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Lynne Bell

Mad trapper not Canadian

June 11, 2009

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A page of history is being rewritten in Canada’s far north based on scientific proof that the infamous Mad Trapper was not Canadian but rather American or Scandinavian.

A television documentary, The Hunt for the Mad Trapper, used research from SFU forensic anthropologist Lynn Bell to shed new light on Albert Johnson, who shot and killed an RCMP officer in 1932.

The tragedy set off an intensive, high-profile six-week police chase through the Arctic. He was eventually tracked down and shot nine times before he died. No one knows why he was in the high Arctic or who he really was.

Film company Myth Merchant Films recruited Bell and a team of researchers to determine Johnson’s nationality using the same isotopic testing that Bell previously used to determine the origins of the crew of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose.

Her tests on Johnson’s remains, which were exhumed from the cemetery in Aklavik, involved tracing the levels of two different oxygen isotopes found in water systems. Scientists use the oxygen isotope to build life histories of unidentified human remains.

"The water we drink leaves an inherent signature in tooth enamel, making it possible to determine where a person lived during their childhood while their teeth were developing," explains Bell.

Other research team members performed comparative studies using DNA from individuals who believed they were related to Johnson—and whose own personal histories have now been reshaped.

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