Albert Johnson header.

The "Mad?" Trapper





The first news of the deadly little drama in the North West Territories reached the public on January 6, 1932, when the Canadian Press carried a dispatch giving the first scanty details of the near-fatal wounding of Constable A. W. King. Somewhere along the line, an over-enthusiastic reporter, re-write man or editor decided that the episode smacked of "cabin fever" and spoke of Johnson as a "crazed" and "demented man".

When on January 13, 1932, word reached the outside world via radio that Johnson had withstood the siege of the posse under Inspector Eames, the interest of the public was immediately riveted on the scene. With that peculiar trait of human behaviour that causes many to identify with the underdog, there was a great deal of sympathy expressed for Johnson and a good deal of secret admiration for his stand against the police.

People followed the progress of Constable A. W. King, lying on a hospital bed with a bullet an inch from his heart; they tried without success to picture the siege of the "fortress" on the Rat River; and they shivered at the deadly drama being played out somewhere on the edge of beyond.

Sensing the story of the decade, newspaper reporters began to search. Who was Albert Johnson? Where did he come from? What took him north and what brought on the duel with the police?

Though the daily accounts continued to refer to him as "demented", there were many who doubted . . . Later, flying in the face of all evidence to the contrary, popular writers tacked the sobriquet of "The Mad Trapper of Rat River", on Albert Johnson and the misnomer has lasted through the years.


THE SEARCH

After only two days of rest, and while preparations were going forward at police headquarters to mount a second, stronger posse, Constable Edgar Millen left Aklavik and followed the now familiar trail camp some distance from the Johnson cabin and reconnoitre the position to determine if the desperado was still there.

On the second day out of Aklavik, January 15, Millen and Gardlund ran into an arctic blizzard that was to last for three days. Under its cover, they were able to approach close to the cabin, and for the first time in daylight were able to assess the damage.

The front wall had been blown in and the roof with its heavy overlay of sod, had almost completely collapsed. As they stared at it, they found it difficult to believe that Johnson had survived.

Nevertheless, not only had Johnson survived, he had left - probably under cover of the same blizzard.

Closer examination of the cabin revealed nothing. There were no letters, papers or documents that gave them any indication of Johnson's past, present or future. A widening search unearthed the canoe that had transported him to this spot, and farther beyond they located his cache of supplies. Again, there was nothing in the cache to give them a clue to his identity.

Beyond the cabin and the cache, the severity of the blizzard had obliterated all signs of any trail left by Johnson on his flight.

After locating the shack of a Louchoux Indian family in the vicinity, Constable Millen dispatched the man with a note to Inspector Eames, who was to follow with a larger party, informing him of Johnson's departure. Then, with the experienced Carl Gardlund to assist him, he began a series of forays - during calm spells in the fitful blizzard - to try to locate some clue indicating which direction the fugitive might have taken.

While Millen and Gardlund scoured the bleak barren lands, Aklavik was a bustle of activity. Alerted by radio, most of the men and women of the district had fled their isolated cabins to seek the safety of the police headquarters. Many of the trappers, assessing the seriousness of the situation, volunteered their services in tracking down the outlaw of Rat River, and from these Inspector Eames chose John Parsons, an ex-member of the force; Frank Carmichael, another trapper from the district; and Noel Verville, a rough, tough trapper whose love of bar-room brawls was a community by-word.

On January 16, Inspector Eames left Aklavik with these men; Ernest Sutherland and the always-smiling Special Constable Lazarus Sittichiulis - already veterans of the Rat River battle; and two members of the Royal Canadian Signals who were stationed at Aklavik. These were Quarter Master Sergeant R. F. Riddell, of Westboro, Ontario, and Staff Sergeant Earle Hersey, who brought with them a two-way radio to improve communications between the posse and headquarters.

A short distance from Aklavik the posse ran into the same blizzard that was hampering the Millen party and for two days they fought their way through wind-whipped snow to the mouth of the Rat River. There they were met by Millen's messenger and learned for the first time that Johnson had left his cabin and was somewhere out in the swirling whiteness.

A base camp was established 9 miles east of Johnson's cabin and for the next 4 days, the party scoured the defiles of Rat River canyon, hoping to pick up some trace of the fugitive's trail. Old deserted cabins and every clump of trees had to be approached with extreme caution, and this slowed the progress of the search.

Constable Millen and Gardlund joined the party the next day, reporting that they had found no sign of Johnson's trail. Millen had found Johnson's trap lines, but evidently the trapper had not visited them for some time.

A small band of Louchoux Indians were recruited to speed up the search, but even the addition of 11 of their number failed to turn up any definite clue to the fugitive's passage. The blizzard, while it must have been a hardship to the outlaw, was also his friend in obliterating all tracks.

By January 21, with supplies for man and beast again running low, Inspector Eames dismissed the Indians and reconsidered his position. There were only sufficient supplies for about 4 more days of search with the large party, but by withdrawing most of his large party and allocating more supplies to an advance party, he felt he could continue the search for 9 or 10 days.

Deciding upon the latter course, Inspector Eames detailed the experienced Constable Edgar Millen to continue the search. His choice was probably influenced by the fact that the young constable was the only one who accurately could identify Johnson if he were encountered.

Millen was joined by Carl Gardlund, trapper Noel Verville and Staff Sergeant Riddell in charge of the radio. Leaving them with nine days supply of provisions, Eames retraced his steps to Aklavik to regroup his forces.

Plagued by the problem of logistics, Inspector Eames decided upon a base camp on the Rat River and, leaving Quarter Master Hersey R.C.S., there, he began to freight in supplies to this camp for a for a prolonged search.


GUN BATTLE!

Returning to the focal point - Johnson's shattered cabin - Constable Millen's party scoured the area and finally succeeded in finding faint traces of a trail at a portage near where the Bear River joins the Rat. Like most men in the north, Johnson had fashioned his own snowshoes and these left a track as individual and distinctive as a fingerprint. With extreme difficulty, owing to hard terrain and cold, they managed to follow the trail westward into the foothills of the Richardson Mountains that separated the North West Territories from the Yukon. Though their radio equipment was both receiver and transmitter, it proved useless to them except as a receiver. Because of the cold, there was insufficient power in the batteries to send signals and they were seldom in camp long enough to thaw them out for transmission.


Map of Route Taken.
Map of Route Taken.

In the higher country, towards which Johnson appeared to be heading, they lost the trail completely. They were still searching for it when an Indian runner arrived in camp on January 28th.

According to the messenger, 2 shots had been heard the day before, January 27, in the vicinity of the Bear River. Suspecting that it might have been Johnson replenishing his own food supplies, the 4 man posse retraced their steps to the river country.

There, thanks to a fresh fall of snow, they managed to pick up the trail made by Johnson's distinctive snowshoes. Obviously, the fugitive had doubled back from the hard, rocky terrain of the foothills and regained the tree fringes along the river banks.


Millen Cairn.
Original Millen Cairn.

Millen Cairn 2.
Millen Cairn restored by RCMP.

About 11:00 a.m., January 30, shortly after daybreak, the four men followed the tracks up a small creek (now called Millen Creek) which empties into the Rat River about one mile north of the confluence between the Rat and the Barrier River. Five miles up the creek, they saw that the trail led into a triangular clump of trees in the creek bed. A closer examination proved that no tracks were leading out of the tangle of trees and large boulders.

The posse split up. Riddell and Gardlund crossed the creek bed below Johnson's hiding spot and circled to a point on the river bank above the cluster of trees. From this vantage, they could see down into a ravine. Though they could not see Johnson, they could hear someone coughing occasionally. If it were the fugitive, he had chosen his camp well for the fallen tree trunks and large smooth boulders provided a natural fortification.

Once Gardlund and Riddell were in position, Constable Millen and Noel Verville began to descend the slope and approach the camp cautiously.

Suddenly, Johnson reacted to their stealthy approach. As Constable Millen passed an opening in some trees, Johnson fired at him with his high-powered 30-30 Savage rifle.

In that fleeting instant, Carl Gardlund caught a glimpse of Johnson and snapped off a shot at him. When Johnson flopped down out of sight, it was thought that he might have been hit.

Uninjured, Constable Millen joined his companions in pouring a rapid, if blind, fire into the concealed position. When there was no reply from Johnson, the conviction grew that Gardlund's first shot must have found its mark, but still, they made no move against the shelter. While Verville and Riddell were new to this deadly game, both Constable Millen and Carl Gardlund were wary veterans of the cabin siege and knew first-hand the cunning tactics of their man. Despite what the press outside might write about a "demented man", they knew that Johnson was desperate, dangerous and in full possession of all his mental faculties.

Said Riddell later: "As a precaution, we waited for over two hours, during which time there was no sign of movement behind Johnson's improvised shelter."

Believing Johnson to be either dead or too seriously injured to resist, Constable Millen led his four-man posse closer. "When we were within about 25 yards", Sergeant Riddell's account continued, "Johnson suddenly sprang up and fired on us, hitting Constable Millen."

While his companions scrambled for cover, Edgar Millen stood his ground.

It seemed almost inevitable that Millen and Johnson should meet face to face again. One was a desperate man who seemed to cherish an ancient grudge against the police a silent, baleful malevolence - and who knew no other law than the messianic reasonings of his own mind. The other was a dedicated man of the North, an individualist first and a policeman second, who in his own way was governed by many of the same motives as his quarry.

For a moment they faced each other. Constable Millen coolly and deliberately fired two shots, while Albert Johnson replied with three bursts from his Savage rifle. It was Constable Millen who fell.

When Sergeant Riddell regained the lip of the ravine a short distance away, he saw Millen lying inert in the snow. There was no sign of the trapper.

Riddell and Verville, protecting themselves against any further outburst from Johnson's deadly rifle, which had again fallen silent, kept up a steady sniper fire on the thicket while Gardlund, slithering forwards on his stomach in the snow, managed to tie Millen's shoelaces together and, using these as a handle, succeeded in dragging Millen back over the bank.

A quick examination proved that Constable Millen was dead.

With daylight already beginning to fade, the three remaining members of the party took turns firing blindly into the concealment, hoping to get Johnson to expose himself again, or to disable him with a lucky ricochet, but again the wily fugitive had resorted to his chief stratagem of silence.

Of all the puzzling aspects of the Albert Johnson incident, the silence of the man was one of the most peculiar. From the very moment of Constable King's first appearance at his Rat River cabin on December 27 until the inevitable end on Eagle River, it seemed that Johnson's attitude was one of stoical contempt for his adversaries - an Olympian aloofness from the activities of his pursuers, even to the point of relishing his own superiority. Whatever his reason for his hatred, he did not share it with them.

As Riddell had the fastest dog team, it was decided to dispatch him with news of Millen's death. After he set off into the gathering arctic darkness, Gardlund and Verville set to work at the grim task of constructing a stage cache, a pole platform raised above the ground, to hold Millen's body secure from prowling animals. That completed, they settled down to try to keep watch on the silent camp of Albert Johnson.

A short distance from Johnson's cabin, the speeding Riddell met Staff Sergeant Hersey and Special Constable Sittichiulis who had left with orders to relieve the Millen party. Hersey decided to continue on to join Verville and Gardlund, while the Indian, a huge, always smiling man, went back with Riddell to Aklavik.





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"Date Modified - June 21, 2024."


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