I went on a field trip with a group of writers from my area to a historically interesting jail.
And (whew!) they let me go.
The Squirrel Cage
Pay close attention and read this blog post carefully to find the clues you’ll need to get your name in the drawing for a copy of my May Release, WILDFLOWER BRIDE.
Council Bluffs, Iowa is the location of the Pottawattamie County “Squirrel Cage” Jail, in use from 1885 until 1969, one of three remaining examples of a Rotary Jail. It has pie-shaped cells on a turntable. To access individual cells, the jailer turned a crank to rotate the cylinder until the desired cell lined up with a fixed opening on each floor.
It takes 5 min to rotate the whole cage one revolution. There is only one opening out of the cage so the prisoners can only come out one (or one cell-full) at a time at each of 3 levels. They put up to 6 people in an area no larger than a small walk in closet.
It is a very dark place to visit.
The Squirrel Cage Jail was the only three-story rotary jail constructed. Although the rotary mechanism was disabled in 1960 the building remained the county jail for another nine years. Similar, smaller examples of the concept can be seen in Crawfordsville, Indiana and Gallatin, Missouri.
The Squirrel Cage welcomed its first prisoners on September 11, 1885. When it closed in 1969, murderers, moonshiners, the King of the Hobos, burglars, horse and car thieves, con-men, and even an infant, had called the odd structure home. The building, with its three stories of tiny pie shaped cells in a 90,000 pound revolving cage, is interesting in itself. But it is the people who lived there that make it a truly fascinating. Many of them spent their time trying to escape and some of them were even successful.
Here is stage one of what it takes to get in the drawing. As you read, think back to the time you spent in jail. The questions will concern that.
The design and size of the Historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail make it a one-of-a-kind structure. It was one of 18 revolving jails built.
Here (above) are some unsavory characters who were in lock down while I was there at the squirrel cage. Or no, wait, I’m wrong about that. This is a picture of the ladies who went with me. L-R Writer friends, Lorna Seilstad, Rose Zediker, Shari Barr and Dawn Ford.
Here is a model of the Squirrel Cage. The design included this declaration. “The object of our invention is to produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer.” It was to provide “maximum security with minimum jailer attention.”
This is Lorna Seilstad, author of the soon to be released historical romance Making Waves. Lorna is demonstrating how to work the crank that turned the entire three story jail. One person could do it alone. As it says above, maximum security with minimum jailer attention.
This is a picture of the ‘bathroom facilities’ in each cell. They sometimes had up to SIX prisoners in one cell? It might be for the best to not think about it much.I jumped and squeaked when I saw that guy. Really look at the picture above. Two bunks. So you know it was meant for two at least. Ten wedge shaped cells on each of three floors. Thirty cells. Up to six prisoners per cell. Do the math people. 180 prisoner capacity. And one jailer for all of them.
There was a book full of the prisoners and what they were in for. Look at some of them. Assault, sure. Desertion and non-support? Of a wife and children? Did they do that back then? Seduction? Excuse me? I’ll bet if he’d done it RIGHT she’d've never reported him. And what in the world is VNPA? If I’m reading it right and OWNI? I saw one, a guy got six months for bigamy. And then (I surmise) he got out and had to face his two wives. He probably begged for a life sentence.
Though the jail has been closed for 40 years, many believe there are ‘goings on’ at the jail that are other than mortal. The Squirrel Cage, it is said, is haunted. Bill Foster, who worked as the jailer in 1950′s, opted not to use the fourth floor as his apartment. He reported hearing people walking around on a floor that had nobody on it, a sensation sufficiently concerning to motivate him to bunk on the second level prisoner floor instead.
The spirit may actually date back to the jail’s origin. A former jail tour guide claimed she believed the ghost to be that of J.M. Carter, the man who oversaw the building’s construction. Mr. Carter was the first resident of the top floor apartment and, according to her theory, has never left.
There have also been reports of an apparition on the fourth floor identified as Otto Gufath, also a former jailer. Museum staff add whatever spirit is present, it is friendly; despite an occasional door that opens by itself, strange lights, or peculiar noises, no one has ever felt frightened or in any danger.
There has been some evidence of a female spirit as well. A few years ago a woman working on a project in the building after hours had been experiencing peculiar sensations. She walked through the building and was shocked to see a little girl with a very mournful expression dressed entirely in gray… inside a cell whose bars were locked with no way in or out. Occasionally, visitors have reported feeling that something was tugging at them, reported a great feeling of sadness in some of the cells, or simply felt that there was a presence there beyond those visible.
The feelings of being watched or followed have been most frequently noted on the third and fourth floors.
And could this be complete without the picture of me in lock-up? But I’m smiling? I needed a director to discuss my motivation for this scene. And note I’ve removed my glasses. Like….maybe….I wanted to look my best through the bars? I think the bars overcome any attempt at vanity, but I didn’t see it that way when I was whipping off my glasses and smiling for the camera.
Cheryl St. John just phoned me and told me she’d NEVER been in jail. Whatever. She said MOST people have never been in jail. Really? How odd. Then she asked me what made ME THINK most people have been in jail. I hung up on her.
Only four deaths are known to have occurred in the Squirrel Cage Jail. One prisoner died of a heart attack, one in a three-story fall when trying to carve his name on the ceiling, and one prisoner hanged himself in his cell. The fourth death followed an accident in which an officer shot himself in the confusion of fortifying the facility from an angry mob threatening to storm the jail during the Farmer’s Holiday Strike of 1932.
If the deaths aren’t enough to justify a haunting, some point to the fact that the building is on the site of the old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church morgue. Excuse me? Church Morgue? Did churches have morgues? This is news to me and may spark another blog post. Additionally, though actual prisoner deaths were few, the cold, damp, dark, tiny pie-shaped cells were likely a very depressing place to spend time. That in itself may be worthy of a ghost or two. I asked the very nice tour guide if he thought the place was haunted and he said, “You know, I don’t believe in ghosts really, but there have been some weird things happen in here. I still don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m a little less SURE than I was before I started working here.” (Note, this is NOT an exact quote. I have this tendency to, when I can’t remember exactly what someone said, to fill in the blanks with what I think they said, or … the internal editor in me instead says what I WISH they’d said, or what they SHOULD have said. Some call this…lying.)
One particularly intense incident occurred in 1894. Police arrested a man accused of raping a 5-year-old. Once locked up in the City jail, however, a crowd began to form and it was clear that trouble was brewing. Fearing a lynch mob, police hustled the suspect into the Patrol Wagon and rushed him via back streets to the more secure Squirrel Cage jail. The news leaked, however, and a lynch mob numbering in the thousands began to gather outside the Squirrel Cage jail. The Sheriff addressed the crowd, ordering them to disperse. Inside the jail, armed deputies and police officers prepared to defend the jail to the death. News of an even larger lynch mob approaching from the South prompted the Sheriff to summon even more help from the Dodge Light Guards; 29 of them, armed with Winchester rifles, were soon stationed at the jail. By 1:00 am the crowd was dispersed and later that morning the prisoner was moved to Fort Madison penitentiary for his safety.
There is a book called Tales from the Squirrel Cage Jail if you want to know more. There is mention of a child being born in the jail. I asked the tour guide about it. It was a child born to the jailer’s wife. Several of the jailers lived there with their wives and children. The wives cooked for the prisoners and hers was a paid position. It was actually a very good, well paying job for a family, plus they lived there so the home was provided. Not the worlds NICEST home, granted. And I think it’s fair to say some of the other….tenents…weren’t of the highest calibre. But they apparently had quite a few jailers who lived there for many years.
I now have changed my rules for the game. Since there aren’t enough jail birds among the loyal readers of Petticoats & Pistols(so, Cheryl says…I scoff, but whatever), just leave a comment about an interesting historical sight you’ve been to. Or you could guess what V.N.P.A is? We amused ourselves for quite a while on the tour, guessing. And Dawn really oughta be ashamed of herself for some of those guesses! (Unless you WANT to tell me about your time in stir–hey, you’re among friends–we won’t repeat it) Or you could tell me about your ‘Friend’ who did some hard time. We’ll play along. If you want to go ahead with your denial, just forget that whole unfortunate JAIL THING. It means NOTHING. When I said that about everyone being in jail I was just KIDDING. I’ve NEVER been in jail, nor known anyone who has. Such a rude question. Stop it. Leave a comment to get your name in the drawing. I won’t judge you for your ex-convict status. I can’t promise about OTHERS who will not be named. Oops, the phone is ringing again. I have to hide now.