Squirrel Cage Jail
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Council Bluffs was a lawless place in the 1880s, but the taxpayers of Pottawattamie County refused to pay for a conventional, expensive jail. Instead, technology offered a cheap solution: a "human rotary" that could be staffed by one guard with a gun.
Known as the Squirrel Cage Jail (a name supposedly inspired by the city's population of black squirrels), it was a giant metal drum stacked with three floors of pie-slice-shaped cells, housed inside a building with steel-lined walls. There was only one door, and the jailer used a crank to spin the cells around to let prisoners in and out.
"It was a 19th century marvel, a brilliant idea," said Ryan Roenfeld, past president of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County that now owns the jail. "You didn't have to pay many people to watch a lot of prisoners."
Unfortunately, the idea was better than the jail, whose turntable gears kept jamming. It was judged "pretty much a failure" by the local newspaper in 1887, only two years after it opened.
Eighteen rotary jails were built during their brief heyday, and the Squirrel Cage was the biggest of them all. That was its problem. The drum weighed 45 tons empty, balanced on a three-foot-square base that kept shifting in unstable soil. Ryan took us to the top of the cage, which is suspended from a single iron beam, to show us its emergency access hatch. "I have never known anybody crazy enough to climb down that," said Ryan, although one desperate prisoner did climb up it, discovered it didn't lead outside, and had to wake the jailer to let him back into his cell.
Part of what made the Squirrel Cage Jail so uniquely bad -- aside from the horrible din of its rotating drum, and the risk of starvation if it jammed for too long -- was its inability to segregate inmates. Prostitutes and chicken thieves were housed with rapists and killers. Gilbert Ranfeldt was jailed for writing a $1.50 check that bounced. Jake Bird, at the other extreme, ax-murdered as many as 50 people.
Charles Noel Brown, another Squirrel Cage veteran, went on a "three-day drunken murder spree" according to Ryan and became the last man hanged in Iowa. His noose from 1962 is proudly displayed in a Squirrel Cage Jail showcase.
Broken arms and legs were routine for prisoners who mistakenly -- or deliberately -- stuck their limbs through their cell bars as the cage spun. "Some people would go crazy in here and do anything to get out," said Ryan. One prisoner, Willie Brown, killed himself trying to get a medical transfer by eating glass.
The Squirrel Cage Jail was the most frequently condemned building in Council Bluffs -- but the taxpayers, who had barely paid for one jail, refused to pay for another. "It was cheaper to just keep it going," said Ryan, and so it did, year after year. In 1960 the Fire Marshall permanently disabled the drum after it took two days to reach the corpse of a prisoner who'd died his cell. The inmates were turned loose to wander the jail's surrounding corridors.
"In its last years it was just a free-for-all," said Ryan, who pointed to several patched holes in the walls where convicts tunneled to freedom while the lone guard sat in his office, watching TV.
In late 1969 the jail was declared "unfit for human habitation" and its inmates were removed to other prisons. Historical Society members stood in front of bulldozers to prevent the Squirrel Cage Jail from being demolished. If one good thing can be said about the citizens of Pottawattamie County, it's that their cheapness preserved the jail just long enough for it to be recognized as something worth saving.
Today the Squirrel Cage Jail is open for tours, paranormal investigations, and overnight fundraiser lock-ins. Ryan is proud that it's as grungy and horrible as the day it closed, not cleaned-up and sanitized like a smaller rotary jail in Indiana. "Theirs is very sterile; ours is much more interesting," he said.
The terror stink of cut-rate 19th century criminal justice still lingers in the Squirrel Cage Jail. "It's the kind of place where you've still got to watch your step," said Ryan. "We've had people walk in here and get creeped so bad they turn around and walk right back out."