Historical Society of
County Seat Council Bluffs, Iowa
History of the "Squirrel Cage" Jail...
By Ryan Roenfeld and Richard Warner
It was a ingenious idea of unprecedented efficiency. An entire jail, full of prisoners, all controlled by just one jailer.
Instead of going to the cells, the jailer could bring the cells and prisoners to him, simply by turning a crank. And the level of security was unprecedented. Until the rotating cage of a pie shaped cell was aligned perfectly with the one opening in the outside bars, there was no way out.
The patent for the rotating jail that promised “maximum security with minimum jailer attention” was issued to the Indianapolis firm of William Brown and Benjamin Haugh in 1881.
The potential economic benefits of a jail requiring such minimal staff were quickly seized upon by the Pottawattamie County Board who the next year commissioned St. Joseph architects Eckel and Mann to design a jail incorporating this revolutionary new concept. Local officials journeyed to Maysville, Missouri to tour one of these new generation of jails and returned home impressed.
A bond issue was passed in 1885 to build the new jail, and a new court house as well.
The county’s plans for the jail were grand. Unlike the single story, eight cell prototype in Maysville the jail in Council Bluffs was to be four stories with a huge three level rotating cage weighing 90,000 pounds. In contrast to the spartan, stark metal interior Eckel and Mann designed the building exterior to look like anything but for it’s intended purpose. With its Victorian style, detailed brickwork, Romanesque arched windows, and limestone trim it would have appeared to be a home for one of the city’s prominent businessmen rather than a domicile for those at the opposite end of the county’s social spectrum.
The building took just five months to complete. It welcomed it’s first residents September 11, 1885... murderer Cuff Johnson, horse thief Miles Mullen, forger Frank Scofield, confidence man Ed Rankin, John Gordon who had violated revenue laws, and Mr. and Mrs. Brock along with their daughter, all doing time for larceny.
Though later decried as an inhumane and dangerous facility initially Sheriff Theodore Guittar had to endure a barrage of criticism that it was much to plush for prisoners. Wags dubbed it “Hotel Guittar” and decried the coddling of the lawless. Each pie shaped cell had its own toilet, years before many county residents could boast a similar convenience.
Though captivating in theory, in practice the revolving jails had complications. Prisoners could have legs or arms severed as their cells moved past the stationary bars. The rotary mechanisms were prone to mechanical problems, and the massive three story cage of Council Bluffs' jail proved difficult to keep in balance. Moreover, the sewage system basked the fourth floor jailer’s living quarters in odors sufficiently undesirable that what was to be women’s cells on the second floor were converted into a residence space for the jailer instead.
The revolving jail in Maryville lasted only a dozen years. The rotating cylinder was welding into stationary position in 1904 after a prisoner’s head was crushed while the jail was turning. Local opinion turned negative as well. Following citizen petitions and demands from successive grand juries, the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in 1910 to ask voters for $75,000 to build a new county jail. A site was selected just west of the court house and plans made to include residence apartments for the Sheriff and his family. Editorials decried the unsafe conditions of the old structure and its nonexistent ventilation, saying “rotary cells of the present jail not only are a farce, they are dangerous to the lives of the prisoners.”
The voters didn’t buy into the argument, and the jail kept rotating for another forty years. Finally, following an incident in 1960 in which a prisoner died of natural causes and a malfunction prevented retrieval of his corpse for two days, the rotary mechanism was disabled. Access was cut through the outer cage to cells that could be reached from the floor or landings and the jail continued to be used until 1969.
In all only 18 of the “squirrel cage” jails were ever built with the one in Council Bluffs being the largest. Over the years all but three of them have vanished; the interior cage of the Wichita jail found a new use at the Wichita Zoo, the rest were simply torn down.
Council Bluffs’ “Squirrel Cage Jail” nearly met the same fate. The Council Bluffs Park Board took control of the building in 1971 and the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County acquired it in 1979.
(Read more about the "Squirrel Cage" Jail and some of it's more intriguing residents and incidents in Tales From the Cells, Volumes I and II, available in paperback at the museums gift shop. The book was written by historian Ryan Roenfeld with assistance from Richard Warner.)