Complaints to Royal Canadian Mounted Police at Aklavik, NWT in December 1931 started a seven-week series of events that resulted in the wounding of two men and the deaths of two more. The man who became known as the Mad Trapper arrived in the north as early as 1927 and identified himself at different times as Arthur Nelson and Albert Johnson. He kept to himself and was less than friendly to his neighbours who eventually accused him of raiding a trap line. The police investigated the accusation on December 26, 1931 and made two attempts to get Johnson to give himself up. In the last attempt, Johnson fired shots through the walls of his cabin and wounded Constable A. W. King. Dynamite was used to blow Johnson’s cabin apart but he continued to shoot until the posse retreated.
Johnson fled from his cabin site on the Rat River and a fresh group of officers and volunteers took up the chase through extreme weather. Johnson evaded the police by walking on bare ice and also by putting his snowshoes on backwards to confuse them. When the posse caught up to Johnson, gun fire was exchanged and Constable Edgar Millen was killed. The RCMP called for more volunteers and a plane was added to the search. The pilot, Wilfred “Wop” May, located Johnson on the frozen Eagle River on February 17, 1932. Shots were fired from both sides resulting in the wounding of Staff Sergeant H. F. Hersey and the death of the Mad Trapper. The Mad Trapper died on the Eagle River, 80 km downstream from this location.
Although the Mad Trapper was caught and killed, it was never proved that he actually raided his neighbour’s trap line and his identity remains a mystery. The pursuit the Mad Trapper was dramatic and intense. The story was picked up by radio broadcasters who nicknamed Johnson “The Mad Trapper”. North American listeners sat by their radios hoping to pick up the latest installment in the true-life adventure. It became even more interesting when, for the first time, the Canadian government approved the use of a plane in the pursuit of a criminal. The main players in this story were, or became, legendary and this added to the drama of the chase. Johnson’s tremendous feats of strength and endurance were highlighted by the stormy and extremely cold weather. The radio broadcasters claimed that “the Mounties always get their man” and “Wop” May was a famous World War I pilot.
The question of the Mad Trapper’s identity remains today. Dental records and fingerprints taken at the time of his death and a 2007 forensic examination of his exhumed body all failed to confirm his identity. Books, songs and films about the Mad Trapper have only added to a mystery that has never been solved.
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