Squirrel Cage Jail

One of the last of its kind, Squirrel Cage Jail’s rotary system reportedly keeps ghosts in lock up

Squirrel Cage Jail’s Impressive Paranormal Claims

Squirrel Cage Jail Welcomes you

Standing stubbornly in the middle of the parking lot of the Pottawattamie County Courthouse is a well-preserved relic of law enforcement’s past. With only a few like it ever being built, and only a select handful still standing, Pottawattamie County’s former rotary jail, now known as the Squirrel Cage Jail, is a treasure of penitentiary past. But, legend suggests that there are more than just empty cells and artifacts in this local jail museum, and that inmate spirits are still serving time at Squirrel Cage Jail.

Squirrel Cage Jail’s Innovative Design

In the era before fire and safety regulations, America was a free market of infrastructural innovation. For some, that meant designing door knobs that were more beautiful than functional; for others that meant flipping an entire design system on its head. The latter was the goal when the Pottawattamie County Board approved the construction of a new courthouse and jail in the early 1880s.

A new system promised maximum cell space with minimal jailer oversight required, demonstrating immense cost savings. The county jumped on the idea, and the layout design proved so streamlined that the whole jail was built in just five months, a full three years before the courthouse was finished.

The end result was the largest rotary jail ever built. Rotary jails functioned much differently than a traditional cell block. Pie-slice cells were arranged in a circle around a central room with only one opening, so the only way for someone to get out of their cell was for the entire cell block to be rotated on gears until the cell door and the central door aligned.

With only one opening available and a massive machine required to allow entry and exit from cells, major jail breaks were functionally impossible, and a whole block required only one gear operator / jailer to function.

While modern safety standards would have scrapped this idea before a single brick was laid, the citizens of Council Bluffs soon decried the project for being too luxurious. The cells sported built-in plumbing, which many homes still lacked. And, having only one guard meant jailer-on-prisoner abuses were kept to a minimum.

Regardless of the public’s opinions though, the project was completed and in 1885 the 90,000 pound, three-story rotary cage was opened to its first group of inmates: a murderer, a horse thief, a family of fraudsters, a con man, and a man guilty of finance and revenue violations. But, despite the public’s initial belief the jail was too ritzy for prisoners, their mood quickly changed as the rotary kept turning.

Squirrel Cage Jail's unique triangular cells

Squirrel Cage Jail presents the risks
of an inescapable jail

By 1910, incidents at the Squirrel Cage Jail were piling up, as were high-profile news stories of other rotary jail horror shows. Much in the same way early elevators hacked off limbs with their vertical movement, rotary jails did the same with their horizontal movement, causing injuries and even fatalities.

Many other rotary jails were either torn down or converted to regular jail systems, as the rotary system would not only sever limbs and crush skulls, but was also a fire hazard with no way to easily escape.

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Voters of Council Bluffs rejected a plan to build a new jail, and the rotary cage jail kept turning for decades longer. But, in 1960, another incident proved to be the final straw…

When an inmate died of natural causes in their cell, the rotary system broke down and the prisoner was unable to be retrieved for several days, after which the heavy stench of rotting flesh had already infected the entire jailhouse. At last, Squirrel Cage Jail’s rotary system was shut down, and the entire jail was replaced in 1969.

Squirrel Cage Jail Without Inmates

After a few years of emptiness and the possibility of being torn down, Squirrel Cage Jail was acquired by the county historical society in 1977 and converted into a museum. The museum still thrives as an educational resource and historical preservation center still today, greeting countless tourists every year who are hoping to learn more about this unique jail design.

And, through its years of public availability, many visitors have come away from their tours with more than just history on their mind.

Is Squirrel Cage Jail Haunted?

Hauntings have been rumored to hang around the jail, and throngs of tourists only further these legends as they leave the museum having encountered strange shadows, unexplained voices, and even full bodied apparitions. But the paranormal history of the Squirrel Cage Jail goes back even further than tourist reports.

Paranormal reports around the Squirrel Cage Jail have been common since all the way back in the 1950s, when a jailer refused to use the fourth-floor jailer apartment due to sounds of loud footsteps coming from nowhere, also with uneasy and unexplainable sensations.

Former Employees still on Guard

These sensations, said to feel like you’re being watched by some unseen entity, are still often reported on the third and fourth floors today. The activity on the upper floors of the building has been attributed to J.M. Carter, a jailer who oversaw the building’s original construction and served as the first tenant of the apartment. Now, as legend says, he continues to watch over the building today.

A full-bodied apparition has also been seen on the fourth floor of the jail, having been identified as Otto Gufath, another former jail overseer. Down in the cell block, another more surprising apparition is known to appear.

An Unexpected Spirit in
Squirrel Cage Jail

Visitors touring the cell block have reported the sight of a sad little girl locked in one of the cells, almost always appearing very sad. Occasionally, the little girl’s appearance corresponds with people feeling tugs on their clothes, as if she is reaching out to get someone’s attention.

The little girl’s voice has been heard echoing through the jail at times as well, sometimes accompanied by the sights and sounds of two different ghost cats said to wander the building.

Other Claims of the Paranormal at Squirrel Cage Jail

Tourists and paranormal enthusiasts who have gone through the building have further reported doors opening and closing without explanation, as well as heard whispers in their ears out of thin air.

Others still have frequently spotted moving shadows throughout the building, often darting across hallways or into/out of certain rooms. Paranormal investigators who have investigated the jail in the past have come away with numerous potential EVP recordings as well as anomalous photographs and videos from their time there.

Squirrel Cage Jail is no stranger to its supposed paranormal activity, and is in fact quite open about the jail’s ghost stories. Despite being owned by the county historical society, the jail museum remains open for paranormal-specific tours and even overnight investigations for the bravest of paranormal enthusiasts.

Tours and investigations at the Squirrel Cage Jail have proven more popular than ever following a feature in a 2019 episode of Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, and if you’re interested in booking one for yourself you can do so right through the Pottawattamie County Historical Society’s website. So though rotary jails have gone the way of the rotary phone, the ghostly gears at Squirrel Cage Jail might just always be turning in spirit, as phantom jailers make sure their inmates stay locked up, like squirrels in a cage.