Squirrel cage Jail History

The Squirrel Cage Jail is a rotary jail, one of eighteen made as technological advances of their day in the 1880s. Squirrel Cage is the largest and weighs around 45 tons empty. It’s been called a “19th-century marvel.”

The idea was that the giant, circular, three-floor, metal drum sat inside a building with steel-lined walls rotated on its base via a crank which the jailor used to move the cell he needed to a set position in order access to the only door.

It was designed so that only a single jailor was required to watch a whole jail full of prisoners, with just one door that couldn’t be accessed unless the drum and cell were in the right position. Only one prisoner could ever exist at one time, the rest were simply trapped.

squirrel cage jail cells

Council Bluffs, Iowa was a lawless place in the 1880s, and Pottawattamie County taxpayers went for the cheaper option of technology in the form of its “human rotary,” rather than expensive manpower to guard and imprison local criminals.

Squirrel Cage Jail was deemed a failure just a few years after it opened, it made a horrible noise as it moved, torturing all around it and its gears kept jamming, risking starving inmates when jailors just couldn’t get to them. And, all prisoners were kept in close confines in adjacent cells and not segregated, prostitutes were imprisoned next to ax murderers and petty fraudsters next to rapists.

Even worse, crazed residents would put their arms and legs out of the bars as the jail rotated, causing gruesome breaks and injuries.

The building was frequently condemned but taxpayers refused to pay for another and Squirrel Cage was kept going, year after year, until a Fire Marshall permanently disabled it in the 1960s when it took TWO DAYS to reach the body of a prisoner who died in his cell.

Jake Bird

Infamous Residents

During its tenure, the Squirrel Cage Jail housed mass murderer Jake Bird, a transient who may have killed up to 46 people using either an ax or a hatchet and who spent 31 years in jail in Michigan, Iowa, and Utah.

At his trial he put the “Jake Bird Hex” on those he saw as involved in punishing him, saying they would die before he did. As the story goes, allegedly six did including the judge who died within a month, the court’s chief clerk, two police officers who took confessions and the killer’s lawyer who died on the first anniversary of his sentencing. Bird was hanged in 1949.

Squirrel Cage also imprisoned Charles Noel Brown who went on a three-day drunken murder spree and was eventually the last man hanged in Iowa in 1962. His noose is on display at the Squirrel Cage Jail.

Squirrel Cage Jail Ghosts

What Makes it Haunted?

The jail’s paranormal history dates back to the 1900s and even jailors in the 1950s refused to sleep in certain parts of the prison. Kat Slaughter the Historical and Preservation Society of Pottawattamie County (HSPS) museum manager says staff and volunteers at the jail have heard footsteps, voices, whispers, and experienced doors moving and shadows moving across stairs and doorways.

She believes the Squirrel Cage Jail ghosts could have originated from the four known deaths in the building. One prisoner fell three stories to his death whilst trying to carve his name on the ceiling, another hung himself, one died of a heart attack, and a jail officer was shot and killed it

The Jail has appeared on the Travel Channel’s Most Terrifying Places and Ghost Adventures Serial Killer Spirits. Paranormal investigators have recorded voices and sounds that weren’t there and caught shadows in photos and videos of the site.

This is just a little of the Squirrel Cage Jail’s story.

More About Squirrel Cage Jail

The Squirrel Cage Jail was built in 1885 and was in use until 1969. When in 1969 the jail was declared “unfit for human habitation” its prisoners were moved to other locations. Despite the jail’s dark and morbid history, members of the Historical Society stood reportedly stood in front of bulldozers to prevent it from being demolished.

The “human rotary,” or “lazy Susan,” design was the invention of William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, from Indianapolis, Indiana. They received a patent for their “maximum security with minimum jailer attention,” jail in 1881. The Squirrel Cage Jail was built for the equivalent of around $30,000. It was taken over by the Council Bluffs Park Board in 1971 for preservation. In 1972 it was added to the National Register of History Places by the US government. The Historical Society campaigned to save the jail in 1977 and it now owns and manages the building.

The jail’s cells still keep the signatures and dates of its prisoners, some of them quite infamous, which are scratched on the walls.

The Squirrel Cage Jail now hosts tours, ghost hunts, paranormal investigations, and overnight fundraisers. It is one of only three rotary jails that remain, all of which have been preserved as museums.

Ryan Roenfeld, the past president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County which now owns the jail says the jail is just as “grungy and horrible,” as during its last days of operation. Where other rotary jails have been cleaned and sanitized before being opened to the public, the Squirrel Cage Jail is more “interesting,” retaining its horrid environment, and possibly some of the spirits of its last inmates, to the end.

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