Saturday, July 30, 2022

"Old Groaner": Alaskan Myth about Bears and Pistols, Part I of IV

Old Groaner Skull, Right side, bullet hole shows finishing shot. The bullet hole measures from .8025 inches to .6510 inches across, according to Haley Chambers of the Ketchikan Museums.

Part I. The events which started the story

In early November, 1935, at the upper reaches of the Unuk river in Southeastern Alaska, prospector, trapper, and logger, Bruce Johnstone, shot a near world record grizzly bear in self defense. The bear had been shot in the head previously, but had survived and healed, leaving the skull deformed and the bear blind on the right side. 

The skull was brought back to Ketchikan. The story was published in the February, 1936 issue of the struggling Alaska Sportsman, written by F. W. Gabler. Gabler interviewed the shooter, Bruce Johnstone.  Both Johnstone and Gabler were longtime residents in the Ketchikan area, and likely knew each other well. Included in the story was an illustration by Gabler, photographs of the bear head and a front paw, and several angles of the skull showing where bullets were found. 

This was the start of the mythology of Old Groaner. While Gabler indulged in speculation about the event where the bear had been wounded, and what the bear was thinking, the reporting of the facts was probably accurate. The event was recent, the physical evidence was fresh, and Bruce Johnstone (as later reported by a close associate) had an excellent memory.  Gabler wrote some of the best known articles for the early Alaska Sportsman. His last article in the Alaska Sportsman, known to this correspondent, appeared six months after the early, tragic death of his wife in August of 1936.

The Old Groaner story circulated around the campfires and near the wood stoves of Alaska sportsmen, residents, hunters, trappers, and fishermen. Embellishments were likely added. The definitive moment of the creation of the Old Groaner myth occurred when W.H. "Handlogger" Jackson rewrote the story for the Alaska Sportsman in 1953. 

Jackson was a friend of the editor of the Alaska Sportsman. He had been given assignments and had written articles for the magazine before. He was married to Bruce Johnstone's older sister, Ruth.  How it happened that Gabler wrote the original Old Groaner article instead of Jackson is unknown. Gabler's iconic story "The Wolf Pack" was in the first issue of the Alaska Sportsman, and was republished later. Jackson was commonly absent from Ketchikan, making a living logging, as detailed in his excellent biography "Handloggers".  It is possible he was not available.

This correspondent became interested in the story as part of ongoing research about the effectiveness of handguns used in defense against bears. The myth of Old Groaner has spread widely since 1953. It involved a strong assumption that a pistol had been used, and the pistol shots had been ineffective. I had committed to the proposition that all documented cases where a pistol had been fired in defense against a bear would be included in analysis of the effectiveness of pistols used in defense against bears.  As this researcher searched for examples of such incidents, the Old Groaner myth appeared in search after search. Old Groaner called for study, as it might qualify as one of the rare failures

Some Geography: The Unuk starts in Canada and travels  about 60 miles to its mouth on the Alaskan coast. Cripple Creek is roughly 18 miles upriver from the mouth, and is a good camping spot.  The Canadian border is about 6-7 miles upstream from Cripple Creek. Most of the mining and prospecting occurs on Sulphide Creek, shown on modern maps as Sulphurrets Creek, another 15 miles upstream of the border. 

I started searching for the original source, to see if there was enough evidence to document the incident as a failure of the use of a pistol in defense against a bear. It was surprisingly difficult to obtain a copy of the original article.  Credit must be given to Susan Sommer of Alaska Magazine and Diane Firmani of the Wassilla Public Library for their help in finding the original 1936 article. 

The article published in 1936 has quite a bit of speculation, and a significant number of facts.  The article consists of five pages in the February edition, pages 16-19 and 28, with considerable space dedicated to an illustration on pages 16 and 17, and three pictures of the Old Groaner skull on page 18, showing placement of the two recovered bullets. There are pictures of Bruce Johnstone with the Old Groaner head and paw, and a picture of the head and paw (before the skull was skinned) on page 19.  Page 28 is all text, along with an advertisement for a Winchester rifle in .33 caliber. 

Here is the pared down account, with commentary on F. W. Gabler's speculations.

In 1933, Bruce Johnstone and his brother Jack, prospected on the upper reaches of the Unuk river for gold. At Cripple Creek, they had heard weird groaning sounds, which appeared to be associated with a large bear, which they heard crashing through the brush. There were many bear tracks in the area, and no one ever clearly saw the bear they presumed was doing the groaning, although Bruce may have caught a glimpse. 

Gabler engages in considerable speculation about the bear's history and psychology, including speculation about how the bear was wounded, many years before Bruce Johnstone encountered Old Groaner. In his speculative encounter, the person who shot Old Groaner fires three shots. He describes Old Groaner as particularly dangerous because he was wounded. 

The bear seems to avoid people, distinctly avoiding being seen.

Gabler spends some time describing how dangerous the area is, and how easy it would be for someone to meet with an accident and die, especially if they are traveling alone. The Unuk river is described as particularly dangerous.

Two years later, in 1935, the men returned to the Unuk to prospect. They heard the groaning bear again, and again. As in 1933, in 1935, no one sees the bear. 

During the last days before the prospectors were to head back to Ketchikan, in early November, Bruce was preparing a claim notice near Cripple Creek, for their mining prospect, as part of finishing their work. While doing so, his dog, Slasher, alerted Bruce to a large bear, coming at them. Slasher gave Bruce just enough time to grab his rifle and shoot the charging grizzly. Bruce killed the grizzly with three shots at very close range. One through the body, right shoulder to left ham; one through the neck, and a finishing shot through the brain. It was obvious the bear had a deformed head. In the article, Gabler says Bruce heard the bear groan after the last shot, and thus identified it as Old Groaner.  During the shooting, just before Old Groaner was killed, Bruce noticed a second bear, which Slasher was engaging.

Slasher drove off the second bear. Bruce headed back to camp, and Slasher joined him.  After Bruce arrived, and told his companions what had happened, it was getting late. The men decided to leave the dead bear for the next day.

Gabler identifies Bruce's rifle as a .38-72. 

When Bruce and his companions returned the next morning, Old Groaner was frozen, making skinning the bear impractical, if not impossible. They settled for cutting off the bears head and one front paw, to take back with them.

Later, when they skinned out the head, they discovered evidence the bear had been shot before, and the skull damaged. The right eye socket had been smashed, as had the back of the right jaw. There were other indications the skull had been impacted by bullets. Most of the bears teeth were either missing, or decayed. The bone had healed years before. In the back of the right jaw, embedded in the bone, they found two old jacketed rifle bullets, which, they decided, after careful examination, were .33 caliber.  Here are the two captions explaining the pictures of the skull: 


Front view of the skull of Old Groaner is shown at left. (1) Indicated right side of skull which was shot away in an encounter with man years before. (2) Shows were arch above left eye was shot away, probably at the same time right side was shattered.

Above is side view of skull. (3) Indicates spot where Bruce John-stone's fatal bullet entered the brain cavity. (4) Badly decayed teeth indicate bear was old. Right is rear view of skull. (5) Point to fatal bullet, lodged in the skull after having passed through the brain.  This view also shows approximate location where two old bullets were removed from the gristle. Incrustation indicated they had been there a number of years.  (6) Indentation where bullet from a side shot entered just above right eye. The photographs prove that the grizzly was shot in the head at least four times before his encounter with Bruce Johnstone.

There is an error in this description. The left eye arch is intact. It is the right eye arch which was shot away, as described by Gabler. This would reduce the number of shots to three, consistent with what Gabler writes in the article. Gabler never writes the left eye arch is damaged. He mentions the cranium is shattered on the left side. He also notes the fatal bullet is imbedded in the left cheek bone. This is all consistent with the skull as it exists today, and with the pictures. 

For the fatal bullet to become imbedded in the left cheek bone, it passed through both sides of the cranium and the brain from the bear's right to left side.

From page 28 of the 1936 article: 

Jack shook his head.  "Tough old fellow, wasn't he?  Can't understand how any creature can get his head half shot off and still live." 

"And look at his teeth," exclaimed George. "No wonder he groaned! They're nearly all decayed. Bet he had a toothache most of the time." 

While cutting away the gristle in back of the large, fan-shaped bone that formed a part of the right jaw, they made a startling discovery. There, deeply imbedded in overcrusted bone, were two lead slugs. The slugs from jacketed bullets.  After a careful examination, the three woodsmen unanimously agree that the bullets were from a .33 caliber gun. 

"That reminds me," said Bruce, slowly, as he studied the glowing embers of the fire through half-closed eyes. "Do you you remember back in 1923 - a fellow by the name of Jess Sethington came in here packing a .33? He never came out. As I recall, he was a Canadian from Stewart, B.C."

In the original article, there is no mention of a pistol. There is no mention of pistol bullets. The reference to Jess Sethington is, he possessed a .33 caliber rifle, and had disappeared up the Unuk 12 years earlier. The bear's skull was measured. If the original right side bones had been present, it would have been a world record.

It is a great story. 

In part II, this correspondent will consider the 1953 re-write by "Handlogger" Jackson.

©2022 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

Gun Watch

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

DEAN: SORRY BUT THIS IS OFF TOPIC. the House Just passed a bill Making Semi-automatic riles illegal That is a totally unconstitutional Bill, Article one, Section Nine, Item three United Constitution States " No Ex Post Facto Law Shall Be passed", That is a perfect example of an ex post facto law. Semi-Automatic rifles were legal to buy when they were bought. They can not now be made illegal. The government could force production of new semi-automatic riles to be stopped , but they can not make what already exists illegal.