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Dr. Lynne Bell examining the bones of the Mad Trapper after the body was exhumed from the cemetery in Aklavik. Bell performed isotope testing on the skeletal structure to determine the bones were of a man not from Canada, but from either the midwest United States or Scandinavia. - photo courtesy of Carrie Gour

Science rewrites Northern legend

Andrew Livingstone
Northern News Services
Published Monday, March 2, 2009

AKLAVIK - A soon to be released documentary will prove Canadians hoping they inherited some rebel blood from the infamous Mad Trapper dead wrong.

Airing in May, the Hunt for the Mad Trapper will prove the outlaw, otherwise known as Albert Johnson, is either American or Scandinavian, not Canadian as originally thought.

Carrie Gour, Myth Merchant Films producer, said the film will rewrite history.

"The oral histories and written history all fits," she said. "It tells us that people who spoke with him, when he did speak, said he had a Scandinavian accent. Others said he was Johnny Johnson from the Midwest U.S. It was interesting the science matched what information was there."

Albert Johnson shot and killed an RCMP officer in 1932 and led the Mounties on a six week chase through the Arctic before he was finally shot dead. RCMP hired Wop May, a First World War aviator and one of the first bush pilots in the North to track Johnson. May found Johnson's trail along Eagle River and the RCMP were able to intercept him. Johnson was shot nine times before he died.

A book written by Dick North called "Trackdown" identified Johnson not as Albert, but as John Johnson, a fugitive from the U.S. Midwest while other theories pointed to Sigvald from Volda, a Norwegian man. No one knows for certain who he was or why he was in the North.

"The oxygen isotope science is primarily used to build history for unidentified human remains," Gour said. "It helps to geographically locate where someone inhabited."

The testing looks at two different oxygen isotopes found in our water systems - Oxygen-16 and Oxygen-18. Dr. Lynne Bell, a forensic anthropologist from Simon Fraser University who performed the testing for the film said the ratio between these two isotopes is different depending on geographic location.

The Atomic Energy Commission has been monitoring these oxygen values around the world and have been able to establish a map system as to where ratios are geographically situated. The mapping was originally done for global warming studies.

"Archeologists took it on because they were interested in migration," Bell said. "It was only recently picked up by forensics because it has a huge potential to help with missing persons.

"I can't give an exact address, but I can point to a broad band of where this person would have come from, but if the values didn't fit with a certain region or country you could exclude it from the possibility."

"We get most of our drinking water from rain and snow that stores up in waterways and reservoirs," she said. The chemical identity of water changes as a weather system moves along. "

Bell said depending on where you live and the water you drink you inherit the water's signature, which is imprinted on tooth enamel. She added that information can provide insight into where a person lived during their childhood while their teeth developed.

"In the case of the Mad Trapper, this geographical work is dependent on which tissue is looked at and when it is formed," Bell said. "It gives access to windows of time in their history."

Based on the isotope testing the film's scientists were able to determine the Mad Trapper was not Canadian. Comparative analysis was also done on samples of DNA - donated by Canadians who believe they are related to the renegade - to verify the data.

"We needed people's stories to match what we knew about the Mad Trapper," Gour said, adding it narrowed down the field of how many people they needed to do DNA testing on. "If they were born and raised in Canada, we knew it wasn't them.

"For them, history has been rewritten because they've been living with this idea, for generations, that Albert Johnson was their long-lost relative. We know it's not the case now."

Another isotope test, using carbon and nitrogen this time, found some surprises in the Mad Trapper's diet. Carbon provides information to what a person's overall diet was, while nitrogen provides insight into the individual's protein intake.

"The more protein in your diet, the higher your nitrogen values are," Bell said. "Carbon can tell you about the plants a person has been eating."

There are two major types of plants in the world, C3 and C4. Grasses make up most of the C3 category, like wheat and rye, while C4 contains plants like mais.

"From an archeological point of view if you're in an area where it's predominately C3 plants and you suddenly get a C4 signature in human remains, it needs some explaining," she said. "You can see if his diet changes. There was some stuff that came out of the dietary stuff that was quite a surprise."

The Hunt for the Mad Trapper, a perfect hybrid as Gour calls it, looks at the history and science surrounding the largest and longest man hunt in the history of Canada and the RCMP. Science will change the way we know the story of the Mad Trapper, but Gour said they not only wanted to uncover the truth about the Mad Trapper's identity, but wanted to tell the tale of the many other people involved in this Northern saga.

"To this day, the unsung heroes of this chase were the aboriginal guides and trackers who led the RCMP posse. Without them, the RCMP would probably wouldn't have found Albert.

"They're not given their due," the Edmonton-based producer and former Inuvik resident said. "We wanted to give them faces and give them names and the credit they deserved."