This post contains affiliate links. If you click & make a purchase, I receive a commission! Thanks! Questions? View my full disclosure.

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.

  • Save
Vacation Mouse offered to pose for a photo inside the cell.

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.

  • Save
Standing in the basement, underneath the rotating jail column.

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!

Rotary Jail Museum sign in front of two story brick building
  • Save

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.

  • Save
When in use, there were two bunks in each cell and the toilet was in the alcove seen here (but has been covered with a metal plate now that it is a museum)
  • Save

The Remaining Rotary Jails

There are only three rotary jails still standing. Of the three, only the Crawfordsville jail still rotates.

Sharing is Caring!

collage of jail pictures behind text Crawfordsville Rotary Jail Museum
  • Save
Pin and share the love! Everybody should know about this fun jail!

Follow me for more!

For occasional email updates, join the newsletter.

click photo to sign up for email updates from Behind Every Day
  • Save
You don’t want to be left behind at the rest stop do you? Sign up now to stay up to date on the latest happenings at Behind Every Day!
  • Save

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.