Note: The following story contains language that may be offensive to some readers.
They say that he could catch a bobcat with his bare hands, he could fight anyone who took a swing at him and he could drink any sailor, scallywag or woodsman under the table and still be standing hours later.
His name was Albert “Jigger” Johnson, and though the stories told about him are larger than life, he was actually a real person who worked the woods and waters of Maine and New Hampshire in the late 1800s — an authentic northern New England lumberjack.
Those tall tales about Johnson and his exploits inspired Hermon-based Devil’s Half Acre Distillery to name its flagship gin after the man, as well as after Fan Jones, the legendary Bangor brothel keeper whom Johnson likely encountered when he came to the Queen City to blow off some steam after months in the woods.
“He really represented that kind of Maine wilderness. He was the archetypal lumberjack character, when that was what Maine was all about,” said Larry Murphy, one of the co-founders of the distillery. “We figured Paul Bunyan would have been way too hokey. Jigger Johnson was the real deal.”
According to a 2017 article in the Conway Daily Sun, Johnson was born in 1870 in Fryeburg. Though legends say he came out of the womb with his boots on, and with a peavey in one hand and an axe in the other, it is known that he did actually leave home by the time he was 12 years old to work as a “cookee,” or cook’s assistant, at a lumber camp in Coos County, New Hampshire, which borders Oxford County.
Johnson garnered his reputation as a rough and tumble wildman early on. Supposedly, he bit the ear off a logger who he said was too talkative during meal time, which so impressed the other loggers that they bought the 12-year-old a can of chewing tobacco.
By the time he was an adult, Johnson was working in the woods and on rivers all across New England, from the Upper Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont, to the Great North Woods in Maine. In the winters he worked as a river boss, sending logs down rivers like the Connecticut and Androscoggin, and in the summer he swung his mighty axe, felling trees with what his contemporaries say was with little effort, despite his relatively compact size — he was reportedly 5’6” and 160 pounds, far from the typical image of a huge, burly lumberjack.
“All of him was steel-spring muscle, except his head, which contained brains aplenty,” fellow New Hampshire forester Bob Monahan is quoted as saying in the Conway Daily Sun article. “Those who witnessed him in battle still recall his courage and ferocious attack — no matter the odds against him. There, by the grace of God and assorted genes, walked a man among men.”
His legendary toughness led to stories of feats like Johnson being able to kick the knots off trees barefoot, and that he slept in snow banks. According to historian Robert E. Pike, Johnson told potential employers that they need not worry about his skill as a logger.
“I can run faster, jump higher, squat lower, move sideways quicker, and spit further than any son-of-a-bitch in camp,” Johnson would say, Pike wrote in his 1967 book “Tall Tree, Tough Men.”
Though his logging career lasted nearly four decades, Johnson’s prime years were in the 1890s and 1900s, when Maine and New Hampshire’s lumber industry was at a peak that would begin to decline by the early 20th century. He lived the life that many woodsmen of the time were accustomed to: months in the woods, sleeping in a small cabin with 12 to 14 other men, isolated from the rest of society.
When the logging season was over, they’d venture south to cities such as Bangor, looking for a good time in the bars and brothels of Bangor’s famous red light district, the Devil’s Half Acre, located around where Front, Washington and Broad streets are today. Historian Stewart Holbrook, in his book “Holy Old Mackinaw: A Natural History of the American Lumberjack,” claims that Johnson said he’d “not leave any tree standing between Bangor and Seattle, nor any virgins.”
The most famous brothel in Bangor was the Sky Blue House of Pleasure, an “upscale” brothel run by the infamous Fan Jones, a madam in Bangor in the latter half of the 19th century.
Bangor historian Monique Bouchard has researched Jones extensively, and dons her persona when leading walking tours for the Bangor Historical Society. Would Jigger Johnson and Fan Jones have encountered one another, when Johnson was a strapping young lumberjack in the 1890s, and Jones was the elder stateswoman, as it were, of Bangor brothel-keepers?
Bouchard said that songs about Jones and her house of pleasure were sung by woodsmen well into the 20th century, so it’s likely Jigger had heard about her. And it’s also known that Jones operated her house until at least the late 1890s.
“He probably had heard legends of the Blue House since there were songs about it,” she said. ”I can see a young, heady legend walking into the Blue House if for no other reason than to add another tale to his list.”
Johnson’s logging career came to an end in 1920, due to health problems and his worsening alcoholism. For the next 15 years, he worked as a fire warden, fur trapper and survival skills teacher, in both New Hampshire and Maine. Ironically, Johnson died in a car accident in 1935. By contemporary accounts he still called automobiles “horseless carriages” — he was, after all, a man of a different era, when lumber was king and Bangor was capital of the kingdom.
His exploits were made famous in many books, and by a character loosely based on him that was featured in the 1940 film “King of the Lumberjacks.” In 1969, the U.S. Forest Service named a campground in White Mountain National Forest after him.
And now, nearly a century later, there’s a gin named after him — appropriate, for the hard-working, hard-drinking, carousing wildman of the Great North Woods.
“We wanted to tie the history of the area into our brand,” said Murphy, of Devil’s Half Acre Distillery. “It’s a lot more fun to tell a story that has a real connection to real people. Even if they’re larger than life real people.”