Hermann Goring's Mysterious Death
Updated: May 4
“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy,” said Hermann Goring after his conviction at Nuremberg.
Hitler’s secretary, Martin Bormann, held a strongly personal dislike for Hermann Göring. And on April 23, 1945, he saw a window to convince Hitler a telegram sent by Goring, suggesting Göring's take over Germany’s leadership, exposed the longtime deputy as a traitor. Hitler immediately authorized Göring’s arrest by the SS as being treasonous. Shortly afterwards, Göring then sent a letter with an aide to Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, seeking a personal meeting. A nearby U.S. Army officer, Brigadier-General Robert Stack, received the courier’s letter regarding an intent to surrender. The arrangements were made, and a meeting was established. After a prolonged standoff, General Stack directed Göring to get into the allied commander's vehicle. “Twelve years, I’ve had a good run for my money.” Göring responded.
Göring found his imprisonment at the infamous Nuremberg trial frustrating. He took pleasure in taunting guards and creating tension in the general area. At the same time, he also became friendly with other guards by signing autographs and exchanging common childhood or wartime stories. Göring was known to be a manipulative character capable of building influence over younger soldiers assigned to guard his cell or transfers. It was clear to the more senior offices; he was playing chess on a daily basis. He continued his game up until his final day, after being found guilty and sentenced to death, and his unexpected suicide by cyanide.
How did he obtain the cyanide capsule that ended his life?
Shortly before his suicide, Göring wrote a letter to prison governor Colonel Burton Andrus. In this letter Göring gloated that each time he entered the Nuremberg courtroom a cyanide capsule was concealed in his boot. In addition, he also kept a second capsule concealed at his cell inside the jar of face cream.
How did Göring possess these capsules? Did he have them since his capture by the Americans or were they obtained from a 3rd party after arriving at the prison? When Göring was apprehended by US forces, his large quantity of baggage was left intact and undisturbed until transfer to US custody. At that time, Göring’s baggage was searched for weapons and poison. After the search, all baggage was forwarded to Camp Ashcan and finally delivered to Nuremberg where it was kept under lock down. At Nuremberg Prison, inmates were permitted personal clothing, toiletries, photographs, and other items for personal use. Within Göring’s personal items were hair cream and hand cream. It seems unlikely someone would not have poked a finger into the jar to inspect the contents.
The glass cyanide capsule was concealed in a brass rifle cartridge type case 46 millimeters long, so it was quite difficult to hide. The mystery of how the poison was introduced into Goring's cell has been debated for decades. Below are the four most commonly held theories surrounding the suicide.
The baseline military belief held that Göring always had the cyanide capsule with him since arriving at the prison. The jar of cream was simply overlooked by the guards.
This possibility is based in Göring obtaining the poison while in prison. The suspects are prison guards comprised mostly of enlisted man. These men could have unwittingly or wittingly smuggled poison to Göring in return for valuable personal property.
A long-lasting theory involves US Lieutenant Jack Wheelis. It was observed, by multiple personnel, Wheelis developed a cozy relationship with Göring who was known to give various gifts for favors. One of Göring’s personal items included an expensive gold watch. A gold watch that Wheelis was later photographed wearing after Göring's death. Could Wheelis have been compromised to the point of risking serious punishment, if caught giving Göring a way out? It seems unrealistic that an experienced officer such as Wheelis would risk everything for souvenirs or gifts. Committing treason for wartime gifts just doesn’t sound probable. Unfortunately Wheelis died only eight years after Göring, and little was left to behind to understand his motivations. However, there are suggestions that Wheelis retrieved Göring’s jar of cream from the prison baggage store – the jar possibly containing a cyanide capsule. The trade of a watch for the jar was a gifted exchange, but Wheelis wouldn't have known cyanide was hidden inside the jar. That would lead to the conclusion of his being a willing and ignorant accomplice to the suicide.
In 1951 the former SS General Erich Julius Eberhard von Zelewski, a German commander claimed partial responsibility for getting the capsule to Göring. To support his claim, von Zelewski provided an identical suicide capsule. His capsule registered a serial number proving its manufacturing batch number as being the same as Göring’s capsule. Von Zelewski appeared at the Nuremberg trials as a witness for the prosecution and eventually lived a civilian life after being released from prison. One of the more curious aspects was von Zelewski’s never fully explaining how he got the poison to Göring. Von Zelewski died in 1973 without ever having answered the necessary details of his claim.
There is another suspect who came forward decades after Göring's death to claim responsibility. That man’s name was Edwin “Ned” Putzell. As an OSS member, Putzell was working within America's wartime intelligence organization - a direct forerunner to the CIA. Putzell was also an aide to OSS Chief William Donovan. Putzell claimed to have given cyanide to Göring as show of appreciation by the OSS. They were grateful for Göring's cooperation and aiding the organization in their forthcoming Cold War with the Soviet Union. William Donovan, with a grudgingly British agreement, ordered Putzell to give Göring poison as a gesture of mercy, “he was glad to have it. It was better than being hanged.” In 2003, Putzell claimed the cyanide pill was his own, issues to all OSS agents in the event of capture. He stated it was simply handed to Göring in a meeting. The problem with the story? The cyanide pill Putzell described was different from the crushed glass capsule found in Göring's mouth after the suicide.
In 2005, a new suspect came forward to claim responsibility. This time our witness claimed firsthand evidence of unwittingly giving Göring the suicide capsule. Herbert Lee Stivers was a guard at the prison and remained silent 60+ years for fear of punishment. Stivers’ story has caught the attention of historians with many believing his story to be plausible. Stivers was a 19-year-old private in 1946 and, like many other young men during the war, met an attractive local woman. The woman eventually suggested Stivers deliver special medicine to the prison for Göring. The old war game of sexual entrapment. By his own admission, Stivers highly enjoyed his time with Göring. They passed their days chatting about sports and airplanes. He was a memorabilia collector it seems. One day at the local market, Stivers was approached by a flirtatious brunette named “Mona”. The brunette took an interest in his guard duty job. She playfully refused to believe Stivers was guarding Germany’s remaining leaders. To prove his story, he collected a few autographs for Mona including a specific request for Baldur von Schirach’s signature. That should have been a flag, right? Von Schirach was the former leader of the Hitler youth. Mona kept the autograph and the next day Stivers obtained Göring's autograph for her as well. A few days later, Mona introduced Stivers to her friends “Erik” and “Mathias”. The two men told Stivers that Göring was terribly ill and not being given medication in prison. On two occasions, Stiver explains notes from these two men to Göring were smuggled into the prison - hidden in a fountain pen. "He [Erich] said it was medication, and that if it worked and Göring felt better, they'd send him some more," Mr Stivers recalled. The 3rd time Eric put a capsule in the pen Stivers gave to Göring. Surprisingly, after the pen was returned to Mona, he never saw her or the two German men again. Stivers believes Göring was never in a suicidal frame of mind and he would never have knowingly given the prisoner a suicide capsule. Two weeks after the last delivery, on the Eve of his execution, Göring committed suicide. After a thorough search of Göring's belongings in the prison, another cyanide capsule was found hidden inside his luggage. That additional capsule only reinforced the belief of Göring smuggling two capsules into the prison. Whether or not Stivers was telling the truth 60 years later is impossible to prove.
The United States investigation into Göring's death concluded the capsule was always in his possession. They believed Göring continually moved the capsule into different locations to conceal its location. If he had the capsule for any length of time it appears to have been hidden in a jar of hand cream. Göring admitted as much in his note to Colonel Andrus. Or was he protecting someone through the entire process?
The most logical option in the process would be Jack Wheelis. Why? Wheelis was an officer who gave less supervised access to his movements around the prison. Wheelis had a key to the baggage room container Göring’s belongings. Lastly, his apparent friendship with Göring may have been a motivation to retrieve the jar of cream from storage. Each of those movements could have been accomplished without any supervision or logs of activity.
As a “thank you” to his requests, Göring possibly gave Wheelis his valuable gold watch among other gifts. Inside the jar of cream, retrieved by Wheelis, was the cyanide capsule. Göring planned and hid one cyanide capsules in the jar of cream and another in his luggage. Both capsules were not found during inspections.
The Wheelis scenario is the simplest and most obvious way of introducing the poison into Göring’s cell. The ending result doesn’t involve an elaborate plot or intended treason. It was painfully clear that advance planning by Göring and poor inspection at the prison were the primary culprits.