Alaskan Bear Story of Old Groaner, The Myth Grows and Grows, Part IV

Image of Old Groaner's skull from the front. The bear's left eye arch is intact.
Image of Old Groaner’s skull from the front. The bear’s left eye arch is intact.

U.S.A.-(AmmoLand.com)-– Thanks to Hayley Chambers of the Ketchikan Museums for pictures of Old Groaner’s skull. In the first three segments of this series, the formation of the myth of Old Groaner was discussed.

In segment one, the original article, published in February of 1936, almost certainly written less than two months after Old Groaner was killed, is detailed. Old Groaner was killed in November of 1935. It takes time to put a paper magazine together and to print it, especially in 1936.

In segment two, the 1953 re-write and some of the major changes between the 1953 rewrite and the 1936 original article are discussed.

In segment three, the variations in the story from 1936 to 1953, to 1956, 1986, and 1994 are covered.

In this last segment, I speculate about the wounding of Old Groaner. The spread of the myth over time and its documentation.

Someone shot and wounded Old Groaner long before the Johnstones became aware of him. It appears the unknown person used a .33 caliber rifle, although there is no mention of how the bullets found in the skull were measured.  Shots placed in the area of the head to shatter the right eye arch and cheekbone often stun a grizzly bear, and they appear to be dead.  People are surprised when the bear revives.

Did Old Groaner hate men? Maybe. He feared men. The bear was very careful to avoid being seen by men until the last event, where the dog Slasher was present.

Old Groaner was a dangerous bear. He was very large. He was suffering and in pain.  It makes for a bad temper, but it seems unlikely he had hunted and killed men.

Men were seldom in his home domain near Cripple Creek. The gold fields and camps were over 15 miles upstream. The only people recorded as hearing Old Groaner were the Johnstone brothers, Jack and Bruce, and later their friend, George Lemmons.

Old Groaner’s missing, rotten and broken teeth would have made it difficult for him to make quick kills on larger animals, including men. He probably survived because food, in the form of salmon, was so plentiful at Cripple Creek.

One man may have been killed by him. We will never know for certain.

As mentioned previously, LaVern Beier wrote of the event, in 2022 as he heard it from Bruce Johnstone before 1974.

In June of 1935, while Bruce was prospecting on the Unuk River, he killed a famous brown bear of the era, that had stalked him, known as Old Groaner aka the Moaning Marauder of Cripple Creek. Old Groaner had 17 bullet holes in his skull from encountering a prospector years earlier.

LaVern Beier mentioned this while he recounted the event where he had to defend himself from the first big bear who attacked him. He killed that bear in self-defense in 1974. He used a .338 magnum rifle. The .338 happens to use bullets that are the same caliber as the bullets which were found in Old Groaner’s skull. The .338 magnum did not exist in 1935. The .338 magnum cartridge is much more potent than the old .33 Winchester.

Unfortunately, LaVern misremembers both the month (June vs. November) and the number of bullet holes. The skull of Old Groaner only shows one definite bullet hole, although there is evidence of at least two and possibly three more bullet strikes.  Only two old bullets were recovered from Old Groaner’s skull.

The last bullet fired by Bruce Johnstone remained embedded in the left cheekbone after passing through the cranium and brain for many years. It is not currently in the skull in the Tongass Museum.

Without the groaning and the association to the long disappeared Jess Sethington, the defensive shooting of Old Groaner is little different than the defensive shooting of the first big bear LaVern Beier had to kill in 1974.

The Old Groaner and Moaning Maurader articles were published in the Alaska Sportsman in 1936 and 1953, respectively.

The book “Blood on the Arctic Snow,” published in 1956, is a collection of Alaska Sportsman stories.

In 1975 and later, re-writes of the “Old Groaner” mythology began to appear in other sources.

In 1975, a re-write of the 1953 Old Groaner re-write was published by Ozzie Hutchins as “Phantom of the Unuk Country“, in the Islander Victoria B.C. Sunday.

In 1981, in the NRA Hunter magazine, a re-write titled “The Legend of Old Groaner” was published.

In 1983, Larry Kaniut devotes two pages to the Old Groaner myth, starting on page 89 of Alaska Bear Tales, based on the 1953 re-write. He starts it with: “Old Groaner was a man killer.”

In 2001, Kaniut re-writes the entire 1953 re-write in “Bear Tales for the Ages“, starting on page 192.

References to the myth are spread about the Internet. From Sporting Classics Daily.com, there is a  rewrite of the1953 re-write:

What caused the deformity was three bullets from a .38-caliber revolver lodged in the gristle under the jaw and two .33-caliber (jacketed bullets) also in the right jaw. The five bullets proved to be Jess Sethington’s and confirmed the horror of his final moments as he desperately tried to save himself from the killer jaws of the massive grizzly.

There is a Youtube video re-make of the 1981 Hunter magazine re-write, The Legend of Old Groaner.

There is a podcast by Add Ventura, which is a remake of the 1953 re-write.

Theakform.net mentions an obviously misremembered version:

“He caried a British 454 webley and a Finnish made 375 H&H mag. 2 years later a another group of hunters saw a bear with his jaw broken and hanging down. he guide asked one of the hunters to put the bear out of its misery. When they approached the dead bear they found the remains of the missing guide. An autopsy was done on the guide and the bear and when they cut the bear open, they found 5 rounds from the webley all in the bears jaw and 3 rounds from the 375H&H mag in the bears body. They corener determined that the bear actually held the guide in a bear hug while the guide shot the bear straight up into the jaw.”

At 1911forum.com, there is this misremembering:

 “Old Groaner” stalked and killed at least three people near 1950’s Haines, Alaska before he was killed by a prospector he jumped. He had almost no teeth and nearly a dozen old gunshot wounds from 30-30 and 38’s. Estimated 30 years old.

The myth of “Old Groaner” will never die. It is too widely spread, too much of a “it should be true, even if it is not”, tale.

The original Old Groaner article by F.W. Gabler was published in the Alaska Sportsman in the February 1936 issue, Volume II, number 2, starting on page 16. It is a rare issue and difficult to find.

The rewrite in the Alaska Sportsman in the March 1956 issue is much easier to find, as are the numerous rewrites of the 1953 re-write. It is difficult to fault subsequent writers for accepting the 1953 re-write as factual. It was presented as such.

The evidence for the event as a failure of a pistol to stop a bear attack is not credible. No evidence of the presence of a pistol was even mentioned until 30 years after the attack supposedly took place.

There is no certainty a man was attacked before the attack on the dog Slasher and Bruce Johnstone. We know for certain Old Groaner was shot some years previously and lived because much of the damage from the bullets had healed.

The early reporting of the examination of Old Groaner’s skull carefully mentions the .33 caliber rifle bullets. Given the added “spice” the story would have had if pistol bullets had been found, it is highly unlikely they would have been found but not mentioned.

The 1953 re-write is the source of all future Old Groaner myths. Curiously, the “Moaning Maurader of Cripple Creek, the most famous of the stories written by Handlogger Jackson, is never mentioned in his well-done biography, “Handloggers”.

Similarly, Bruce Johnstone, in his oral history, recorded by the Alaska Trapper’s association, never mentions Old Groaner. Instead, Johnstone says he should be known for surviving the attack by three grizzly bears at once at the mouth of the Unuk river, 18 miles from where he shot Old Groaner.

Many things make the Old Groaner story noteworthy. The world record size of the bear, the groaning over three years before the bear is shot, the careful avoidance of being seen by men while being heard.

The story is a great one. It doesn’t need the addition of three .38 caliber pistol bullets under the jaw. The addition of those bullets, 30 years after an inferred attack, catapulted Old Groaner into mythological status for an indefinite period.


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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The Crimson Pirate

In several of the articles in this series you have mentioned the apparent side reversal of the text descriptions versus the photographs; left and right transposed. I don’t know why I thought of this now, but the widespread myth of Billy the Kid being left-handed is because the type of photography used at the time presented a mirror image. Could the type of photography in use at the time of the original and 2nd Old Groaner articles have reversed the image?

swmft

like I said before just like a fish tale ,starts out as just legal catch a few years later pulled the boat half way to canada, from key west

Deplorable Bill

Either way, embellished or not, that was a very big bear. It’s skull shows evidence of past bullet strikes, it was old, it’s teeth were all but gone so eating was problematic. It had attacked at least one man. Due to the evidence of past bullet strikes there exists the possibility that it attacked at least one other person. Add all of this up and I see a huge bear that is desperate for survival, a man killer. I hope that dog ate steak for the rest of his life, he deserved it. I can only imagine the horror and… Read more »

Duane

Myths are hard to kill. Sometimes they just get bigger and bigger.