Albert Johnson header.

The Siege on Rat River

Although Inspector Eames had equipped his first patrol-in-force with rifles, he had hardly expected this form of resistance from Johnson. While in the beginning there had been the suspicion of mental illness, there was a growing conviction, supported by years of experience in dealing with criminal behaviour, that the trapper's actions sprang from an intense hatred of police rather than depression brought on by isolation. The events of the next few weeks were to strengthen that belief. Somewhere, at some time, Johnson had had contact with police and from that experience had stemmed this bitter grudge.

Nevertheless, whatever the causes of Johnson's behaviour, it was The inspector's job was to bring him to justice, and this was to prove a formidable task.

McDowell and King.
Inspector E.N. Eames.

If Johnson refused surrender Eames had two alternatives - surround the cabin and try to wait him out, or break into the place and drag him out. In either case, the operation would require a large number of men, dogs and provisions. His command consisted of himself, 1 Corporal, 6 Constables and 1 Special. The other police post, Arctic Red River, had 2 Constables and 1 Special. Most of these men were required for regular duties.

If he sent a small posse, it might result in another rebuff from the entrenched trapper, for from all reports the cabin was sturdily constructed and probably impervious to bullets. If he sent a large assault force, he would have difficulty supplying them and the dogs over an 80-mile stretch.

To intensify his problems, the weather turned on January 2, 1932, and temperatures dropped into the 40-below zone! His final decision was to lead out a party of 7 men and 42 dogs.

The party which left Aklavik on January 4, 1932, comprised of Inspector Eames, Constable R. G. McDowell, Special Constables Bernard and Sittichiulis, and three trappers, Ernest Sutherland, Carl Gardlund and Knut Lang.

Aklavik, N.W.T.
Aklavik, N.W.T.

Radio messages were sent out by Corporal Wild to Constable Millen at Arctic Red River, instructing him to join the party at Arthur Blake's store on the Husky River, and to the Hudson's Bay trader at Fort McPherson, asking him to send Charlie Rat, an Indian guide, to Blake's post as well.

Reaching Blake's store at the Husky on the evening of January 5, Inspector Eames found himself already plagued by the problem of supply that was to hamper all efforts to bring Albert Johnson to bay. The intense cold not only decreased the efficiency of his force to 30 percent but increased the quantities of food necessary to maintain strength and heat. Even one day out of Aklavik dog supplies had to be replenished.

The following morning, heedful that Johnson's cabin was solidly constructed, Eames thoughtfully added 20 pounds of dynamite from Blake's storehouse. Joined by Constable Millen, the only one of the party who had ever seen Johnson face to face; and by Charlie Rat, Indian guide, Eames headed across the country to the Rat River.

Suspecting that Johnson might be expecting them to come up the Rat by the usual route followed by King on his two previous visits, Inspector Eames directed Charlie Rat to lead them in a path which would bring them to the cabin from the rear. A second reason for choosing a back route was that the normal trail led through a rugged canyon which varied from 200 to 600 feet in depth and which was dotted with several spots from which a determined killer could control the route. While no one believed that Johnson would try to ambush such a large party - the posse was equally divided between those who thought Johnson was still at his cabin and those who felt he would have fled - Inspector Eames planned to take no chances with this man who had shot without provocation or warning.

The detour was to have followed an old trap line, but Charlie Rat was either uncertain of his route or still! under the influence of too much New Year's celebration at Fort McPherson, for when the posse reached Rat River on January 7, they discovered that they were some 6 miles above the wanted man's cabin, rather than behind it.

More time was lost, more provisions consumed, and more strength drained as the party retraced its steps to the first camp. With the temperature still hovering around the 40-below mark, they spent the night of January 8 only a few miles from Johnson's place.

With supplies running low, and not trusting Charlie Rat's sense of direction again, Inspector Eames broke camp at daybreak, which was 10:30 a.m., and moved directly upriver to Johnson's cabin.

Albert Johnson was still there.

Using the high river bank which semi-circled on three sides of the sparsely wooded promontory, Eames moved to within 25 yards of the menacingly quiet cabin with its wistful plume of smoke and called on Johnson to come out.

When there was no reply, Eames repeated his command, adding that they were determined to arrest him and that resistance was useless.

Again they were met by the awful silence from the squat, earth-covered cabin. There was no shout of belligerence; no screamed cries of defiance, which normally accompany similar situations the world over. Whatever the source of Johnson's courage, he did not need to bolster it with war cries.

Inspector Eames set about the difficult task of bringing him out.

Except for a small stand of trees to the right of the cabin, it was surrounded by an open clearing for a distance of some 20 yards, with only here and there an isolated 12-inch wide tree trunk to render cover. Any advance would have to be made across that snow-covered clearing. As a posse member later remarked: "You never realize how skinny a tree is until you are trying to hide behind it with somebody shooting at you."

Spreading his men around the three sides of the clearing on the river bank, Inspector Eames "went over the top", followed closely by Constables Millen and McDowell. From other points along the river bank, Ernest Sutherland, Carl Gardlund and Knut Lang converged on the cabin.

Albert Johnson in Death.
Albert Johnson in Death.

Hardly had they cleared the river bank than Johnson began to pour rapid fire upon them from almost ground level. It appeared to McDowell that during the interval between his last trip and this one Johnson had fashioned loop-holes at various points at ground level from which he could cover every approach. Because the tree trunks which formed the walls were crooked, it had not been difficult to poke holes through the frozen mud between them.

Since the cabin itself was only about 8 feet by 12 feet, scarcely larger than a pool table, Albert Johnson was able to move quickly from point to point and to snap shots in the direction of any threatened attack. He had, too, evidently sawed off the butt and barrels of his shotgun and the .22 rifle and was using these short-range weapons effectively.

With little cover, the six attackers began a series of darting raids on the cabin, trying to get close enough to batter down the door with rifle butts as they ran along the front of the cabin. Their own bullets seemed to be having no effect on the log walls, and unless they could make an opening through which they could catch a glimpse of their quarry, Johnson appeared to have the advantage.

Finally, seizing a moment when Johnson was occupied on the other side of the cabin, Carl Gardlund and Knut Lang managed to jar the door loose as they ran along the front of the cabin. Through the opening Lang could see Johnson crouching in the well of the cabin. The trapper immediately spun and opened fire on them, shooting from both hands, and the men ducked for cover. Though Lang reported to Inspector Eames that Johnson had an automatic pistol in each hand, it is more likely that these were the sawed-off shotgun and .22 rifle that was later found in Johnson's possession.

heir first efforts repulsed, the police brought up their dog teams and made up a camp below the river bank. From time to time they could hear Johnson moving about in his cabin, propping the door firmly shut again.

Judging from Lang's brief glimpse of the interior of the cabin, Inspector Eames realized that it would be difficult to dislodge the man by riddling the structure with bullets and he gave orders for the dynamite to be thawed out.

With the early arrival of night, flares were lit and a constant vigil was kept on the cabin. Johnson seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition, for he fired at the slightest movement above the river banks.

When the dynamite was thawed - a tricky business even under ideal conditions - attempts were made to dislodge some logs by exploding charges against them in the manner of a grenade attack, but most of the "bombs" failed to explode and those that did made no impression on the walls.

Knute Lang.
Knute Lang.

Towards midnight, Knut Lang volunteered to try to toss a large charge onto the roof, hoping to weaken the cabin. A larger bomb was prepared.

Knut Lang, 6'4", was one of the fabulous characters of the north. He arrived at Aklavik in 1928, having worked his passage north by cutting wood on a Mackenzie River steamer. Landing with only an axe and his gun, Knut had soon carved himself a niche in the community. A self-educated man, he was known far and wide as a quick witted, generous giant. Later in life, after the Johnson affair, he became an outspoken and often politically disturbing voice on the North West Territorial Council.

While other members of the posse began a distracting cross-fire on the cabin to drive Johnson back from his loopholes, Knut Lang propelled his giant frame over the frozen bank, raced to the cabin and tossed the dynamite onto the roof.

The explosion scarcely caused a moment's interruption in the trapper's return fire and Lang had to scramble for cover. Beyond creating a small hole in the roof and blowing off the tin smoke stack, the dynamite had not altered the situation.

Towards 3.00 a.m. on the morning of January 10, Inspector Eames, conscious that his party was suffering from exposure to the intense cold, lack of sleep and running low on supplies for the dogs, decided to make one last try. They had laid siege to the wilderness "fort" for nearly 15 hours and its defender seemed as secure, determined - and defiantly silent - as in the beginning.

Thawing the remainder of the dynamite, nearly 4 pounds, he poised himself on the edge of the river with trapper Carl Gardlund behind him. In an effort worthy of a first-string quarterback, Eames arched the bundle of explosives across the 20 yard clearing. It exploded with a brilliant sharp sound against the front of the cabin.

Certain that the blast must have stunned Johnson, even if only momentarily, Inspector Eames and Carl Gardlund charged . It had been planned that if the dynamite exploded and blasted down the door, Gardlund would try to blind the occupant by throwing rays of a spotlight on him, while Eames would try to disarm him or disable him before he could recover. As they raced across the clearing, Gardlund switched on the light, revealing a tangled mass of logs and a cabin whose roof had caved in. Alerted by the crunch of their feet on the crisp snow, Albert Johnson, neither injured or stunned by the blast of dynamite - although the cabin had almost collapsed around him - opened fire. A well-aimed shot from his opening volley smashed the searchlight from Gardlund's hand.

Thwarted again, Inspector Eames and Gardlund retired under the cover of darkness.

Unable to continue the siege under the circumstances, Eames ordered his party to take a well-deserved hour of rest - the first they had had in the past 18 hours - and at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of January 10, he led them from the scene. Two days later, the police posse arrived back at Aklavik and for the first time since their departure they got some respite from the punishing cold.

Johnson Cabin, after Dynamite.
Johnson Cabin, after Dynamite.

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