For thirty days and thirty nights
Across the snow he fled;
The Mounties followed with one thought -
ĎAvenge our comrade dead!í...

The Trapper stood them off by land,
But could not guard the sky;
With men below and plane above
He could but fight and die....

No past, no name the man revealed
With his last blood-choked breath;
His body lies in earth concealed,
His secret hid in death.

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