The Nuremberg Hangings — Not So Smooth Either





Before we set aside the topic of Iraq’s botched hangings, which continue to cause a fair bit of consternation there, a reader reminds us to flash back to 1946, and the conclusion of the trials at Nuremberg, in which 11 high-ranking Nazi officers were ultimately condemned to death by hanging. One of them, Hermann Göring, managed to finish himself in his cell with a cyanide capsule just hours before the execution was to take place, but the others took their trip to the gallows.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the first to go. From an Oct. 28, 1946 dispatch in Time magazine headlined “Night Without Dawn” (the ellipses are in the original):

At 1:11 a.m. he entered the gymnasium, and all officers, official witnesses and correspondents rose to attention. Ribbentrop’s manacles were removed and he mounted the steps (there were 13) to the gallows. With the noose around his neck, he said: “My last wish … is an understanding between East and West. …” All present removed their hats. The executioner tightened the noose. A chaplain standing beside him prayed. The assistant executioner pulled the lever, the trap dropped open with a rumbling noise, and Ribbentrop’s hooded figure disappeared. The rope was suddenly taut, and swung back & forth, creaking audibly.

The executioner was U.S. Master Sergeant John C. Woods, 43, of San Antonio, a short, chunky man who in his 15 years as U.S. Army executioner has hanged 347 people. Said he afterwards: “I hanged those ten Nazis … and I am proud of it. … I wasn’t nervous. … A fellow can’t afford to have nerves in this business. … I want to put in a good word for those G.I.s who helped me … they all did swell. … I am trying to get [them] a promotion. … 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 “


Ten more executions would follow that evening, but for all of Sergeant Woods’ experience (and for all of the collected wisdom the military had at its disposal on proper hanging techniques), the Nuremberg executions were, it seems, a ghoulishly untidy affair.

Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., a professor of law at the University of Georgia Law School, noted that many of the executed Nazis fell from the gallows with insufficient force to snap their necks, resulting in a macabre, suffocating death struggle that in some cases lasted many, many minutes:



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Lisa Kazmier - 1/20/2007

I thought the conspirators hung for the death of Lincoln also mainly suffocated. Indeed, I thought there were varying views on whether death should be instantaneous (neck snapped) or achieved via aphyxiation. Background, anyone?

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