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Iowa History Daily: July 12 - Squirrel Cage Jail

Iowa History Daily: On July 12, 1881, William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh received a US patent for the famed Squirrel Cage Jail of Council Bluffs. A unique structure featuring three-stories of ‘lazy-susan’ style cells, the jail served Pottawattamie County from 1884 to 1969 before welcoming thousands of visitors each year as a tourist attraction.

One of eighteen rotary-style jails ever built in the United States, the Pottawattamie Jailhouse (Squirrel Cage Jail) exists as only one of three to remain standing today. The original patent explained the purpose of the rotating jail: “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.”

Costing $30,000 dollars to construct, the tall and narrow structure quickly gained the familiar ‘Squirrel Cage Jail’ moniker after opening in the 1880s, and generations of criminals found themselves imprisoned in the pie-shaped cells during the long active service of the structure.

The three-stories of cells sat on a massive metal turntable, and over the decades wear-and-tear eventually caused the mechanism to stick. As modernization arrived for many of America’s jails and prisons during the 20th century, Pottawattamie County retired the facility from active duty in 1969. Visitors still often visit the property, now operated by the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, although the turntable no longer offers a chance to see the unique Iowa jailhouse in motion. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar #IowaOTD


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