Albert Johnson header.

Who was Albert Johnson

From the very moment of his entrance to the Territories, Johnson had maintained a close-lipped silence about his identity and his past. No scrap of evidence or written documents had been found at his cabin, his cache, or his several emergency camps. When searched at La Pierre House, shortly after his death, neither pockets nor pack sack yielded any mark of identification!

In the official police report, covering the Johnson episode, it was suggested that Johnson was a man from Alaska who had carried on a campaign of terror there before fleeing to the North West Territories. It is doubtful if even the writer of the report took this theory seriously.

Captain Wop May, in a rather lurid and serialized account in the old Canadian publication of True Detective Mysteries, called "Trapping The Mad Trapper Of Rat River", postulated the theory that Johnson was a man named Coyote Bill, wanted for the hold-up and murder of a superintendent of an irrigation company in Idaho in 1930, and based his surmise on the fact that a photograph of Coyote Bill bore a striking resemblance to that of Johnson. However, Wop May had never seen Johnson, except in death, and even then under less than ideal conditions.

Like the Wop May theory, most "identifications" sprang from some one piece of evidence, rather than a careful examination of the whole. For example, the fact that Johnson had a large quantity of money on his person, some of it American, brought forth the widespread suggestion that he might have been an American bank robber.

The known evidence is as follows:

When examined at La Pierre House by Inspector A. N. Eames, Johnson was found to have a model 99 Savage 30-30 rifle with 39 shells, one of which was found beneath the butt plate of the gun. He also possessed a .22 Winchester rifle, sawed off at the butt, with 84 shells for it. The Ivor Johnson, 16 gauge shotgun, with 5 shells, had both the barrels sawed off and the wooden butt removed so that it resembled almost a handgun. The shotgun was purchased in Fort McPherson, but efforts to trace the two rifles have proved fruitless.

Likewise, his bedroll, packsack, small compass, a lard tin used for brewing tea, and a single-bitted axe, appear to have been purchased in Fort McPherson in the summer of 1931 and offer nothing in the way of evidence.

Albert Johnson's Guns1
Albert Johnson's Guns.

Albert Johnson's guns2
Albert Johnson's possessions, note bullet graze on axe handle.

Albert Johnson's guns2
Albert Johnson's possessions, RCMP Museum.

In his possession was found $2,410.00. This was in the form of $20's, $50's and $100's. There were three American bills - two five's and a ten. Considering his expenditure at Fort McPherson, Johnson probably had some $3,000 in his possession when he arrived in July 1931. That was a large sum of money during the Depression years!

There were two small bottles. One contained 5 small pearls, estimated at $15, and the other held five pieces of dental bridgework, all of them small.

There was also a number of pills, 32 in number, included in his effects.

These smaller possessions were all carefully wrapped in cloth and carried in various pockets of his clothing.

On February 20, 1932, Dr. Urquhart conducted a physical examination of the body. He reported that the man known as Albert Johnson was 5 foot, 9 inches in height, chest of 34 inches, estimated weight 145 to 150 pounds. He had light brown hair, beginning to recede on the forehead; a light brown beard and mustache, less than a month old; pale blue eyes; snubbed, up-turned nose; moderate prominence of cheekbones; ears definitely lobed, low set and close to the head.

The body was clean of scars, with only a small mole, 2 inches to the left of the spine in the mid-lumbar region. There was no evidence of old fractures.

The teeth were well cared for, though they had been neglected for a period of some months. In the upper left jaw, the third molar and wisdom teeth had been extracted. There was a silver filling in the second molar and a gold filling in the second incisor. In the upper right jaw, the first molar, third molar and wisdom teeth had been extracted; a bicuspid had been extracted and the second molar had had a large anterior filling, which had dropped out.

In the lower, left jaw, the second and third molars had been removed; while in the lower left section, a gold bridge extended from the bicuspid to the third molar, both of which were gold crowned. The wisdom tooth had been extracted.

Fingerprints taken from the body were sent to R.C.M.P. headquarters at Ottawa, and also to Washington, but no link-up with any criminal prints on either set of files was forthcoming.

Some meagre psychiatric diagnoses can be made from his known behaviour, but these add little towards a positive identification. There was no evidence of psychosis; he was probably of Scandinavian origin and came from a large family. He was undoubtedly of above-average intelligence and rated higher in the performance tests than the verbal. His previous life experiences had included some traumatic incidents which had forced him to write off other human beings as a source of help and rely completely upon his own resources in meeting situations. This incident, or series of incidents, probably involved considerable contact with police or army authorities. There is clear evidence in his behaviour to indicate either police or army training, in fact, probable wartime or police experience.

Constable T. E. G. Shaw, now Staff Sergeant and Editor of the R.C.M.P. Quarterly, an authority on the Johnson affair, indicates that Albert Johnson may have been the same man as one, Arthur Nelson, who arrived in the Yukon in 1927.

Arthur Nelson
Arthur Nelson.

Like Johnson, Nelson was a loner and of Scandinavian origin. The physical features and structure bore many points of similarity. He owned a Savage 30-30 rifle and a .22 rifle.

After trapping around the Fort Ross-Mayo area for the next few years, making no friends and revealing little about himself, Arthur Nelson headed north-eastward in May 1931 - a direction which could take him into the vicinity of the headwaters of the Peel River. He travelled light, with only a packsack and a rifle. He was last seen near the head of the Beaver River. Arthur Nelson vanished.

Sergeant James R. Purdie, attempting to trace the money found in Albert Johnson's possession, was able to identify two of the $50 bills. One had been sent to the Bank of Montreal, Mayo, on March 22, 1928; the other was received at the bank's Dawson branch on September 7, 1926.

Significant was the fact that Arthur Nelson had received $680, the proceeds of a fur sale, from the Mayo bank some six months after the bill found in Johnson's possession was received there.

Another interesting piece of information unearthed by Staff Sergeant Shaw was that the man known as Arthur Nelson had purchased a large quantity of kidney pills - six boxes in all - at Mayo in the spring of 1931 and that similar pills were found in Johnson's possession after his death.

The amount of evidence amassed seems clearly to point to a relationship between Nelson and Johnson, but whether they were one and the same man is inconclusive. Details of the career of Arthur Nelson were not obtained by the R.C.M.P. until August 1933, nearly two years after the gun battle on the Eagle River, and although persons who had known Nelson were shown photographs of Johnson they were unable to make identification from the frozen, starved features. They "thought the man could be Nelson".

If Nelson were Johnson, he would have had little difficulty in travelling from the head of the Beaver River to Fort McPherson in less than the period from mid-May when he was last seen in the Yukon and July 9, when he was first seen at Fort McPherson. But, if so, why had he changed his name?

Another grim possibility remains and that is that Johnson met Arthur Nelson, killed and robbed him - thus coming into possession of the tell-tale $50 notes. It might explain, also, why Johnson shot Constable King without warning and why he so desperately resisted arrest.

On first arriving in the country and after his first interview with Constable Edgar Millen, on July 21, 1931, Johnson could have known that this crime had not been detected and that he had nothing to fear. However, with the passage of 5 months - to December 1931 - there would have been time for such a murder (if indeed there was one) to have come to light.

Staff Sergeant Shaw concludes by pointing out in his article "Man Hunt In The Arctic": "Over the years the Force has answered numerous inquiries from persons all over the world claiming to be relatives of "The Mad Trapper From Rat River" as he has been described in numerous articles, but in each case, the RCMP has patiently checked photos and descriptions, and in all, has had to write back, 'we find that is not identical with the man known as Albert Johnson".

Bellanca Aircraft.
Bellanca Aircraft used by the RCMP and flown by Wop May.

People involved in the Manhunt
People involved in the Manhunt for Albert Johnson.

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"Date Modified - June 21, 2024."

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