Johann Reichhart

Johann Reichhart

Johann Reichhert in “work” clothes

 

Guillotine used by Reichert found in storage in 2014

Johann Reichhart was born on April 29, 1893 in Wichenbach near Wörth an der Donau into a family of executioners going back eight generations.  During World War I, he served in the trenches at Verdun.  On March 23, 1924, Reichhart applied to the Bavarian State Ministry of Justice in Munich for the position of executioner.  The administration accepted his offer, allocated 150 Goldmark for each execution he performed and announced, “From April 1, 1924, Reichhart takes over the execution of all death sentences coming in the Free State of Bavaria to the execution by beheading with the guillotine.”  His career began on July 4, 1924 – when he beheaded two men on the guillotine at Landshut – spanned the time of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

Application Document for Johann Reichhart

In 1929, however, his reputation was such that he fled Germany to Holland, opening a vegetable market in The Hague.  During these years, he returned to Bavaria only when he received an encrypted telegram informing him of an assigned execution.  With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Reichhart returned to Germany and joined the Nazi Party four years later.  The Nazis proved prolific superiors and Reichhart made so much money as an executioner that in 1942 he bought a private home in the Gleisse Valley, near Deisenhofen, south of Munich.  Reichhart executed 3,165 people, most of them during the period 1939 – 1945 when, according to his own records, he put 2,876 men and women to death.  In this Third Reich era, the executions derived largely from heavy sentences handed down by the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) for political crimes such as treason, and included Sophie and Hans Scholl of the German resistance movement White Rose (Reichhart executed them at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.)  Most of these sentences were carried out by Fallbeil (“drop hatchet”), a shorter, largely metal re-designed German version of the French guillotine.  Reichhart served as one of four principal executioners in the Third Reich.

Johann Reichhart (center) in 1924 at one of his first executions

Reichhart was very strict in his execution protocol, wearing the traditional German executioners’ attire of black coat, white shirt and gloves, black bow tie and top hat.  He initially served as the Bavarian State Executioner.  His work took him to many parts of occupied Europe, including Poland and Austria.  He claimed during questioning that, toward the end of the war, as the allied armies closed in, he supposedly disposed of his mobile guillotine in a river, a claim that seems to be related to almost every guillotine in Germany at the end of the conflict.

Following Victory in Europe Day in 1945, Reichhart, who was a member of the Nazi Party, was arrested for the purposes of denazification, but was not immediately tried for carrying out his duty as one of the primary judicial executioners in the Third Reich.  He was subsequently employed by the Occupation Authorities beginning in November 1945, to help execute Nazi war criminals at Landsberg am Lech by hanging.  He appears to have worked for the Americans only through May 1946.  According to a reliable source, Reichhart spoke to the prison commandant, sometime after hanging seven men on May 29, stating that he was worried that he was executing some innocent men.  He stated that, although he was afraid of repercussions, he would rather face judicial proceedings than continue as the hangman.  One source states that one of his sons assisted him at Landsberg in the executions; photographic records can not confirm that.  One source credits Reichhart with hanging 42 German war criminals after the war, but it is far more likely that he hanged only 21 condemned men at Landsberg Prison and was not involved in any way with the Nürnberg executions.

His work at Landsberg terminated, police arrested Reichhart at his home in May 1947 and took him to an internment camp at Moosburg an der Isar.  His court proceedings began on December 13, 1948 at Munich.  On November 29, 1949, in a German (probably Bavarian) tribunal, Reichhart was sentenced to strict punishment measures.  The court sentenced him to two years confinement in a labor camp and confiscation of 50% of his assets.  He was forbidden from ever holding public office, voting or the right to engage in politics.  Finally, Reichhart was forbidden to own a motor vehicle or possess a driver’s license.  He also was ordered to pay 26,000 marks for the cost of the trial.

Johann Reichhart adjusting rope prior to hanging Martin Weiss, former commandant of Dachau and Neuengamme concentration camps.

Financially ruined, his marriage failed, and one son, Hans, committed suicide in 1950 (he was 23.)  In 1963, there were public demands, during a series of taxi driver murders, for the re-introduction of the death penalty in West Germany and Reichhart was vocal in his support for this legislation.  He maintained that the preferred method of killing should be the guillotine, as it was the fastest and cleanest method of execution.

Johann Reichhart died in in a nursing home at Dorfen near Erding, Bavaria, on April 26, 1972.   On May 2, 1972, his body was cremated at the crematorium at the Ostfriedhof in Munich.  He is buried in in the Ostfriedhof in a family grave (Section 47, Row 2, #21) that also contains his two sons and his uncle, Franz Xavier, a prolific executioner in his own right.

Johann Reichhart’s Grave

 

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John C. Woods

John C. Woods, Master Sergeant and U. S. Army hangman, was born in Wichita, Kansas on June 5, 1911.  Prior to his induction in the Army on August 30, 1943, he lived in Eureka, Kansas; he was married with no children.  After his parents separated, Woods attended high school for one year, before dropping out.  In 1933, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, but was dishonorably discharged on September 27, 1933 after being AWOL for six days and refusing to work.  At his induction, he was listed as having blue eyes, brown hair with a ruddy complexion, standing 5’4½” tall and weighing 130 pounds.  He reported to basic training on September 19, 1943; in early 1944, he deployed on a troopship to England and was assigned to FFRD #4.  On March 30, 1944, he was assigned to Company B of the 37th Engineer Combat Battalion in the 5th Engineer Special Brigade.  Morning reports for that unit do not indicate that Woods was ever absent from the command in the first six months; he therefore likely took part in the Normandy Invasion, where Company B invaded Omaha Beach, losing 4 KIA, 15 WIA and 3 MIA in just the first day.

Woods left Company B on October 3, 1944 for duty in the Normandy Base Section.  He was attached to the 2913th Disciplinary Training Center in 1944; orders in December 1944 show him assigned to the Provost Marshal Section in the Headquarters of the Brittany Base Section.  Woods was formally assigned to the 2913th Disciplinary Training Center on February 12, 1945; on May 7, 1945, he was assigned to the Headquarters of the Normandy Base Section, but was attached back to the 2913th for duty.

However, unknown to the Army, there was a dark secret about John C. Woods.  On December 3, 1929, John Woods joined the United States Navy.  He reported to the west coast.  After initial training, he received an assignment for the U.S.S. Saratoga.  Within months, Woods deserted.  Authorities apprehended him in Colorado and returned him to California, where he received a General Court-Martial.  After the conviction, a Navy medical officer recommended that a medical board examine Woods.  This happened on April 23, 1930.  The report following the examination read:

“This patient, though not intellectually inferior, gives a history of repeatedly running counter to authority both before and since enlistment.  Stigmata of degeneration are present and the patient frequently bites his fingernails.  He has a benign tumor of the soft palate for which he refuses operation.  His commanding officer and division officers state that he shows inaptitude and does not respond to instruction.  He is obviously poor service material.  This man has had less than five months service.  His disability is considered to be an inherent defect for which the service is in no way responsible.  [He] is not considered a menace to himself or others.”

The report also provided a diagnosis for John Woods – Constitutional Psychopathic Inferiority without Psychosis.  The Navy then discharged him.

On September 3, 1945, Master Sergeant Woods was released from attachment and assigned to the Headquarters CHANOR Base Section.  During 1944 and 1945, Master Sergeant Woods hanged about thirty U.S. soldiers, who had been sentenced to death.  After the war, he hanged dozens of Nazi war criminals at the Landsberg Military Prisoner, often in conjunction with Johann Reichhart – who had executed thousands of condemned persons during the Third Reich.  Woods gained international fame in October 1946, as the official hangman for the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg. Woods executed ten senior German military and civilian officials previously convicted of egregious crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and war crimes – the condemned included Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Colonel General Alfred Jodl, former head of the SS Ernst Kaltenbrunner, former Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Fritz Sauckel and Arthur Seyss-Inquart.  Post-execution photos indicate that the trap door mechanism was flawed and that several of the condemned hit the door with their face as they plummeted downward.  During his supposed 15-year career as a hangman, he reportedly executed 347 men, but this is undoubtedly a large exaggeration as Woods was a heavy drinker and self-aggrandizer.  An 11-year search of military records indicates that it is far more likely that Woods had a 2-year career and hanged 60-100 men.

Dual gallows at Landsberg Military Prison, May 1946.  Johann Reichhart hanged the condemned on the right gallows.  Master Sergeant John C. Woods used the left gallows.

Master Sergeant Woods was accidentally electrocuted on July 21, 1950 on Eniwetok Atoll, while attempting to repair an engineer lighting set (not while constructing an electric chair, which is part of his myth.  Another anecdote from Europe after his death was that German scientists on Eniwetok as part of Operation Paperclip murdered Woods and made it look like an accident.)

He was survived by his wife.

John C. Woods with wife in 1946; this photo and several others of Woods in The Fifth Field were graciously supplied by the Associated Press archives

Woods is buried in the modest city cemetery in Toronto, Kansas, a small town 60 miles east of Wichita.  John C. Woods received no individual military awards during his career for his service as a hangman.

Grave stone for Master Sergeant John C. Woods

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