You’re probably wondering what a rotary jail is…
Well, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a jail that rotates around a central core with wedge-shaped jail cells. The selling point of this design, patented in 1881 by William H. Brown, is that only one cell at a time could be accessed through a single door. Fewer guards would be needed to monitor the inmates since there was only one door. Additionally, the entire apparatus was easily rotated by a single hand-crank.
This jail design was also referred to as a “Squirrel Cage” jail.
Unfortunately, design flaws revealed themselves almost immediately as inmates had limbs crushed in the rotation. All rotary jails but one were condemned by 1939.
Crawfordsville was the first rotary jail built and the only one that still rotates.
To hear the history of the jail and see it rotating, check out this video.
You might also enjoy this podcast episode about the jail.
How does it rotate?
As mentioned in the video, the jail rotates as a single unit around a central shaft. The design is similar to a railway turntable that was used to rotate train engines at the roundhouse.
Tour the Crawfordsville Rotary Jail Museum
The Rotary Jail Museum was a stop on Big Trip 15. The tour guide shares lots of interesting stories about the jail’s history and some of the former inmates. They also rotate the jail on each tour which is fun to watch. I definitely recommend stopping here if you get a chance!
One of the things I remember learning about on the tour is that the jail and the sheriff’s house were in the same building. So the family was living at the jail. As a wife and mother, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be living under the same roof as the local jail.
Liz Shull was the last matron of the jail. She served from August 1969 to July 1973 when the jail was finally closed (the rotating mechanism had been disabled decades earlier). She and her husband, the sheriff, divorced in 1971 but the judge ruled that Liz and her children could stay in the home and her ex-husband moved out. While serving as matron, Liz prepared meals for all the prisoners and also helped process any female prisoners.
The Remaining Rotary Jails
There are only three rotary jails still standing. Of the three, only the Crawfordsville jail still rotates.
- Pottawattamie Jailhouse in Council Bluffs, Iowa (also known as the Squirrel Cage Jail)
- Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail in Gallatin, Missouri
- Montgomery County Rotary Jail Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana
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