Albert Johnson header.

The Third Large Posse





On their arrival at Aklavik, their news of Millen's death decided Inspector Eames to send Ernest Sutherland, Special Constable. Hatting and the Reverend Thomas Murry, Anglican Minister, ahead to reinforce the party keeping vigil over Johnson's hiding place.

Still not completely satisfied with his efforts to build up a supply base on the Rat River, the Inspector felt impelled by the growing seriousness of the situation to move out on February 2 with a third large posse. Thus far Johnson had only fought when attacked or cornered, but there was no assurance that he might not attack a small party of police if he found an advantage. The very method of his operation seemed to suggest more than a passing familiarity with strategy and firearms and a possible military or police background - such as his coolness under fire and his husbanding of ammunition wisely. Eames completely discounted the press theory that Johnson was mad. In his official report of the manhunt, Eames wrote: "I note in press reports that Johnson is referred to as the 'demented trapper'. On the contrary, he showed himself to be an extremely shrewd and resolute man, capable of quick thought and action. A tough and desperate character."

To complicate the Inspector's job, radio communications, which had been excellent throughout January, deteriorated. Nevertheless, an alert was broadcast repeatedly for volunteers to assemble at Fort McPherson or Blake's store on the Husky.

On Tuesday, February 2, 1932, Inspector Eames took Q.M.S. Riddell, Special Constable Sittichiulis and three trappers, Constant Ethier, an ex-constable, and Peter Strandberg and Ernest Maring. Detouring by way of Fort McPherson, he added the giant Knut Lang and Frank Carmichael. Stopping at Arthur Blake's store, he collected August Tardiff and John Greenland.

Although he was already beginning to suffer from the illness that was to deprive him of life on April 24, 1935, a scant three years in the future, Arthur Blake rose to the desperation of the occasion by accompanying them.

Owing to heavy winds and frequent blizzards in the country, the going was extremely difficult and the posse had to break trail constantly for the dogs between Blake's post as far up the Rat River as the confluence of the Barrier River. At that camp, Eames learned using his wireless that the airplane he had requested to assist in the manhunt had left Edmonton on February 3. Even then, with 1800 miles to cover, short flying hours and the constant storms, he realized that it would be some time before he could count upon its help.

On Friday, February 5, the main posse linked up with the advance party at the creek where Constable Edgar Millen had been slain. At that point, there were at least 17 men actively engaged in trying to trap the trapper of Rat River, and of these only Inspector Eames was a regular policeman.

For the first time since the death of Millen, an advance was made on Johnson's last known camp on the creek bed. It was no surprise, however, to find that the wily Johnson had slipped away again, either under cover of darkness or during one of the frequent storms that had molested the area for the previous week. The absence of blood in the camp seemed to indicate that the man was unwounded, despite the furious fusillade the Millen party had poured into his hideout. Again, though a thorough search was made, there was not a scrap of paper or document to indicate the man's identity.

The whole of that day was spent searching the ravine of Millen's Creek, which was some 9 miles in length, but all trace of the elusive trapper had been wiped out by the drifting snow. From that point, the search extended westward towards the larger foothills of the Richardson Mountains which were separated with numerous creeks in deep ravines. Between these numerous creeks, each bordered with ribbons of stunted tree growth, the country was a bleak frozen tundra, covered with snow that had been packed and hardened by the ceaseless winds. Any loose snow on the surface of the tundra drifted readily under these circumstances, quickly obliterating the track of man, or animal.

While the main search focused along the Barrier River, small individual parties spread out in all directions. It was one of these parties which first located Johnson's tracks on February 6, leading along the bed of a small creek. For a while, the situation looked brighter, but the enthusiasm dampened when the tracks ascended the bank of the creek and disappeared in the frozen tundra.

A day later, another trail was located in a creek bed some 4 miles distance, parallelling the first and travelling in the same direction. Far from fleeing the area, Johnson seemed to be playing a cat-and-mouse game with the pursuers.

On another occasion, two sets of trackers, following two individual sets of prints, suddenly found themselves face to face. It was realized then that Johnson was evidently reversing his snow shoes in a further effort to deceive them.

Several times, with two or three days head start, Johnson had ample opportunity, especially with his skill at concealing his trail, to vanish completely from the district and make his way southward, but for some unknown reason he was lingering in the area, circling back frequently on his trail and at times obviously watching the pursuit from a distance. Was he waiting for an opportunity to ambush an unwary party, or simply demonstrating his superiority?

Meanwhile, in response to Inspector Eames's request for aerial assistance, Captain W. R. "Wop" May, accompanied by his mechanic Jack Bowen, had left for the north on February 3, 1932, in a black and orange Bellanca monoplane owned by Canadian Airways. With them was Constable William S. Carter of Edmonton, who had just completed a tour of duty in the Aklavik area and knew the Rat River district intimately.


Wop May and Jack Bowen.
Wop May and Jack Bowen.

Captain "Wop" May, one of the original bush pilots who opened the northland to rapid transportation, had a fabulous career behind him. Born in Carberry, Manitoba in 1896, May enlisted in the Royal Flying Corp during the First World War and on one of his first missions over enemy lines in 1918 decoyed Germany's ace, Baron Von Richthofen into the guns of a fellow pilot, Roy Brown. May himself went on from that exploit to shoot down 13 enemy planes and establish himself as a Canadian ace. He came out of the war with the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Captain's rank, and a life-long love of flying.


W.R. 'Wop' May, During Manhunt.
W.R. "Wop" May, During Manhunt.

Flying out of Fort Macmurray, Captain Wop May came north by way of Fort Smith, Simpson, Norman and Arctic Red River, which they reached on February 6. After several attempts to locate Inspector Eames' camp, the trio continued to Aklavik.

On Sunday, February 7, May located the Eames posse on the Barrier River, and after delivering Constable Carter, took off with Staff Sergeant Riddell with instructions to try to locate Johnson's trail from the air.

Covering in short minutes what cost the posse a day or more of difficult land travel, Riddell was quickly able to spot and eliminate leads and false leads. As the pattern developed, it appeared that Johnson had never been far from his pursuers! Said Riddell: "At one place a trail led off, heading directly for the divide (between the Yukon and the Territories), and also another trail, just as fresh looking, continued on up the Barrier River. It ended abruptly.

"Later on, we discovered another faint trail leading from this and ending in a circle. Evidently, Johnson had circled back on his own trail and camped for the night just off his main trail so that he could watch it . . ."

The camp was moved up to the junction of these two trails and the search on foot was intensified. The arrival of the airplane had now shortened travel time to Aklavik to 25 minutes, and Inspector Eames used Wop May's machine to freight in a steady stream of supplies. On Monday, the 8th, May freighted in 700 pounds of food and took out the body of Constable Millen.

That same day, indicative of the tremendous stamina of the hunted man, searchers found a third set of tracks, on another creek, parallelling the other two main trails, which had been laid down by the fugitive!


Q.M. SGT. R.F.Riddell
Q.M. SGT. R. F. Riddell.

Nevertheless, despite the abundance of tracks, the advent of the plane and the number of men who were actively engaged in scouring the countryside, the posse appeared to be no closer to cornering their dangerous adversary. In a course of conduct, which had it been displayed in wartime would certainly have merited a Victoria Cross, Johnson was out-thinking, out-running and out-enduring his enemies.

On the afternoon of February 8, surprise reinforcements arrived at the Eames camp. As a result of orders from Ottawa headquarters, the officer commanding the R.C.M.P. in the Yukon had broadcast a message over Dawson radio, alerting all patrols in the district of the situation that existed in the adjacent Territories. On receipt of the message, Constable Sidney W. May (no relation), led out a party of 5 volunteers from the police outpost of Old Crow on the Bell River and, travelling by way of La Pierre House, Loon Lake, and McDougall Pass, linked up with the main posse. Among his party were Frank Jackson, a huge, grey-haired trapper from La Pierre House; Frank Hogg, a trapper from Old Crow; and two Indian volunteers.

Another howling blizzard swept the area on February 9, not only grounding the plane at Aklavik but almost burying it beneath drifting snow. Not until the 10th was it airborne again. In the meantime, a small patrol led by new-corner Constable May went as far as the timberline on the Barrier River and discovered tracks made by Johnson clearly leading into the Richardson Mountains and towards the Yukon divide.

Outwardly it appeared that the outlaw, either tiring of his cat-and-mouse game or unable to cope with the menace posed by the airplane, was fleeing westward toward Alaska. However, it was still possible this was another trick and that he was still in the vicinity after sowing still another false flower of hope.

The Indians in the posse were positive that Johnson was still on the east side of the divide and they assured Inspector Eames that no one could cross the 5,000-foot range of mountains alone in winter. Well aware of the incredible endurance and strength of this man, Eames was just as certain that while Johnson might not be able to cross the snow-clogged mountain pass at the head of the Barrier River, he certainly had the courage and the skill to attempt to do so.

However, once again the problem of logistics came into the picture and the Inspector was forced to withdraw his huge posse from the Barrier River and return to base camp on the Rat - leaving only a small party under Constable Sidney May to watch for Johnson. During the 10th, 11th and 12th of February, Eames waited while Wop May and Bowen flew in load after load of supplies.


JOHNSON IDENTIFIED

While the build-up progressed on the fringe of the Arctic, the Canadian Press had not been idle. The whole bizarre case had caught the fancy of the reading public from Victoria to St. Johns and every scrap of information was eagerly devoured. Fed on an almost daily diet of depression news, shocked by the sight of breadlines beginning to form, and frightened by the prospect that their job security might not be there on the morrow, people seemed to welcome the opportunity to become involved in the dramatic manhunt in the north.

The chief factor which helped to create and sustain interest in the affair was the lack of concrete information. The news that did filter down from Aklavik, hampered by poor radio communications, was remarkably accurate, but there was precious little of it. Literally, days passed without any new development. Anyone with a vivid imagination had a field day! As with every noted criminal whose exploits achieve publicity, there was a good deal of secret sympathy for Johnson and there were many otherwise sensible citizens who "hoped he would get away". One of the main problems was that nobody seemed to know who "he" was.

Then, on February 11, 1932, newspapers across the country carried a photograph of Albert Johnson on their front pages! The photo was obviously that of a trapper, complete to the fur hat, and it took little imagination to picture him jogging across the tundra with a rifle slung across his back; but strangely, there was little biographical material to go with the photo. He was simply identified as Albert Johnson, the trapper who had killed Constable Millen. The public, with the utmost faith in their papers, surmised that complete biographical details would be forthcoming in later editions.

Those details never came.

There was one man who was more moved than most by the sight of the Albert Johnson who peered intently from beneath the fur cap on the front pages of the newspapers from Victoria to Montreal. He was Albert Johnson, of Princeton, British Columbia, and he was hopping mad. He marched into the offices of a large newspaper in Vancouver and demanded an instant retraction of the photo and story.

He was the man in the photograph and he was Albert Johnson and he had been in the North West Territories as a trapper, but he was not "demented" and he had not killed anybody and he certainly was not wanted by the police.

Muttering dire threats about lawsuits and libel and the like, the real Albert Johnson was finally placated and assured that the photograph would be withdrawn. It was interesting to note that the real Albert Johnson, quite a famous character in Princeton, was more concerned about the insinuation that he was "mad" than that he was the "other Albert Johnson".






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