Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, IA: A Unique Slice of History

A Revolutionary Concept in 19th-Century Incarceration

As you stroll through the streets of Council Bluffs, Iowa, the unique structure of the Squirrel Cage Jail is bound to catch your eye. Its Victorian style and detailed brickwork might even fool you into thinking it’s a relic of a rich past, perhaps the residence of a prominent business person. But the truth is far more intriguing.

The Squirrel Cage Jail, officially known as the Pottawattamie County Jail, was built in 1885. It was designed by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh of Indianapolis, Indiana, with the revolutionary idea of maximum security with minimal jailer attention.

Imagine an entire jail controlled by just one jailer, where the cells and prisoners come to the jailer simply by turning a crank. This concept was as ingenious as it was unprecedented.

The jail incorporated a rotary design, with pie-shaped cells that revolved inside a cage. Such a design minimizes contact between prisoners and jailers, optimizing security and efficiency.

The Operational Years: Challenges and Closure

The Squirrel Cage Jail‘s operation years were not without their share of difficulties. While it initially faced criticism for being too plush for prisoners, the jail later came under fire for its inhumane conditions and the inherent dangers posed by its unique design.

In the early days, each pie-shaped cell was equipped with its toilet, a luxury many county residents couldn’t boast of at the time. However, the jail’s structure presented severe hazards. As the cells moved past the stationary bars, there was a risk of prisoners’ limbs being severed.

Furthermore, the revolving mechanism was prone to mechanical issues, and the massive three-story cage was hard to keep in balance.

Eventually, following an incident where a prisoner’s death went unnoticed for two days due to a malfunction, the rotary mechanism was disabled in 1960. However, the jail continued to operate until 1969, when it finally closed its doors.

From Jail to Museum: Preserving a Unique Legacy

After its closure, the Squirrel Cage Jail faced the threat of demolition, much like its counterparts in other parts of the country. However, the Council Bluffs Park Board acquired the building in 1971, and the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, took ownership in 1979.

The jail’s transformation into a museum has been a significant endeavor, with many of the building’s original features preserved. Even today, visitors can explore the historic mechanical jail, though the once whirling cage no longer turns​.

The Pottawattamie County Jail, or the Squirrel Cage Jail as it’s popularly known, is unique in its architectural design and has a fascinating history, making it an important historical site.

The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County has worked hard to preserve the jail’s history and significance, showcasing the innovations in incarceration techniques and providing insights into the lives of the inmates who once resided within its walls.

Today’s museum is a testament to the jail’s unique design and the history it encapsulates.

The Squirrel Cage Jail museum showcases the original pie-shaped cells and the jailer’s office, displaying artifacts and items related to the jail’s history. The original cells, revolving mechanism, and other architectural elements are still preserved today, offering visitors a glimpse into the past.

The unique history and eerie aura of the Squirrel Cage Jail haven’t gone unnoticed by popular culture. In 1945, the jail was featured in an episode of the old-time radio program “Gang Busters,” where the escape artist John K. Giles was reportedly captured and sent to the “Pottawattamie Prison” with its impregnable bars and wall microphones.

More recently, in 2019, the jail served as the backdrop for a chilling episode of “Ghost Adventures” titled “Serial Killer Spirits: Axe-Killer Jail,” showcasing its haunted reputation and further cementing its place in popular culture.

Despite its troubled history, the Squirrel Cage Jail stands as a symbol of Council Bluffs’ past. It serves as a reminder of the city’s rich history, an embodiment of a unique architectural concept, and a prominent feature in the tapestry of American popular culture.

Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs
Squirrel Cage Jail” by mlaaker is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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