Con artist who tricked US Army into promoting him to be their hangman
JOHN C WOODS killed an estimated 347 men, up close and personal, during the Secondworldwar and in its aftermath.
But he wasn’t a war hero. US Army Master Sgt Woods was the American military’s chief executioner, whose extraordinary story is told for the first time in the book American Hangman.
It reveals a troubled pyschopath who botched executions and only applied for the job to avoid fighting.
After the Nuremberg trials in 1946, Woods sent 10 of the Third Reich’s surviving leaders to their deaths, one after another. He executed dozens of others linked to the regime, often inexpertly.
“Woods became famous worldwide, an unlikely hero, exacting revenge for the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, and for the Nazis who plunged the world into war,” says the book’s author, Colonel French Maclean (US Army, Ret.)
“But most extraordinary was the fact that Woods was a psychopath who lied his way into the hangman’s job, botched a succession of executions with his incompetence, and only became the Army’s hangman to avoid combat.
“When the US Army was looking for an executioner in 1944 Woods claimed to have experience performing hangings in Texas and Oklahoma. It was all lies, but the Army didn’t care, they needed a hangman, and very few people wanted the job.
“His inexperience led many condemned men to painfully long deaths.woods didn’t weigh or measure his victims, and in his early career didn’t stretch the rope beforehand so that it wouldn’t lengthen under weight. He didn’t tie a traditional hangman’s noose, but used a cowboy noose he’d seen in the movies, with 13 knots that he claimed he’d invented.
“Some of his victims took up to 28 minutes to die. Paul Kluxdal was 6ft tall, and when the trapdoor opened his feet hit the ground. He tiptoed for 18 agonising minutes before he was finally declared dead.
“At the Nuremberg executions Woods made the trapdoors too small, so that several of the condemned hit their heads on their way down, and were bleeding profusely while hanging.
“I think he was inept, not sadistic, though I’m convinced that Woods deliberately inflicted a painful death on Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, who shouted ‘Heil Hitler’ on entering the Nuremberg gymnasium where three gallows had been erected, and who spat at Woods on the platform.
“As he placed the hood over Streicher’s head Woods was seen smiling as he moved the noose from the side of Streicher’s neck, where it would make a quick break, to the centre where his neck wouldn’t break and he would slowly asphyxiate.
“Woods wanted to be the main attraction in his theatre of death, and didn’t want to be upstaged by what he viewed as a subordinate actor stealing the scene.”
Asked how he felt half-way through the Nuremberg hangings, Woods replied: “Ok!when’s early chow?”
Losing track of how many he had killed, Woods encouraged the myth that his toll was 347, though Maclean suspects it was closer to 100.
Barely 5ft 4in, overweight and balding, Woods was dishevelled. “His dress was always sloppy,” said Woods’s wartime friend Herman Obermayer. “His dirty pants were unpressed. His jacket looked as though he had slept in it for weeks.”
A troubled alcoholic from a broken home, raised by grandparents in Wichita, Kansas, after his parents divorced when he was two,woods quit school at 15 and had jobs as a builder, newspaper boy and hearse driver before enlisting in the Navy at 18, in 1929.Within days he was declared a deserter and court-martialed.a psychiatric evaluation found that Woods rebelled against authority and suffered “constitutional psychopathic inferiority”, and he was drummed out of the Navy.
Four years later he signed up for the Government’s Civilian Conservation Corps building roads and bridges. Weeks later he was dishonourably discharged for insubordination and going Awol.
When America entered the Second World War in 1941 Woods was on probation for cheque fraud and ineligible for the draft. Only after his probation ended in 1944 was Woods inducted into the US Army Corps of Engineers.
“As a combat engineerwoods was horrified to find himself hitting Omaha Beach first during the Allied invasion in June 1944, tasked with deactivating mines and obstacles before the infantry landed,” says Maclean. “His unit took terrible casualties, and he was lucky to survive.
“Woods vowed never to face combat again, and when the US Army put out the
‘His inexperience led many to long deaths’ ‘He may have been murdered – Nazi scientists had chosen to work with the US’ ‘He enjoyed the work and they needed him’
call for a hangman, he saw it as a way to avoid being in the front lines again.”
Britain’s executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, and his uncle Thomas had performed all US Army hangings early in the war, but once the Allies reached the Continent the US needed its own hangman.
Woods was promoted to Master Sgt, the highest non-commissioned rank, and embraced the job, learning as he went, much to his victims’ chagrin. “He enjoyed the work,” says Maclean. “He was arrogant and insubordinate to senior officers, but they needed him.”
Woods claimed that hanging was quick and painless, saying: “I can’t think of a better way to die.” He conducted his last execution in October 1946, and then was returned to the US Army Corps of Engineers, assigned to the Pacific atoll of Enewetak where the US held nuclear bomb tests. He was repairing a lighting cable in 1950 when he was electrocuted.
“Friends believe he may have been murdered,” reveals Maclean. “The cable he was working on was rigged to carry a current whether the switch was turned on or off. There were former Nazi scientists and engineers who had chosen to work for the US, and they had the skill to set the cable to killwoods in revenge.
“Woods got his wish, and died instantly. He’d probably say that he won the game.”
● American Hangman, (Schiffer, £28.99), published October 28