The name John C. Woods may not be familiar to most Americans, but it turns out the Wichita native played a unique role in history in the aftermath of World War II. As the Wichita Eagle explains, Woods was a US Army executioner who hanged 10 prominent Nazi war criminals after the Nuremberg trials. His story, one that includes allegations that he deliberately prolonged those hangings and ends with his own suspicious death in 1950, may become better known with the release of the book American Hangman later this year. The Eagle talks to the author, retired US Army Col. French MacLean, for the broad strokes. One of the first disturbing bits is that Woods was dishonorably discharged from the Navy prior to joining the Army and diagnosed with "psychopathic inferiority without psychosis," a term associated with violent criminals.
He managed to join the Army anyway amid WWII and eventually volunteered for his executioner duties. Woods executed an estimated 90 men, says MacLean, but he became internationally known for his killing of the Nazis. "I'm proud of it," he would say. Eyewitnesses say some of the hangings appear to have been botched, either out of incompetence or malice. One man reportedly took 28 minutes to die. An earlier book, The Nazi Hunters, also chronicled Woods' role, and the Dallas Morning News points out that the "Nazi elite" dispatched by Woods probably were affronted by an executioner who was "slovenly, unshaven, with crooked yellow teeth and dirty, unpressed pants and an insubordinate attitude." Woods was fatally electrocuted in 1950 while standing in a pool of water and changing light bulbs, but MacLean asserts that the Army investigation into his death was wrong, suggesting foul play. (Read more World War II stories.)