Albert Johnson header.

Over the Divide

In the Arctic, however, the "other Albert Johnson" seemed to have disappeared completely. The advance party under Constable Sidney May had not been able to locate any trace of the fugitive following their initial discovery of his tracks leading towards the Barrier River pass. The lack of wood for fire, the scarcity of game and the absence of a clearly marked trail through the pass convinced most that Johnson would not try it. There were rumours that the Pass itself rose to a height of 8,000 feet and that its deep canyons were perpetually clogged with ice and snow. In actual fact, the pass was closer to 5,000 feet in height, which represented a climb of some 4,000 feet from the river plains. Later topographical surveys established the height of the highest mountain in the region at 5,480 feet.

Nevertheless, on February 12, Peter Alexei, an Indian runner from La Pierre House, mushed into the police camp to inform Inspector Eames that strange snowshoe tracks; identical to the description broadcast by radio of Johnson's tracks, had been found only two miles from La Pierre House!

Inspector Eames was incredulous. If this report was true, it meant that Johnson, in the heart of a blizzard, had travelled 90 miles in less than three days, crossing a mountain pass said to be impenetrable in winter. He was not alone in expressing admiration for the feat.

Eames decided upon a two-fold approach to the new situation. In the unlikely event that Johnson might try to slip back over the pass after having established his presence near La Pierre House, Eames had Capt. Wop freight in 8 pairs of wide snow shoes, suitable for soft snow, and with these outfitted a party under Constable Sidney May to follow Johnson's route through the pass itself. In the meantime, taking Quarter Master Sergeant Riddell and Carl Gardlund, Eames himself flew to La Pierre House to establish a new search headquarters.

Inspector Eames found an entirely different set of climatic conditions existing on the western side of the Divide. Where on the Rat River side the frozen tundra had provided ample snow-free terrain on which Johnson could travel without leaving prints, the western slopes and foothills were heavy with snow that retained marks even under conditions of blowing snow. The weather was warmer, but dense fog presented much the same visibility problem that the blizzards along the Barrier River had caused.


On St. Valentine's Day, February 14, Captain Wop May, having moved his make-shift flying field base from Aklavik to La Pierre House, took off at 3:05 p.m. From the air, it took only a minute or two to locate the clear trail left by Johnson 2 miles south of the trading post and track it to the Bell River.

Wop May followed the snowshoe prints down the Bell River noting that Johnson seemed to be making no effort to deviate from a straight line but appeared to be heading due west. Suddenly, he lost the scent when prints were obliterated by thousands of caribou hoof marks. Evidently, Johnson had overtaken a herd of caribou and had travelled with the animals, thus effectively concealing his path.

May was able to follow the caribou route to the mouth of the Eagle River, at which point he turned back, realizing that Johnson could not be far away.

At 3:20 p.m., a scant 15 minutes after take-off, Wop May was back at La Pierre House, detailing his discovery to Inspector Eames. In that short quarter-hour, he had accomplished what might have taken the posse days to achieve on foot. The four-day advantage Johnson had achieved by crossing the dreaded Barrier River Pass had been slashed to a 24-hour head start.

Dense fog shrouded the area on Monday, February 15, grounding the plane so that there was no way of tracing Johnson further. However, towards late afternoon the search party under Constable Sidney May arrived. Constable May reported that they had located several camps in the Pass established by Johnson, but once again careful search had failed to uncover any clues to his identity or eventual destination. Even with 8 men in their party, they had found the traverse "one hell of a trip", and they paid grudging respect to the man who had done it alone.

Tuesday, February 16, found the district still covered with fog, but Inspector Eames struck off to the junction of the Bell and Eagle Rivers. At the confluence of the two streams, traces of a trail were found heading south-west on the Eagle River, a wide, winding stream that wound through the flat country - at times actually winding back upon itself within the distance of a few hundred yards, so that the posse found themselves going south one hour and following the river north the next.

An additional concern that lent urgency to the search was the knowledge that Johnson's present course would take him near the isolated cabin of a trader named Barnstrum. No one knew the exact location. It had been planned to have Wop May cruise the area that day to locate the cabin from the air and alert its occupant to the danger of Johnson's presence, but the plane was still grounded by fog.

The possibility that Johnson, unable to throw off pursuit, might find the cabin and decide to make another desperate stand like the siege on the Rat River, was not a prospect Inspector Eames relished.

The posse kept on, doggedly eliminating every false trail. Carl Gardlund and Q.M.S. Riddell, waiting as other members of the posse explored the blind alleys and wrote them off, carefully marked the true trail for Wop May to follow by plane when the fog lifted.

Ahead of them - somewhere - Albert Johnson, both hands and feet frozen, his weight down from an approximate 170 to 145 pounds, his skin drawn tightly over his bearded face and starving features, kept doggedly laying out trail and counter trail. Unable to light a fire lest it lead the posse directly to him, unable to kill for food lest the sound of his rifle bring attention to his presence, he survived by snaring small game such as squirrels and by brewing tea over miniature fires concealed by burrowing small caves in the snow-crusted river banks. From time to time he climbed trees to survey his back trail or to lay out a course ahead.

By the evening of Tuesday, February 16, with Johnson's tracks appearing to be less than 24 hours old, the police posse bedded down on the Eagle River, some 25 miles air distance from La Pierre House. Inspector Eames was confident that if Johnson followed his usual pattern of travelling 2 false miles for every true mile, they must come upon him the next day. The camp was broken early on the morning of February 17, 1932, and after a hasty breakfast, the posse took up the trail, easily following the tracks despite the darkness. When dawn came, the freshness of the tracks indicated that they were rapidly overtaking their man.

The day dawned clear and fogless, indicating that Capt. Wop May would be joining the search at any moment. Except for the fringe of trees along the river banks, there was little covering on the shallow hills around, and any moving object would be clearly discernable from the air. If Johnson left the river, the plane would pick him up from the air and if he stayed on the river the posse would overtake him. Unless ... Inspector Eames did not underestimate his man.

It was nature that brought about the sudden, dramatic confrontation between the hunted and the hunters.

Shortly before noon, Albert Johnson left the bed of the Eagle River and climbed a tree on the bank to survey the countryside around him. From this vantage point, he apparently spotted the dark blotches of the posse against the white river bed. Because the river at that point circled back upon itself, Johnson appears to have believed that the posse was actually ahead of him and heading away from him, southward. In actual fact, it was moving towards another bend in the river which would bring them northwards again.

Returning to the river bed, Johnson began to back-track, south-ward, to draw away from the police party. A scant half mile further on, he trotted around a sharp bend in the river and found himself headed straight towards the dog sleds some 300 yards distance!

Staff Sergeant Earle Hersey, driving the lead sled, was no less surprised than Johnson as he rounded the same bend and discovered the elusive trapper jogging towards him.

Johnson was the first to react. Dropping to one knee, he unslung his snow shoes and laced them onto frozen feet with numb fingers, and by the time the Signals Corp man had stopped his dogs and snatched a rifle from the dog sled, Johnson was loping rapidly for the shelter of the river bank.

By the time Johnson had reached the comparative shelter of the bank, both Hersey and Joseph Verville, driver of the second sled who had pulled up beside Hersey, were firing at long range.

Albert Johnson began to return the fire and his main target was Hersey who was kneeling in the open. One of his bullets caught the Eagle River, showing loop Army man on the knee he was using for an elbow rest, glanced off the knee and the elbow and ranged upward into his chest.

As Hersey fell, Johnson transferred his attention to Joseph Verville.

By this time, however, the rest of the 12-man posse had arrived and Carl Gardlund and Frank Johnson had reached the river bank and were beginning to move upwards on both sides of the stream.

Leaving the shelter of the bank, which was too sharp to climb at that point, Albert Johnson began running back up the river, and despite the emaciated condition of his body, the weight of his heavy pack and the ungainliness of his snow shoes actually began to pull away from the posse. He appeared to be making his way diagonally toward the opposite bank of the river where the incline was not as steep and which would give him access to the trees.

Ignoring the repeated shouts of halt, Johnson ran doggedly until a rapid burst of rifle fire rippled the snow around him in mid-river. Suddenly, he went down.

Later, some members of the posse expressed the belief that a police bullet had struck him in the hip pocket, where it exploded some cartridges, tearing a huge hole in his hip, thus forcing him to the ground. Others felt that he had not been hit but may have decided to end it there.

Burrowing into a snow rift that ran up the centre of the Eagle River, Johnson dragged his pack into position in front of him and methodically and deliberately began to return the police fire. There was no panic, no shouted defiance, no acceptance of the inevitable. It almost seemed that Johnson, with his supreme confidence in himself, felt that he was going to emerge the victor!

Seeing that Johnson had no intention of surrendering, the posse began to work its way towards him along the tree-studded banks. While they called repeatedly to him to give up, they also maintained a steady sniper fire. In the end, some of the posse gained positions on the banks immediately overlooking his snow trench and from that moment the end was certain.

Though he had been hit by police bullets six times, Johnson fought on. He was in the very act of lying on his side, reloading his rifle when a bullet caught him in the spine and ended the desperate resistance.

Wop May, swooping over the scene again, saw that Johnson was sprawled out with his arm outslung and the rifle lying unattended. He waggled his wings to signal the end to the posse and circled to land on the frozen river.

Albert Johnson's Body on Eagle River
Albert Johnson's Body on Eagle River, picture taken from the aircraft.

Albert Johnson's Body
Albert Johnson's Body.

At 12:10 p.m., February 17, 1932, the police posse moved in to surround the body of Albert Johnson.

Staff SGT. Earl Hersey
Staff SGT. Earl Hersey.

It was first thought that Hersey had been hit three times by Johnson, for he was bleeding from wounds in the knee, the arm and the chest, but it was later discovered that one bullet had caused all three wounds. Fortunately, he was the only casualty. First aid was rendered and the wounded man was carried to the waiting plane, which at once took off for Aklavik.

Aware that his wounded passenger was not dressed to survive the cold that a hurdle over the Richardson Mountains would bring, Wop May kept the plane close to the ground, twisting and swerving through the narrow defiles of McDougall Pass with calculated abandon. Q.M.S. Riddell, who sat on the floor and cradled his comrade's head in his lap, vividly recalls the sight of craggy rock bluffs whizzing past the wing tips.

Within 50 minutes from the time he was struck, Earle Hersey was under the expert attendance of Dr. Urquhart. With the departure of the plane and the inert, fast freezing body of Albert Johnson testifying eloquently that the long, six-week manhunt was over, Inspector Eames began the process of tidying up the loose ends. While members of the posse grouped around the body, remarking upon the grimace that contorted the frozen features into a sneer of final hatred, Eames dispatched a party upriver to locate the cabin of Barnstrum to make sure that he had not already fallen victim to the savagery of Johnson's guns. It was this party that came across the tree which Johnson had climbed only minutes before and from which he had evidently made his only, and final error of calculation.

Loading the emaciated, bullet-ridden body onto the sled of Joseph Verville, Inspector Eames returned to La Pierre House. The following day, February 18, Captain Wop May flew the body of Johnson and his meagre possessions, to Aklavik, where an inquest was held.

The verdict was foregone: "We, the jury, find that the man known as Albert Johnson came to his death from concentrated rifle fire from a party composed of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and others, Johnson having been called upon to surrender by several members of the party and still deliberately resisted arrest, we are satisfied that no responsibility rests with any member of the party or the party as a whole. We are further satisfied from the evidence that the party had no other means of effecting Johnson's capture except by the method employed".

Shortly thereafter, Albert Johnson was buried in the Aklavik cemetery. In a land where trees are scarce, someone in later years dragged a large, bifurcated tree trunk to the spot and erected it. On one limb was painted the initial "A" and on the other "J".

Albert Johnson's Grave
Albert Johnson's Grave.

As far as the tired police and trappers of the Aklavik district were concerned, the matter ended there. Johnson was at last alone, where nobody could bother him.

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