John C. Woods took to the killings with morbid fascination.
The Wichitan had developed a career of killing bad people, badly. He was thrust into the world’s spotlight at the end of World War II as the hangman for 10 Nazi war criminals. Several of them died not from broken necks as would be expected with hangings but from slow, excruciating strangulation.
Nazi Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel was reported to have taken 28 minutes to die.
Woods bragged about the hangings. His face was plastered on newspapers, magazines and news reels.
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It has been nearly seven decades since Woods experienced his own bizarre death. He is now the focus of a book scheduled to come out within the next few months.
“I don’t look at him as an evil guy but as a guy who had to do something for which he volunteered to do,” said retired U.S. Army Col. French MacLean, the author of “American Hangman.” “I don’t think he was a sick serial murderer but you could have fooled the Germans. He behaved like a bum.
“When Woods was hanging people, he was the main primary actor. It was his show.”
MacLean is hopeful that there may be Kansans who remember stories about Woods that could lead to more understanding about the Nazi hangman.
A clouded backstory
What is known is that Woods was born June 5, 1911, in Wichita and attended Wichita High School — later named East High School. He dropped out after two years.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1929 and went AWOL after serving only a few months. MacLean said Woods was dishonorably discharged with a diagnosis of psychopathic inferiority without psychosis, a term coined in Germany in the 1880s to describe irredeemable criminals who had a mix of violent and antisocial characteristics.
Woods returned to Kansas after the Navy and worked in a variety of construction and farm-related jobs in Greenwood and Woodson counties during the Great Depression. He worked for a time for the Civilian Conservation Corps but was dishonorably charged from that after six months, MacLean said. He also worked at Boeing as a tool and die maker.
When the United States entered World War II, Woods enlisted in the U.S. Army which, MacLean said, he shouldn’t have been able to do since he had already been dishonorably discharged from the Navy. But it was in the days before internet and probably no one checked his records, MacLean said.
In 1943, he was assigned to Company B of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion in the Fifth Engineer Special Brigade. He may have participated in the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
Not long after, the Army put out word for an executioner, asking if anyone had experience, MacLean said. The Army had 96 U.S. soldiers tried with death penalty cases that were scheduled for execution in 1944, for crimes such as desertion, murder and rape while U.S. forces were in Africa and Europe. The most famous was Private Eddie Slovik, whose story was made into a television movie in 1974 starring Martin Sheen.
Some of those soldiers were executed by firing squad, such as Slavik. Others were hung.
Woods volunteered for the job, saying he had hanged two men in Texas and two in Oklahoma. No records exist showing that he did.
“The Army doesn’t check to find out —and I’m sure there was the thought, ‘How complicated could it (a hanging) be?’” MacLean said.
“He did not get wounded on Omaha Beech but he saw a bunch of guys get killed,” MacLean said. “I’m sure he thought, I do not want to go through that experience again. He was right on the border with Germany and about to cross the Rhine River. He probably thought he’d get hammered again. He volunteers to get out of the combat engineers. He is accepted and promoted from private to master sergeant and his pay goes from $50 to $138 a month.”
Woods became an international celebrity in October 1946 following the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.
He was assigned to kill 10 of the top Third Reich’s Nazi military and civilian officials who had been convicted of war crimes against humanity.
Woods would brag in a quote that ran in hundreds of papers and magazines around the world:
“I hanged those ten Nazis … and I’m proud of it … I wasn’t nervous … A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business.”
News of Wood’s participation in the hangings came as a surprise to his wife, Hazel, who was quoted in The Emporia Gazette on Oct. 17, 1946.
“He never told me that he was doing that type of work,” she told the paper. “He didn’t mention any hangings and the first I knew of it was when I saw his picture in the papers.”
The Wichita hangman would tell Time Magazine on Oct. 26, 1946:
“The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it. I got into it kind of by accident, years ago in the States.”
Time Magazine would call the executions at Nuremberg the “Night Without Dawn.”
“This was a night which had been longed for by millions in death cells, in all of Europe’s fearful prisons and pens. But now, in the piercing wind, victors and vanquished alike felt the chilling doubts that invariably attend man’s deliberate killing in the name of justice.”
Some would later claim the killings were botched — that Woods purposefully drew the deaths out so that the men did not hang but rather suffocated to death, taking 20 minutes or more to die.
One eyewitness account of the killings described it like this:
“When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body ... and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled,” reported Kingsbury Smith, a reporter with the International News Service on Oct. 16, 1946.
Some of the condemned men hit their heads on the platform as they dropped from the scaffolds, Time magazine reported.
“Those Nazis were bad, bad men,” MacLean said. “So if it took longer for them to die, maybe they should have thought of that as they were sending people to concentration camps.”
After the hangings, Woods bragged: “10 men in 106 minutes, that’s fast work.”
Yet, he worried there would be retribution by the Germans.
He became so worried by the way the Germans looked at him, he started carrying two .45 pistols, according to GetRuralKansas.com.
After the Nuremberg hangings, Woods would brag to people that he had executed as many as 347 men. In reality, MacLean said, it was closer to 90 men.
Woods continued serving the U.S. Army after the war.
On July 21, 1950, he was stationed on Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific, a testing ground for nuclear weapons. The island was populated with German and U.S. scientists and engineers working as part of Operation Paperclip in an effort to develop the U.S. aerospace, atomic weapons and military aircraft industries.
He was standing in a pool of water, changing light bulbs, when a current of electricity suddenly coursed through the water. Woods screamed and fell back into the water, dead.
His death was a “pedestrian end,” MacLean says, for a man who once held the world stage.
Woods “died faster than many of the men he executed.”
But his death may not have been an accident, MacLean says.
“The discussions on the internet about his death are legion,” MacLean said. “The Army ruled it an accident but the last chapter on my book is about Wood’s death. It will show the official Army report of investigation was flawed. It was wrong.”
The Nazi executioner is buried in a small cemetery in Toronto next to his wife, who died in 2000.