Posted by: Marie | January 22, 2011

(497) Best Friends Forever – Part 2 of 3

Post #497
[Private journal entry written on Tuesday, September 7, 2010 – continued from previous post]

On that day (Saturday – our first full day together), we headed out early to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It took us about an hour to get there. There was one attraction there in which we were both very interested. It is an historical site that Melodie had wanted to visit with her husband, but her husband had been less than enthusiastic about the idea. He would have gone with her some other weekend just because she wanted to go. But, I really wanted to go, and Council Bluffs is closer to Decatur than to her house, so it made sense for the two of us to go this weekend instead.

So . . . the big attraction was an old jailhouse known as the Squirrel Cage Jailhouse. It served as the Pottawattamie County jail from 1885 to 1969. It is only one of three remaining examples of a rotary jail. It has pie-shaped cells on a lazy-Susan type turntable with three levels of cells. There are ten cells per level.


To access individual cells, the jailer turned a crank to rotate the cylinder until the desired cell lined up with a fixed opening on each floor. There was no other way to exit the cells. It would take five minutes to rotate the whole cage one revolution with a hand crank. The design documentation included this declaration. “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.” It was to provide “maximum security with minimum jailer attention”.

There are very few windows, and the cells had no lighting until the last decade of use. The cells are wedge-shaped and tiny . . . about seven or eight feet (just over two meters) long and maybe a bit less wide than that at the widest part. The toilet was situated in the narrow end (in the arched cavity), so the sewer would drop down the center of the overall cage and into a pit at the bottom – assuming it dropped at all. (Yuck!) Each cell had two very narrow bunk beds and one narrow bench – but sometimes housed up to five or six men – that means there may have been as many as 180 men – and one jailer. The men in each cell would have to take turns sitting and sleeping because there was not enough room for everyone to lie down at once, even with some on the floor.

The cage is suspended from a very large iron beam located on the fourth floor of the building (along with the jailer’s family’s bedrooms.) Due to fire danger, the rotary mechanism was disabled in 1960, although it remained a jail for another nine years.

Model of jailhouse cage

In the front of the building are a series of rooms that served as a parlor and kitchen for the family (all the food for the prisoners was cooked in this kitchen, as well), as well as some extra bedrooms, some extra cells for women and children, and doctor’s office. There was no laundry service offered, so the prisoners wore their clothes while taking a shower in the open, community shower as a way to wash their clothes.

It took Melodie and I a couple of hours to tour the jailhouse. When she mentioned that she is a corrections officer, the curator invited us back for an after-hours, private tour of the third and forth floors – he could not allow us up there during regular hours because of safety concerns, but he was willing to do so after hours. We jumped at the chance!

So . . . we had five hours to kill before the jailhouse museum closed. Council Bluffs is a rather small town and not much was happening on a holiday weekend. We ate a delicious lunch at a Mexican restaurant (the only eating establishment we could find open). Then, we toured the Union Pacific Railroad Museum across the street from the jailhouse museum.

While neither of us is a railroad buff and wouldn’t have driven an hour to see the museum, it was nevertheless an interesting way to kill off a few hours because we both enjoy history, in general. There were some artifacts on display, and a lot of documentation on the historic building of the railroad across the Wild West.

The railroad museum is housed in what used to be the town’s first public library, opened in 1905. It is a beautiful building with tons of history. While in the museum, Melodie mentioned to me that she has a ghost finder application on her phone. We decided to try it out . . . I mean, what the heck, right?!?!

We first attempted using it as we were climbing the grand staircase from the first floor (very tall ceilings) to the second floor (more standard-height ceilings). The application has a radar screen that shows the location of possible ghosts with dots. As we walked up the first half of the stairs, the application showed a dot right in front of us. As we turned 180 degrees to go up the second half of the stairs, the dot stayed behind us on the midway landing.

Old library (Current RR Museum)

After touring the top floor, we paused at the top of stairs and asked a tour guide if the building was thought to be haunted. He mentioned that people have often reported seeing, on the midway landing of the grand staircase, an image of the woman who often performed concerts on the library’s grand piano in the early 1900’s – and he pointed to the exact spot at which the radar had indicated the presence of a ghost.

Now . . . do I believe in ghosts and hauntings? Yes. Do I believe in the accuracy of Melodie’s phone’s ghost finder application? I have no idea . . . I know nothing about the validity and accuracy of the application . . . .

But, I’m just saying . . . you have to wonder . . .

On the way back down the stairs, we tried it again – and the radar showed nothing. Hmmm . . .

Anyway . . . finally, the time came for us to return to the jailhouse . . .

[Continued in the next post . . . ]


  1. A ghost finder app! Now I’ve heard everything. :-)

    • It kept us entertained! (I guess that means it doesn’t take much, LOL!)

  2. The gaol sounds quite barbaric.

    A ghost radar sounds weird. My brain goes into lockdown trying to think about it. (If they can be detected by radar and so are presumably made of normal matter what does this mean???)

    • Hey, Evan –

      As we were touring the jail, I kept thinking how aweful it must have been to live there . . . so much for human rights . . .

      I think the ghost radar works on interruptions in the electromagnetic wave patterns. This makes sense if you believe spirits are made of energy. I don’t know much beyond that . . . I’m not really a ghost expert beyond periodically watching a ghost hunting show.

      – Marie

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