The Hunt For The Mad Trapper

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Edgar Millen had taken a long journey to get to this point. Born in Ireland in 1901, he came to Canada with his family in 1907 to begin a new life in a wide-open land. While the family settled into their new home, their belongings stayed in Ireland.

Those items were sent to Canada in April 1912 on a new ship called the Titanic. Unfortunately, history had other ideas and the family never receive their belongings.

As Edgar grew up, he developed a love of baking and his fruit pie was a special treat the family, and their friends, loved to sample.

At the age of 20 on Nov. 22, 1920, Edgar enlisted with the Royal North West Mounted Police, hoping to serve his adopted home. Called “newt” by his fellow officers, but always Edgar when he was home, he trained in Regina. After graduation, Edgar served in posts across the Canadian West, from Winnipeg to Jasper and from Kalavik to Cambridge Bay. He returned to Edmonton in 1930 to serve with the city police force, but he love was the RCMP and he returned to its ranks.

At Fort Macpherson, he was well liked for his humour, common sense and bushcraft.

That journey, beginning when he took a ship across the Atlantic Ocean with his family 25 years earlier, led Edgar to this moment in time, Jan. 30, 1932, on the frozen landscape of the Northwest Territories.

It was a moment that would bring his life to a tragic end, and cement in Canadian lore the legend of The Mad Trapper.


I’m Craig Baird, and this….is Canadian History Ehx

[Transition Music]

Fort Macpherson is about as far north as you can go in the Northwest Territories. Only 140 kilometres from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, what had started as a trading post in 1840, had become an important outpost for fur traders, missionaries and police officers.

The Royal North West Mounted Police established a post in the community, where they would help assert the sovereignty of Canada in the Arctic. In 1911, four officers set out from the community for Dawson, 760 kilometres away. They would never arrive and became known as The Lost Patrol.

This brings us up to the winter of 1931 when Indigenous trappers around Fort Macpherson began to notice that someone had been tripping their traps, and even hanging them from trees. In some cases, their traps were replaced by the perpetrator’s traps.

With it clear that a human was the culprit, the local RCMP detachment began to investigate and that would lead them to a man who had recently come to the area, Albert Johnson.


Little is known about Albert Johnson prior entering the history books in 1932. It is not even known if Albert Johnson was his real name, and I think we can assume it wasn’t.

Johnson had arrived in Fort Macpherson, after coming down the Peel River, on July 9, 1931. Described at the time as a clean shaven Scandinavian who flashed plenty of money around. Upon arriving in the community, he was questioned by Edgar Millen, and neither man knew their fates would be linked. He was described as medium-sized, 35 to 40 years old, stoop shouldered with sun-reddened and fly-bitten skin.

Over the next 10 days at the fort, Johnson spent $1,400, a sizable amount for the time,

Johnson then built a shack on the Rat River, having failed to get up the Rat Rapids, and was wintering at Rat Canyon. He had also begun to trap without a licence. When the Indigenous people confronted him, he chased them off with a rifle.


After receiving the complaints from the Indigenous people of the region, the RCMP wanted to speak with Johnson to see if he was the man tripping the traps. If he was, he would receive the customary fine. No one marching through the Arctic wilderness towards Johnson’s cabin could have thought they were beginning the story that would become Canadian legend.

On Dec. 26, Constable Alfred King and Special Constable Joe Bernard journeyed 97 kilometres to Johnson’s cabin. Calling it a cabin would be an exaggeration. It stood in a clump of willow and spruce trees, on the left bank of the river, buried in the snow. Only eight feet by ten feet, it was sunk three feet into the gravel bank. The roof was poles with frozen sod and the logs that made up the walls were laden with holes.

As their long journey came to an end, they saw smoke rising from the cabin of Johnson but when they knocked on the door, he didn’t answer. When King looked in the cabin window, Johnson put a sack across it.

Rather than press further, the constables decided to return to their post and obtain a search warrant.

Five days later, the constables returned with five other officers to deliver the search warrant. Once again, Johnson refused to open the door and Constable King decided that with the warrant, he would force the door open himself.

Shots rang out as Johnson fired on the officers, wounding King. The other officers grabbed King and pulled him away from the cabin, and made the long journey back to civilization where King recovered, but only by pure luck. He had been shot in the stomach and the bullet had missed his heart and lungs by a mere inch.

At this point, Johnson became the most wanted man in the Northwest Territories. The officers who had travelled to the cabin were shocked that Johnson would fire on an RCMP officer over something as minor as a trapping violation. Due to this, they believed Johnson to be a dangerous individual.

It was also at this time that the Hunt for the Mad Trapper would first begin to appear in newspapers. The Edmonton Journal wrote on Jan. 4, 1931,

“Shot through the chest, allegedly by a man he was attempting to arrest, Constable A.W. King of the Arctic Red River detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is lying in critical condition…McDowell and King were investigating complaints of Indians that their trap lines had been tampered with when they visited a lone trapper’s cabin. The owner, the Indians said, had been acting queerly and appeared to have become unbalanced mentally as a result of his lonely life.”

King would survive, but he would spend several weeks in the hospital at Aklavik.

A posse of individuals, led by RCMP Inspector Alexander Eames, left at the beginning of January 1932 to arrest Johnson. Joining Eames were several constables, including Constable Millen, a few locals and one Indigenous guide named Charlie Rat.

On Jan. 9, the police posse reached the cabin, which had now been fortified by Johnson. When Eames demanded Johnson surrender, Johnson responded by firing shots at the group. The party attempted to storm the cabin, but Johnson drove them back by firing his shotgun and rifle. This time though, the party was going to do everything it could to remove Johnson from his cabin. This included using dynamite.

The party threw dynamite at the cabin, which eventually blew off the cabin’s roof, and partially collapsed its walls. Despite this, Johnson continued to fire at the officers. After 24 hours attempting to remove Johnson, the party decided that with temperatures at -43 Celsius, and food for themselves and their dogs running low, they would go back. Many of the men were already showing signs of frostbite on their skin.

Constable Millen and Karl Gardlund returned to the cabin on Jan. 14 but found that Johnson had fled and his tracks were obscured by a recent snowfall. As they searched what remained of his cabin, they found a series of bunkers, each the size of a man’s body, hacked from the gravel and lined with spruce boughs. Fires had been built in them against the wall to reflect the heat. Within the cabin, there were no furs, no papers.

By this point, the rest of Canada was beginning to learn about the Mad Trapper of Rat River.


The Great Depression was a difficult time for Canada. By 1932, nearly 30 per cent of the labour force was out of work, and 20 per cent of the Canadian population was accepting government assistance. Between 1929 and 1933, the Gross National Expenditure fell by 42 per cent.

Wages were falling, and Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, himself a millionaire, was highly unpopular. As people tore out the engines of their automobiles and turned them into wagons pulled by horses, they would give these vehicles the name Bennett Buggies. Provinces such as Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba were especially hit hard by drought and low prices for crops. Monthly relief rates varied wildly throughout Canada. In Calgary, a family of five received $60, $1,237 per month, while in Halifax the same family would receive $15. For single men without a home, such as Johnson, there was no relief until 1932 and those were construction camps were they were paid 20 cents a day to work in harsh conditions.

From this environment, labour unions and protests would begin to rise in popularity and strength. People wanted people to stand up to the government they felt was ignoring their concerns. When they wanted help, they received radio addresses telling them that Canada would get through dark days, such as this one from Bennett.

It was in that situation that Johnson began to emerge as a folk hero for a time to Canadians.

Many Canadians sympathized with Johnson and his desire to be left alone, amid what they saw as interference from the federal government. At the time, due to crackdowns on protests by the government using the RCMP, the force was not especially popular. Many felt that the government had been ignoring them and their requests for help had gone unanswered.

Throughout Canada, people waited to get the latest information about the man who was on the run from the government.


For days, the police looked for Johnson. They found a cache of caribou meat that he had left and they watched it for days waiting for him to return, but he never did. Sometimes they would pick up his trail but they soon lost it.

On Jan. 30, the RCMP party finally found Johnson and surrounded him in a thicket.

A firefight soon erupted, and Johnson shot Constable Millen through the heart, killing him instantly. With one man dead, the RCMP retreated back to civilization, and Johnson continued to hide out in the wilderness.

As soon as news began to spread of the death of Millen, people from across the delta came to the area and the RCMP had their pick of individuals who wanted to help and avenge the death of a man they had liked.

The RCMP would enlist the help of the local Indigenous people, who could move easier through the back country and track Johnson with ease. Believing that Johnson was planning on leaving for the Yukon, the only two passes in the Richardson Mountains were blocked.

If there is one thing that can be said of Johnson, it is that he was determined. Instead of taking a path through the passes, he climbed a 7,000-foot peak and again disappeared into the wilderness.

Johnson was proving himself to be highly resourceful, and very difficult to find. Along with his incredible stamina, he would backtrack and leave blind trails to confuse his trackers. He would often follow caribou trails, so his own tracks were lost in the tracks of the animals. Along with climbing mountains, he went through underbrush that was incredibly difficult to move through. He fed himself with small game, and lit small fires to keep warm under the cover of snowbanks.

One trapper said “it is rough enough just staying alive under those conditions, let alone having to do it on the run.”

To aid in their search against the crafty and clever Johnson, the RCMP decided it was time to bring in something new, air support from a First World War legend.


Well before the Hunt for the Mad Trapper, Wilfrid Ried “Wop” May was a legend. He had served in the First World War, and was part of the dogfight that brought down the Red Baron. A recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, May shot down 15 confirmed German aircraft, and likely five others.

After the war, he set up the first airport in Canada in Edmonton, took part in the first aerial manhunt in 1919 and was the man who flew the diphtheria inoculations 500 kilometres through the freezing cold in an open cockpit plane to Fort Vermilion to save the lives of 500 people who were in danger of getting the disease.

By this point, May was an aviation legend and now it was time for another chapter in the story of Wop May when the RCMP hired him to hunt for Johnson from the air. He brought with him several tear gas bombs, which were to be used to force Johnson out of hiding.

On Feb. 5, May arrived in his Bellanca monoplane and he soon discovered that Johnson had made it over the Richardson Mountains when he saw tracks from the air. This was no simple task for May, despite his skill as a pilot. The winds were bad and snow swirled thousands of feet in the air.

Soon after, word came from the RCMP detachment at Old Crow in the Yukon, near the Alaska border, where Indigenous hunters had seen strange tracks while they were pursuing a moose. The tracks were fresh and heading down the Bell River towards Alaska.

On Feb. 14, May saw footprints leading off the centre of the frozen surface of the Eagle River to the bank, where Johnson had been using the tracks of the caribou.

Over the course of the next three days, May radioed his findings to the RCMP, who began to chase Johnson up the river, eventually reaching him on Feb. 17, where the last standoff would occur. By this point, the RCMP party had 11 people in it.

As the RCMP rounded a bend in the river, they suddenly saw Johnson standing only a few hundred metres in front of them. They gave chase, as Johnson tried to run up a snowbank. His lack of snowshoes slowed his progress and a firefight soon broke out.

Constable Earl Hersey was seriously injured in the firefight, while Johnson was killed when a bullet entered his left side at the pelvis at an acute angle. The bullet would pass through his bowels and main arteries, leading to his death.

May soon landed on the frozen river and collected Constable Hersey, who was transported to a doctor. Hersey had been shot through the left knee and into the elbow. Along the way, the bullet smashed two ribs and pierced his lungs. Without May, it is likely Hersey would have died. The doctor said if he had taken 15 minutes longer, Hersey would have been dead.

The entire manhunt, from Johnson’s cabin to the spot where he died had run for 33 days, covering 137 kilometres, during which time the RCMP pursuers burned 10,000 calories a day in the cold weather.

When they examined Johnson’s body, they found he had $2,000 on him, amounting to $42,000 today. He also had gold, a compass, razor, knife, fish hooks, a dead squirrel and bird, several laxative pills and teeth with gold fillings. The teeth were perplexing to the RCMP, as Johnson had perfect teeth and had no reason to be carrying false teeth.

The Montreal Gazette stated,

“The body of the slain outlaw was a mere bag of bones. Not one of the men from the Yukon or the Northwest Territories who viewed the body could say that they had seen the man before.”

Throughout the entire pursuit and firefight, Johnson had never uttered a single word. The only sound the RCMP said they heard from him, was a laugh when he shot Constable Millen.


What happened to the men behind the manhunt? Constable Alfred King would return home to Ottawa from the hospital on March 15, 1932 and live a full life, passing away in 1978.

Earle Hersey would survive his injury and would live a life most of us could only wish for. He would serve with the Canadian Army as a signalman, eventually reaching the rank of major by the end of the war. While in Ireland, he won the Irish Sweepstakes, which netted him $157,000, amounting to $2.6 million today. During his time in Italy, he also apparently met The Pope. In 1946, he took part in the Exercise Muskox, a trial run to determine if snowmobiles could replace dogsleds. He would travel 2,900-kilometre down to Edmonton as part of the run. After he retired in 1955 at the age of 50, he served on Barrie City Council for 16 years, and would pass away at the age of 100 in 2006.

As for Wop May, would become a trainer of Royal Air Force pilots from the British Commonwealth during the Second World War and was a commander of the No. 2 Observer School in Edmonton. He also served as the supervisor of the western training schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. He also established a smoke jumper school in Montana and used that experience to create a Search and Rescue unit in the Canadian Army. For his work with search and rescue, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm from the United States Army Air Force. He would pass away on June 21, 1952 while hiking in Utah.

A memorial was built at Fort Macpherson to honour Millen, and was recently restored.


Who could have he been?

The more fame Johnson received for the manhunt, the more people claimed they knew him. Women would claim he was their husband, father, brother, or son. Some said he was The Blueberry Kid, a killer out of Michigan. Others said he was an ex-RCMP officer, or a First World War One sniper.

All the claims were investigated by the RCMP. The fingerprints of Johnson were sent across North America and into Europe. His photograph was printed in newspapers on three continents. Even an attempt to trace his weapons and bank notes led nowhere.

Arthur Nelson, a prospector from British Columbia who left the province in 1931 was one person speculated to be Arthur Johnson, as was Johnny Johnson, an American outlaw who journeyed into the Arctic in the 1920s. There was Owen Albert Johnston and Sigvald Peterson Hasskjold, both of whom left British Columbia in the late-1920s and were believed to have moved into the Arctic.

Descendants of these individuals would provide DNA, none of which matched that of Albert Johnson.

Then there was Edgar Maring, who lived in Berwyn, Alberta and always talked of moving to the Arctic. One day, he left his homestead and was never heard from again. Years later, when the Mad Trapper’s photo appeared in newspapers, many resident of Berwyn said it looked just like Edgar Maring.

Who was he? We will likely never know.

[Pause, Clip From Death Hunt]

What you just heard was a trailer, from a 1981 film called Death Hunt, which starred Charles Bronson. This film played fast and loose with the facts, turning Johnson into a sympathetic figure, while Constable Millen was portrayed as an old, broken down alcoholic. Wop May became someone who did reconnaissance from the air in the manhunt, to a reckless pilot who is shot down and killed by posse after he shoots at them.

This wasn’t the only film to portray the story, nor was it the only one to change the facts. The Mad Trapper, a film from 1971 portrayed Johnson as an American trying to live in peace, and it is the other trappers who work with the RCMP to get rid of him. Challenge To Be Free, a film from 1975, also portrayed Johnson to be a sympathetic figure, similar to Johnny Appleseed, who lived in harmony with wild animals.

Other than documentaries, it is unlikely we will ever see a true, and accurate, portrayal of the hunt for the mad trapper on screen.

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, RCMP Honour Roll #51, Wikipedia, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, Vancouver Sun, Northwest Territories and Yukon Radio System,

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