Why you should care
Because a mediocre American hangman executing the worst Nazi war criminals meant rough justice was served.
Sympathizing with a sadistic Nazi propagandist is a tall order. Still, Julius Streicher’s execution in a small prison gym following his conviction on war crimes at the Nuremberg trials must have been agonizing. After the noose was snugged around his neck and the black hood pulled over his head, the infamous editor of Der Stürmer managed to get out one last “Heil Hitler!” before the trapdoor opened, and he plunged out of sight behind the black cloth hung as a privacy panel on the front of the gallows. But as the Allied military officers and eight journalists in attendance soon discovered, something wasn’t right.
The rope had failed to snap the Nazi’s neck. Instead, Streicher swung violently and groaned in pain as he struggled for air. A correspondent for the International News Service reported that the American hangman, Master Sgt. John C. Woods, disappeared behind the black cloth to rectify the situation. “I was not in the mood to ask what he did,” the reporter wrote in his Oct. 16, 1946, dispatch, “but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body and pulled down on it.”
A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.
Master Sgt. John C. Woods, hangman at Nuremberg
Anyone else might have been embarrassed about botching such a high-level execution. But Woods, an almost charmingly hapless man with a checkered past, relished his role in sending 10 convicted, top-level Nazis to their deaths. The fact that he reportedly bungled at least three of the hangings — in addition to around 20 others throughout his short career — didn’t seem to bother him. “The way I look at this hanging job,” he told another correspondent that day, “somebody has to do it.”
Born in 1911, Woods was abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents in small-town Kansas. He dropped out of high school and, after struggling to find work, joined the Navy, only to find out that following orders apparently wasn’t for him. After going AWOL, he was caught, declared a “constitutional psychotic” and dismissed. For years, he bounced from one job to another with little success, found himself in a scandalous marriage and was busted for floating a bad check. When World War II broke out, Woods was drafted into the U.S. Army as a combat engineer; his discharge from the Navy apparently went undetected.
Then came D-Day. Woods landed in Normandy during one of the first waves of assault, according to author French MacLean, a retired Army colonel, and the bloodshed he witnessed must have shaken him — at least enough so that when the Army put out a call for a hangman, he piped up and explained how he’d once helped execute several men in Texas and Oklahoma. “Well, he was lying,” says MacLean, whose book about Woods is forthcoming. “But the Army didn’t check up, because we didn’t want to find something we didn’t want to find, or we tried to check up, and it was too hard.” Woods was promoted from private to master sergeant in one day and trained under a major for about a dozen hangings, most of them performed on American troops.
In those days, says military historian Frederic Borch, a death sentence was typical for grievous crimes such as murder and rape. It was an effective way of maintaining discipline during wartime, while also sending a clear signal to locals who were newly liberated from Nazi tyranny. “They didn’t want the French to think that they just traded one set of SOBs for another set,” says Borch, a regimental historian for the Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia. Woods found himself fairly busy: Of the 96 U.S. soldiers executed in Europe and North Africa during World War II, he hanged around 30 of them. Not all of the death sentences were carried out smoothly, MacLean says, probably due to Woods’ lack of experience.
But Woods’ crowning — if macabre — achievement came following the Nuremberg trials of October 1946. Of the 11 top surviving Nazis convicted of war crimes, 10 were sent to Woods to meet their end (two hours before his turn, former German Air Force chief Hermann Göring killed himself with a vial of potassium cyanide that had been smuggled into his cell).
The executions were not clean kills. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign minister who went first, shortly after 1 a.m., took 14 minutes to die; the second prisoner, field marshal Wilhelm Keitel, choked for nearly twice as long, according to eyewitness media accounts. While those mistakes may have been accidental, MacLean believes that Streicher’s shoddy execution was intentional, arguing that the propagandist’s famous flair for the dramatic stole the scene from Woods. He also cites testimony from a lieutenant present at the scene, who saw Woods cast a wry smile during Streicher’s turn. “At an execution,” MacLean says, “John Woods wanted to, and insisted on, playing the lead actor.”
On that infamous day, the Kansas high school dropout was brimming with confidence, reportedly boasting of his efficiency in killing 10 men in just 106 minutes. “I wasn’t nervous,” he told Time magazine after the hangings. “A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.” Although Woods enjoyed his brief notoriety, he died several years later from electrocution on the Pacific island of Eniwetok while serving in an engineering unit. Some believe the death was suspicious, noting the alleged presence of German scientists working on the atoll for the U.S. weapons program. Either way, his exit was certainly quicker than that of his most famous victims.