The Pottawattamie County Jail is also known as Squirrel Cage Jail is located in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It's built like a giant Lazy Susan and the cells are pie shaped. There is a single door on all 3 levels, but you need to use a hand crank to spin the jail and line it up. Some very infamous prisoners served time in this jail, including Jake Bird, also known as the Tacoma Ax-killer. It's rumored that Jake put a hex on people and now he haunts the jail.
Website: Drinking The Cool Aid
226 Pearl Street, Council Buffs, Iowa
Squirrel Cage Jail.
Originally known as Pottawattamie County Jail, built in 1885 and used all the way until 1969 Squirrel Cage Jail is the only jail of its type that was built 3 stories tall, and one of only 18 of these types of jails.
From the outside, you'd never know it was a jail. Architects Eckel and Mann designed the beautiful Victorian style exterior of the buidling.
On the inside, the front of the jail consisted of a kitchen, trustee cells, quarters for women, and offices for the jailer.
This all sounds pretty normal, however, Here's where things gets weird.
The rest of it, is set up is basically like a giant lazy susan. So theres a giant circular cage around all of the cells, then there's 10 pie shaped cells per level inside of that cage. There is a single door on all 3 levels, a hand crank would be turned, and the jail would spin, until each cell lined up with that single door individually. So theyd actually move the whole entire thing to line up that one cell.
This is how the jail got it's name because squirrel cages are literally the same cicular shape and look just like it. Have you ever seen maybe a bird feeder or something similar with a big round cage around it?? That's a squirrel cage to keep them out and when they jump on it, it spins, just like the jail does.
There was a 4th floor, but that was made for the living quarters of the jailer and his family. Living there wasnt said to be great as the sewer system had a lot of issues, so it usually stunk and it was really loud as it was just above the inmates. It was loud all over the entire jail tho, because its entirely made of steel, so it echoed really bad. The jailer and his wife, would be the only two employees working at the jail. Him taking care of the prisoners, while she would take care of cooking.
William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, invented the design this way for quote, "maximum security with minimum jailer attention" and quote, "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"
This way they were only accessing one prisoner at a time. Only one door in and one door out, so its basically impossible to escape. There is an emergency access hatch, but it was very difficult to get to, only one prisoner did climb up it, but realized it didnt lead outside, and he had to wake up the jailer to let him back into his cell. (Can you imagine?) Anyway, the design was supposed to cut down on costs, as they only needed 2 employees to be able to run it, which like I had said earlier is the jailer and his wife, but be able to hold more inmates. This was supposed to be one of the safest jails at the time. The theory was that if the jail was constantly rotating, inmates would be on their best behavior because you never knew when the door with the jailer would go by. (Good theory buuuuutttt)
And yes, even tho it was desinged to not be able to be escaped from... prisoners can be reeeeallly creative. They did have a few escapes over the years, a few thru the walls, the roof, a couple just walked right out the front door, and 2 men figured out how to pry the base of the toilet up and crawled into the floor, thru the sewage tunnel, but they were both caught.
As you can imagine, a pie shaped cell isnt very big, in fact, not at all, it was very cramped and tiny. These are about 10ft long, and only about 5ft at its widest point. This is such a small place to be LIVING in. Each cell had a toilet and a bunk and they were made to hold 2 people, but some sources said theyd cram as many as 6 people into the tiny cells at once. There was no electricity, so it could get really really hot in the summer and really really cold in the winter. The jail was still considered pretty advanced tho because they had flushing toilets in each cell. (Talk about, hole in the wall) The problem with this was they didnt have great ventalation so it stunk a lot and those smells would rise up to the jailers quarters and all over the jail. The other problem was that the toilets actually raised controversy as people believed the prisoners were being coddled because they had working toilets, when a lot of the townspeople did not. Some people were also concerned about the safety of the jail, which we will get to in a sec, and this led to citizens signing a petition in 1910, asking voters for 75,000 dollars to build a new jail. It was not passed, a new jail was not built, and Squirrel cage would go on for another 40 years, literally because it was the cheaper option.
There was a solitary confinement cell and it is TIINNNYY. It's about 6ft tall, 2 1/2ft wide, and 2ft deep. Meaning your basically shoulder to shoulder with the walls, especially if you're a bigger person. This cell had one steel door on one side and bars on the other. It would also be colder in here than the rest of the jail. You could spend anywhere from 30 minutes in there, which I don't even know if I could handle that. Not being able to move around, being stuck in there alone, it sounds awwwfull, anyway, so 30 minutes to the longest time they have on record, which was 10 days. I CANT.
Soooooo, this design had some serious freaking flaws and had already started having issues only a few years after being opened.
One of the major ones being, fire safety. If there had been a fire, there would be literally no way to get everyone out safely, considering they would have to crank them out one by one.
Being such a massive rotating building, things broke down quickly and A LOT. It was also pretty difficult to keep it balanced properly. When it was first built, there was a water motor that assisted in the rotation of the cells. It only lasted between 5 and 20 years before breaking down, which meant the jail could only be moved manually with the hand crank. Meaning one single jailer would have to hand crank the entire 90,000 pound structure any time he needed access to anyone. 90,000 pounds as in when it was empty, so adding in prisoners and anything else brought in, itd weigh significantly more.
Over time, the constant rotating, caused the building and mechanisms to shift, which would leave some prisoners trapped and stuck until they could get it rotating again. Which is so bad when you really think about it. If it gets stuck, theres no way to access these people. You're not only risking not being able to get to them if something is happening, but youre risking starvation and dehydration, among many other things.
This rotation also caused quite a few broken bones and some severed arms and legs, Tho a majority were accidental, some were due to self harm, and the reasoning behind this, was inmates thought if they broke a bone, they could escape enroute to the hospital.
Another major problem here is the sorting of the prisoners. The third floor held the worst of them and was the maxium security level, the second were the crimes that were bad, but not bad enough to be on level 3, and level 1 was the level that held the prisoners that had done something like stealing few things from a store on a night out or something a lot more simple. So even tho they had the crimes sorted to levels, a lot would still be mixed, so someone in max that commited a major bank crime, for example, could end up sharing a cell with a serial killer, and they would be unsupervised until that roation came back around again.
Some infamous prisoners served time here, inlcuding bank robber, George "Baby Face' Nelson, which is a name a lot of you will probably recognize, he spent a whole 12 days there!! Aaaannnd then there's Jake Bird, also known as the Tacoma Ax-killer. He traveled as a railroad worker and is suspected of killing between 40 and 50 people thru western and midwestern states with an ax (Talk about # of people,46)
His stay at the jail was due to him being caught after brutally attacking a couple from Iowa in 1928, their names were Harold and Mary Stribling, they miraculously survived the attack!! Unfortunately, several years later, Harold shot himself in the head, along with his wife Mary. Mary again miraculously survived, but Harold did not. I only mention this second part because it's going to come back around in a second.
He was released and contiuned killing until he was caught for the ax murder of a mother and daughter in Washington and he was sentenced to death.
After Bird's convinction, he was allowed to speak while at the hearing, he said, quote, " I'm putting the Jake Bird hex on all of you who had anything to do with my being punished. Mark my words, you will die before I do" AND GUESS WHAT!? 6 people that were involved or tied to the case ended up dying within a year of him saying that and this is where that story comes back around about the, Striblings, because some people believe that Harolds death was due to the Jake Bird curse. (It's a big thing when it comes to the hauntings too)
There were only 4 known deaths at the jail. The first death was someone that had tried to crawl up to the ceiling to carve his name and fell 3 stories to his death. The second was a guy named, Thomas Rifle, he was in love with a lady in town, but she was not in love with him, he refused to leave her alone and was told by the sheriff he was going to be arrested if he didn't stop. Well, he didn't and he was arrested. Thomas basically said if I can't have her, then I don't want to go on living, and he hung himself by tying a laundry rope (or clothesline) to his neck, and the other end to the bars, and used it to suffocate himself as the jail rotated. The third was an officer that was brought in to help the sheriff during the farmers holiday strike in 1932. If you don't know what that is, I'm gonna give a a quick blurb to explain. So basically farmers didnt feel they were being paid enough to bring grain into town so they stopped doing it. The sheriff, Percy Lainson, was sent in to fix the problem, which he did so by hiring different farmers. This super pissed the old farmers off and they started creating road blocks, putting spikes on 2 by 4's, knocking telephone poles and trees down, and arming themselves with weapons like baseball bats, anything they could do to push the new farmers trucks off the road so product couldnt be brought in.
Percy wasnt having it once it go to this point. He allowed peaceful protesting, but it had been taken too far so he arrested and housed in the jail that was already cramped, between 100-160 farmers.
He only had around 6-8 deputies at this time, so he swore in around 100 more because as other farmers found out, they plotted to storm the jail to break the farmers that got arrested out. Unfortunately, while demonstrating how to discharge the riot guns, an officer, Claude Dail, was accidentally shot in the stomach and killed. (Talk about chaos of crowds) (Did get crowd under contorl)
And the 4th and final death was in 1960, when a prisoner died of a heart attack, but it took two whole freaking days to retrieve his body because there was a rotary malfunction, this actually led to the jails rotation system to be shut down permanently, due to safety reasons. Annnnd so They were basically just like, well, nothing else to do now but set the prisoners free to wander the surrounding corridors. And so they did, and they did basically whatever they wanted, there is patched holes in the walls and its said its from prisoners trying to tunnel their way to freedom, while the single jailer, sat in his office, watching tv, because there was no controlling them at that point, it's that one single jailer versus however many prisoners are there at the time, no matter what, he's severly outnumbered.
They did however in 1969 shut down entirely and transfered the remaining prisoners to different facilities.
Squirrel Cage is now open as a museum, still has not rotated since 1960, but most of the jail now looks exactly how it would have in the early 1900s. It was restored a little while back, to look this way. They added bunks, pillows, clotheslines, etc, and restored it to how it would have looked then, so it's a more educational and genuine experience. You can walk thru the halls and see inside the cells and read the stories that go along with them. They also do paranormal tours, of course. You can rent the whole building overnight for either 4 or 8 hours, if ya want!
Fun Fact: I couldn't find the year that it happened, but I know it wasn't too long ago, but a museum employee said they actually hosted a family reunion of the great great great grandchildren and relatives of a former jailer and his wife, the family wanted to see what a day in the life of their ancestors would have been like working at the jail, so yeah, their family reunion was also a little history lesson on their relatives, which I think is so freaking cool!!!!
Anyway, They have a couple of cool displays, like a Dummy of Jake Bird in his cell, and the rope of the last person to be hanged in the state of Iowa, which was Charles Noel Brown, who went on a 3 day drunken murder spree before being caught and hanged on July 24th, 1962.
You can also still see names, signatures, and drawings, dating all the way back to the 30's on the walls and ceiling of inmates that were there at some point.
And just for a second, jumping back to how small the cells were, employees said that when guests come to the museum, a lot are in shock that we ever kept humans in such small spaces, especially when they see the solitary cell. It can make people feel almost gross because its just such a small space for someone to live in.
That is it for the history and now its time to get to the hauntingssss
The first sign of hauntings was while the jail was still in operation in 1950. Jailer, Bill Foster, opted to sleep on the second floor instead of the Jailers apartment because he heard a lot of strange noises coming from it, including footsteps of someone walking around upstairs when no one was up there. Some people believe that this spirit is that of J.M. Carter, who was had overseen the buildings construction and was the first resident to stay in the apartment.
Museum staff have seen dark shadows moving across doorways, heard foot steps, whispers, voices, and doors moving. They say that most people who have worked there, have heard strange noises that don't make sense in an empty building.
On the fourth floor, there's been an apparation seen, who is believed to be, Otto Gufath, a former jailer, and one thing staff did say about this is whatever spirit it is, is friendly, it hasnt ever made them feel they were in danger.
One staff member admitted that he didnt believe in ghosts, but he was a little less sure about that since hes started working at the museum.
People see strange lights, black masses, feel like they are being watched or followed, or like someone is standing behind them, but when they turn around, no one is there, and some have a hard time breathing, especially on the 3rd and 4th floors and specifically in front of Jake Bird's cell.
Investigators have captured EVP's, if you dont know what that is, its basically an audio recording that can pick up spirits, so they have captured disembodied voices and strange unexplained noises, along with pictures and videos of dark figures and shadows.
People feel the hair on the back of their neck stand up randomly.
Theres a music box in the jailers appartment that plays by itself. (music boxes creep me out)
People have reported feeling great sadness from some of the cells, have seen items move on their own, some have felt someone tugging at them, or a hand on their shoulder, when no one else is there. Some have even felt physical pain.
At one point, there was a lady working after hours in the building on a project, as she was walking thru the jail, she saw a little girl, dressed completley in grey, who looked really sad. Said little girl was behind bars, in one of the cells, that was locked up with no access. This little girls voice is heard in various parts of the building. But you wanna know what other spirits are noticed in various parts of it?? 2 Ghost kitties, which I am ALL about!!!res also a little boy that's been seen multiple times.
Museum employees said sometimes people will walk in for a tour, turn around, and walk straight back out, because they get such bad feelings or get so scared.
Some people believe that Thomas Rifle, the man who killed himself, sticks around, people have seen him in his cell or walking around near it.
I, of course, watched the episode of Ghost Adventures on this, its actually part of the mini series, which is, Ghost Adventures-Serial Killer Spirits, the episode is called, Axe Killer Jail.
In the episode they got to see a secret room thats right off of the jailers apartment, it didn't have a door or anything, it was found thru a small hole in the wall. Nothing really came of this, as of now, but I still thought it was cool enough to throw in here.
So anyway, there was a guy named, Byron Gamble, who was talking about a time that him and his friend had gone up to the jailers apartment, his friend convinced him to sit in the rocking chair and make an attempt to talk to a spirit. So he sat down and said, Hello, loudly 3 times, on the third, "hello", a book shot off the shelf behind him. He said it fell with a super loud bang and he immediately felt like there was a presence in the room, as in he went from the feeling of the 2 of them, to the feeling of a third unseen person, and he then got the feeling like he shouldnt be there. He actually had nightmares about this for months after it happened, hed feel himself sitting in the chair, and could hear the book slamming behind him every time. (Is there a bad spirit messing with him/followed) He did go on to say that the whole experience made him a complete believer of paranormal.
There was also a jail security camera technician, Greg Jones, who actually felt the floor and stairs that led up to the jailers apartment, shaking, the whole staircase, which is actually not normally possible since the whole staircase is made of steel. This had occured right after he had finished installing a new camera in front of, Jake Bird's cell. He said it terrifyed him, so he peaced tf out, he was like, I love my job and this place, but not THAT much.
And when the team went down to the basement, they got a very very clear EVP, that said over and over, "GET OUT OF BASEMENT" Much like I am going to do, because this is the end of the story of the Squirrel Cage Jail.