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Alaskan Myth Old Groaner, Bears and Pistols Part II, the 1953 Re-Write

Picture of Old Groaner skull, left side, from Tongass Historical Society. The left eye arch is intact.

U.S.A.-(AmmoLand.com)-– In the previous article, the story of Old Groaner, as told in 1936, was recounted. The bear was killed as it attacked Bruce Johnstone’s dog Slasher in the middle reaches of the Unuk river in November of 1935. This correspondent differentiated speculation from claimed fact. The bear’s head was brought back to Ketchikan. If the skull had been complete, it would have been a world record. The original article was written by F. W. Gabler.

In the image above, the left eye arch is intact.  Both the 1936 and the 1953 captions claim the left eye arch is either “shot away” or “shattered”.  The brain case on the left side has been shattered, presumably by the last bullet Bruce Johnstone fired, after it traveled through the brain. That bullet became embedded in the left cheekbone but has been lost in the intervening decades. The damage to the brain case is to be expected from this sort of wound.

In 1953, the 1936 article about Old Groaner by F.W. Gabler was re-written by W. H. “Handlogger” Jackson. Gabler appears to have stopped writing a few months after the tragic death of his wife in August of 1936. By 1953, the story had started to gain legendary status. With the re-write, the myth would be projected around the world.

In the 1953 rewrite, by Handlogger Jackson, there is no mention of a second bear during the attack. Aside from lunging for Old Groaner’s throat, then being flung aside by a swipe of Old Groaner’s paw, the dog Slasher paid no part in the fight before Old Groaner was killed. In the original article, Slasher drove off the second bear. In the 1953 re-write, Slasher belongs to Jack, not Bruce. It likely made little difference as the brothers were together so much of the time.

In comparing accounts, the strong presumption is, the closer to the original source, the more likely the accuracy of the account.

The differences between the original article and the 1953 rewrite are several and significant. An obvious one is the changing of the 1936 illustration, apparently to fit the concept of the 1953 rewrite. In the 1936 article, there were two bears. In the 1953 rewrite, there was only one.

The bear shown above and in back of Old Groaner has been taken out of the picture.

From the 1936 article:

Old Groaner, with another bear, led an attack on Bruce Johnstone when he was least expecting it.

The 1936 story was told in five pages, with a large illustration and five pictures, three of the bear skull, one of Bruce Johnstone with the bear head, and another of the bear head and paw together. In the caption, it is clear only two old jacketed, .33 caliber rifle bullets were found embedded in the skull. The recent, final bullet fired by Bruce Johnstone is shown embedded on the opposite side. From the caption published in 1936:

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.

In the 1953 re-write, the three pictures of the skull are shown. The caption differs significantly. This excerpt shows the main difference in the caption for the pictures of the skull:

 Arrow 5 shows were it lodged in the rear of the skull after passing through the brain. Arrow 4 indicates the worn and ulcerated teeth, evidence of Groaner’s advanced age. Arrow 6 indicates where a bullet from a side shot had entered just above the right eye. Five bullets were lodged in the head, and presumably had been there for twelve years.

In the 1936 article, only 3 bullets are lodged in the head, not five. One of those bullets was the finishing shot from Bruce Johnstone, which passed through both sides of he cranium and the brain before embedding in the left cheekbone. There are indications of two more bullets hitting the skull, but they were not embedded in it and were not recovered.

The only old bullets recovered in the 1936 article are two jacketed rifle bullets, presumed to be .33 caliber.

In the 1953 re-write, the pictures of Bruce Johnstone, sitting with Old Groaner’s head and paw, are missing.

In the 1953 re-write, there are seven events involving old Groaner, all close to the same spot at Cripple Creek, covered in considerable detail. They were only hinted at in the 1936 article. No one actually saw the bear until the last event, when Bruce killed Old Groaner at close range. Only the two brothers and George Lemmons are mentioned as hearing Old Groaner. The brothers are recorded as hearing the bear in 1933 and 1934. George Lemmons was with them in 1935.  The only person known to have been attacked was Bruce Johnstone when the dog Slasher was present.

The 1953 re-write is much longer than the 1936 article, with more incidents, considerable embellishment of dangerous situations, and more speculations on Old Groaner’s motivations and what Old Groaner was thinking.

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. Most of the mining and prospecting occurs on Sulphide Creek, shown on modern maps as Sulphurrets Creek, another 15 miles upstream of the border.

Jackson follows Gabler in spending considerable text on how dangerous the Unuk region is, and how easily people could die on the Unuk river by accident. He explains it is particularly dangerous to travel there alone.

In the 1953 version, an account of a separate bear attack many miles away from where Old Groaner was shot, is added. The year seems to be 1933.

It happened on Sulfide Creek, far from Cripple Creek. The bear starts from the opposite bank of Sulfide Creek from the Johnstone brothers. Bruce Johnstone’s brother, Jack, shoots the bear with a cut down .45-70 rifle, then finishes it off as it tries to climb the bank where the men are, using a Luger  pistol, emptying the magazine into the wounded bear.

Handlogger Jackson comments the rifle, with a 14-inch barrel, might be considered illegal. (The rifle would not have been illegal in 1933. The National Firearms Act was signed in June of 1934.)  Sulfide Creek is in Canada. In 1953, in Canada, it would still be legal.

In the second half of the 1953 re-write, the Johnstone brothers leave the Unuk and come back the next year, where they again hear Old Groaner, but never see him. The account relates a battle between the bear and the dog Slasher, very close to where Old Groaner is eventually killed. The account relates close calls with a bear that is never seen.  In these incidents, Jackson writes the prospectors could tell Old Groaner was involved, because they heard groans and saw brush shake. They leave the Unuk again, with tales of Old Groaner, believing him to be harmless, but a little unsure if he was.

When the men returned to the Unuk, with their friend George Lemmons,  presumably a year later, in 1935, they again encounter Old Groaner. This time they are terrified of him and take serious measures to protect themselves from him, including building a cabin as a measure of bear protection.

Again, Old Groaner is never seen, but is heard, and much brush shaking is observed. There are several incidents recounted where the prospectors are sure the bear is going to attack them, even though they only hear the bear and never see it.  In one incident, Old Groaner is clearly deterred by gunfire over the top of the brush.

To sum up: The Johnstone brothers hear Old Groaner one night in the 1933 at Cripple Creek on the way to the Sulphide Creek gold fields. They bypass Cripple Creek on the way down in 1933. They hear Old Groaner again on Cripple Creek on the way up in 1934, and again on the way down in 1934. They and George Lemmons hear him on the way up in 1935. On the way down in 1935, they spend time at Cripple Creek and build a small cabin. There are bears in abundance. No one has seen Old Groaner. Shortly before they leave for Ketchikan, Old Groaner attacks the dog Slasher and Bruce Johnstone and is killed.

The final incident, where Old Groaner is killed, is similar to that recounted by F.W. Gabler. Bruce Johnson is making the stake to mark their claim near Cripple Creek. Bruce is alerted to the charge of Old Groaner by the dog Slasher. Slasher delays the attack enough for Bruce to grab his .38-72 rifle and shoot Old Groaner, stopping the attack and killing the bear.

The two brothers and George Lemmons return the next day. They do not skin Old Groaner because the hide is worthless with “no more hair than a hog”.

In the 1936 version, they do not skin Old Groaner because the carcass is frozen, making skinning very difficult.

The author of the 1953 re-write, “Handlogger” Jackson, detailed a near-fatal encounter he had with a grizzly bear in his autobiography, “Handloggers.”

On page 181, Jackson details an encounter with a bear in 1946.  He wrote the bear “had no more hair than a hog” and was suffering from bad teeth and infected wounds.  That bear was crafty and attacked them without warning. The description is remarkably similar to that of Old Groaner in the 1953 re-write.

Examining the head, the men conclude Old Groaner was a “man-hunter, a killer” because the bear had “stalked” Bruce. They decide they should have been much more scared of the bear than they had been previously.

They take the head and a paw to show how large the bear was.

When they skin the head, they find the same extensive damage to the skull, as found in the 1936 article, the same two embedded .33 caliber jacketed bullets from a rifle as found in the 1936 article … and three bullets from a .38 caliber revolver, never mentioned in the 1936 article.

The story of Jess Sethington, the Canadian prospector who disappeared in the area 30 years previously, who was believed to carry a .33 caliber rifle, is elaborated with considerable details not mentioned in 1936.

In 1953, Handlogger Jackson adds that Sethington owned a .38 revolver. In this version, he failed to meet with people at a pre-arranged date. Four experienced woodsmen are then said to have searched for him, found his camps up to the area where the prospectors later heard Old Groaner on Cripple Creek, and then lost track of him. They found no evidence of him or any of his gear. He was said to have a trapping concession in Canada.

The description of the search sounds much like the expedition which investigated the disappearance of Crist Kolby, written in the Alaska Sportsman in 1946. The 1939 expedition found the remains of Kolby.

In the 1936 version, the discovery of the embedded bullets and the possible Jess Sethington connection is described on page 28.

From page 28 of the 1936 article:

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.”

From the 1953 re-write, page 34, by “Handlogger” Jackson a similar scene is described:

But most incredulous of all was the jaw. The right hinge of the jaw has been shattered, and though completely healed over on the outside, the bones around the hing were porous and sloughed away so they didn’t meet. They were a dark red, still infected. Around the other skull wounds the bone was healed clean and white. Back of the damaged jaw hinge, imbedded in the skull and partly overgrown, were two bullets from a .33 caliber rifle, and in the gristle under the jaw were three bullets from a .38 caliber revolver. 

Jess Sethington, who had disappeared on the Unuk  twelve years before, had owned a .33 caliber rifle and a .38 revolver. He had been tracked up the river by his campfires as far as Cripple Creek, where all traces of him vanished. Picturing the position in which a man would have to be to place those three revolver bullets under a bear’s jaw, they could guess only too well what had become of Jess Sethington.

And so the myth of Old Groaner the mankiller was formed.

Bullets from a revolver which had never been mentioned in the 1936 article magically appeared in the 1953 account, 17 years after the event, 30 years after Jess Sethington disappeared. How or why is unknown.

In Part III the changes of the myth of Old Groaner between the 1953 re-write and later versions will be explored.


About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten


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