Old Jail

More From Dubuque More From Iowa

A dastardly bully met his end where the Old Jail was later built; Uh oh!



Dubuque County Old Jail Building is described as being not only a beloved town landmark with a rare American architecture, but also a secure structure built to last forever!

It is located south of Dubuque’s principal business district, and located a few feet North, of the Dubuque County Courthouse that sits just behind it. The two buildings are connected so prisoners didn’t have to go out in the cold during winter.

Dubuque County Old Jail Building is a glorious example of the Egyptian Revivalist architecture, made of locally quarried blue limestone; perhaps the rarest type of American architecture. It was the last one constructed until the 1920 architectural find of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb, which inspired some more American Egyptian Revivalist examples to be built.

Dubuque County Old Jail Building  has an “overall massiveness and monumental effect, battered walls, bundled shaft or lotus-like columns, gorge and roll cornice along the roof-line, rope-like cornice moldings, sun disk symbols, and cavetto cornice window and door hoods that area characteristic of the Egyptian Revival style.”

In the 19th century, the popular notion was to build House jails where the sheriff lives in the same building as the inmates. This lasted until lawmen wanted their own home away from work, leaving more room for their staff to operate. No matter how nice the Sheriff’s quarters were, it was like living at work. Ugh.

This two story building is shaped like a sideways T, laying on its left side.

At the far west of the building “t” part is a two story  square building that was originally built for the sheriff’s office and the offices for the jailers and other personal. The inside looked like a nice home with wooden paneling and other design perks.

The top floor had bedrooms for the Sheriffs family. The dining room and kitchen were also located in this square 46 by 46 ft home/office. From the outside, it looks like a home/ place of business, with handsome windows, Egyptian architectural perks and a nice roof design.

The wall that connects the square building to the floors of the jail had iron doors with slats so the sheriff and his staff could keep an eye on the inmates.

The rectangular jail structure, attached to this square living/office structure is 36 by 54 ft long. There were three levels of cells on each floor on the right wall, with the cells in the basement reserved for hard-to-handle defendants.

On the other side of each floor there was a large space facing the jail tiers for meals and other activities deemed appropriate.

The walls of this rectangular jail were two and a half feet thick, made of “large square cut, rock-faced Ashlar blocks with  narrow mortar joints.  The walls are load-bearing and rest on stone foundations over a partially raised full basement.”

Windows and doors were secured in rectangular-shaped cast iron surrounds.  Doors and windows in the jail had iron bars.

This structure is a most appreciated building. This structure has been evolved into being a fine place for Iowa County offices, while still complying with the regulations of. National Register of Historic Places.

The old jail cell tiers are long gone, but the cells in the basement are still there.



To understand why this jail was built to be a show stopper as well as to be a very secure jail, let’s take a look at the city’s prior failures to keep offenders in custody.

The first jail built in Dubuque in 1836 was cause the “calaboose” but was really easy to escape from; making it a mockery of the law enforcement community. The second attempt was a log building originally meant to be another county building, but it became apparent that it too was easy to break out of.  Oops.

The third jail was finally secure but way too small for the sudden influx of people coming to Dubuque to settle here for a better life. Along with this influx of people came the bad ones, who caused all kind of havoc in this frontier town.

Embarrassing, Right?  City fathers were determined to build a beautiful and escape-proof building to go along with a beautiful courthouse to be built in the near future. After one failed attempt to pass a funding measure, the citizens of the county voted on April 1st, 1856 to approve the 40,000 dollars to build a new jail.

This handsome, 1857 stone brick jail building, with Egyptian Revivalist architecture, is the work of architect John Francis Rague. Rague is known for his talent. He also created the Matthias Ham House, the Octagon House of Edward Langworthy, the Old State Capitol in Iowa City, the Old State Capitol in Illinois, and three buildings on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Once completed, this stunning, secure jail building was used as holding cells for defendants who were on trial in the Dubuque County Courthouse and for neighborhood rowdies and petty criminals caught and convicted for their misdeeds. No one died here, or committed suicide.

During the Civil War, captured Confederate soldiers were kept here until the end of the war, along with the petty criminals and folks awaiting trial in the courthouse. No soldiers died here either; being given proper treatment.

As a sign of the times, a jail was needed for women and youth. On the east side of the jail a six cell addition was built for 5,600 dollars in 1874; in the same style as the rest of the jail building.

Eventually, this newersmall jail became inadequate and a new jail for women and youth was built in just a few years, freeing up this space for the dangerous male offenders who were kept down in the basement.

In 1971, a new more modern jail was constructed, and this building was no longer used as a jail, but was to become a rental property. In 1972, this structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Dubuque Art Association in 1975 moved in as the first tenants who used this space as a place to display art and paintings. They eventually were granted a twenty year lease.

Another honor was given this site by being declared a National Landmark in 1987. The Dubuque County Historical Society took over residency and turned the gallery into the Old Jail Museum in 2003. A museum that focused on the Civil War along with some jail displays stayed here until 2016. There was a gift shop inside as well.

In 2016, the county decided that having a museum wasn’t the best use of this space, and decided to renovate the structure to be office space at a cost of 800,000 dollars.  These funds were also used to restore and maintain much of the “original character” of this one of a kind building.

The county Medical Examiner, the I.T. department and Veteran’s Affairs office happily moved inside.



People who while alive are without any redeeming qualities, don’t improve as spirit people and desire to continue to do bad things. Luckily, they can’t usually hurt people because they have no bodies.

Irma Hotel, Wyoming (The guest from hell who bullied men to the point of death hasn’t left. While he hasn’t hurt others like he wants to he still likes to intimidate the living; especially inexperienced paranormal investigators).

The Comedy Store, CA (A spirit of a sadistic mob torturer and killer still scares the living who dare to come down to the basement).

Ham House, IA (A spirit of a pirate  was shot through the door by the daughter of Mr. Ham when he tried to come in to kill her for revenge for being caught  and hung because Mr. Ham reported what he saw in the harbor from his home’s observation deck. Te spirit of the pirate still tries to finish his quest without success).

Dubuque County Old Jail Building, IA (The Spirit of Patrick O’Connor apparently had no remorse for all the evil he did. Instead of studying his own behavior, he blamed the authorities for stopping his killing and hurting spree).

People who suffer a painful hanging because of a verdict in a kangaroo court, or feel that they didn’t deserve the death sentence, or are shocked that they didn’t get away with their bad deeds as they did so many times before, may be restless and continue to hang around the place where they died; still trying to either plead their case or take it out on the living.

These restless, angry spirits attach themselves to the land where they died. Unless the land is blessed beforehand, they have been known to simply move into any buildings that are constructed on the land where they died. They haunt the place for revenge and chuckles.

The Whaley House, CA ( A spirit by the name of Yankee Jim, leader of a local gang that stole horses and personal property, suffered not only a bad hanging, but felt it was unfair that his gang was just given a prison sentence while he was given the death penalty).

Placerville Restaurant, CA (Three spirits of men who bullied and killed miners for their gold, were sentenced by a Kangaroo Court to receive a brutal beating as a sentence. A mob came and got them afterwards and took them to the hanging tree where they also suffered a nasty hanging. They bonded to the land where they died and moved into the restaurant building that was built there years afterward and caused havoc there).

The Walker Inn, WI (A man who was the town bully and a killer, was hung from a tree just outside this inn, and suffered a bad hanging that popped off his head).

The Old Jail museum in Dubuque, Iowa (On June 20th, 1834, roughly 20 years before this jail building was built, a defendant, by the name of Patrick O’Connor, was convicted of murder, and was hung 20 yards from this jail site from a tree; suffering a slow strangulation. He was the first person to face the death penalty in what was then the Iowa Territory.

This was a very fast, speedy trial. Some feel it was a bit too speedy, that the jury wasn’t properly screened, and weren’t exactly non-partial, making this trial look like a Kangaroo Court).

The theatrical presentation presented at the Old Jail on November 2008 tells his story.

Patrick O’Connor was a dastardly character, not exactly a pillar of the bustling mining community of Dubuque. He was a man with not only a mean streak, but had temper and self control issues and a rather violent history. It seems that Patrick liked to get his way by terrorizing others.

In Galena, Patrick became angry with the leading merchant, and tried to kill him by burning buildings and shooting at this merchant through the door. He was nearly hung by an angry mob, but escaped by the skin of his teeth, fleeing to Dubuque.

Not learning from his bad behavior, he again set himself up as the town bully in Dubuque. He shot a young, bright miner, George O’Keaf five times in the chest after forcing open the door of O’Keaf’s cabin. He was caught and nearly hung by an angry mob, but cooler heads prevailed.

The next day, the trial was held under a large tree near the present Old Jail building. Patrick had a former employer in Galena as the defense attorney, a prosecuting attorney was appointed, and Patrick O’Connor picked his own jurors from the crowd.

Eye witnesses to this murder were examined, and each side gave a presentation to the jury. The jury deliberated and Patrick was found guilty. He was hung on June 20th, 1834, only a month after the murder.

The Entity of Patrick O’Connor may have become stuck in this world for several reasons: Swift justice which he didn’t expect; thinking that he could get away with murder in the then wild mining town. His death probably frustrated his plans, taking him from life before he could feel powerful through more bullying. Because of his violent past, Patrick may have been afraid to go to the other side. Plus being hung from a tree and not a scaffold meant he suffered a slow death of strangulation.



Though this deed happened before this building was in existence, his spirit appears to have haunted the land. When the new building was constructed, it seems that this entity moved in and made himself at home. They had the gall to build this beautiful jail right on the parcel of land where he met his slow death on a tree. Well, they were in for it, as long as it was a jail.The activity really slowed down when the building became a museum that showcased the Civil War prisoner era as well as the jail.

The Spirit of Patrick’s Intimidating Presence

He became active here when this new jail was built on his execution spot; becoming a very annoying fellow as he learned nothing from his life of crime, bullying and killing and seemed determined to do what mischief he was able to do as a spirit.

The Spirit of Patrick began to appear to a captive audience; the jailed individuals, and the folks who worked here; probably including the sheriff and his family. The Confederate soldiers who were held here probably got the full sports package as well. Great! Not only were they P.O.W’s, but had to put up with a spirit with bad attitudes and a game plan to annoy.

The Spirit of Patrick was dressed in attire of a frontier man of 1834. He probably had a wicked smile and unfriendly eyes as he enjoyed the feeling of being in control with no consequences; getting even, being mean and enjoying the process of doing so.

Still the Bully!

The Spirit of Patrick enjoyed scaring everyone, and went to some effort to even learn names of the living here to intensify his ability to make an impression; as if saying;”You may have killed me but I still have power to bully you and everyone of the prisoners!”

He probably slammed the doors and windows, and threw items around at living folks.

The Spirit of Patrick may have touched, or pushed or slapped the living; especially people in authority.

More Ways to Strike Out

For further fun, the Spirit of Patrick probably went to places prisoners were not allowed to go, like the workspaces of the employees, the sheriff’s office, and his living quarters.

He probably created an uneasy feeling in people by just staring at him. Though they could not see him, they could feel him and his uncomfortable aura.

The Spirit of Patrick may have created cold spots to chill the living.

He may have moved items around and put them in odd places; making the staff go and hunt for them.

When electricity was installed, the Spirit of Patrick must of had a blast turning on and off electrical items.

Auditory Activity

People could probably hear his footsteps, his heavy breathing in their ears and down their neck.

People could have heard his disembodied voice and startling noises that he had thought of doing.

He may have moved furniture around to disrupt the peace.


During the years of the Dubuque County Jail, the Spirit of Patrick’s activity was felt and witnessed by the prisoners, the jailers, other personnel and most probably the Sheriff and his family when they lived in the front square building on the second floor.

When the building became an Art Gallery, the cells were still there but no one to torment except the docents and the janitor. He made the best of it. When the Dubuque County Old Jail Museum moved there, it wasn’t as much fun, but it is said that he did make an occasional appearance.

No hard evidence could be found that has been shared with the public.



Unknown. It is possible that at some point the building was cleansed and blessed, but this hasn’t been made known to anyone.

When this story was first visited, researched, and written about ten years ago, HauntedHouses.com asked the manager of the museum and store about the spirit of Patrick. This manager said that he hasn’t seen the  spirit of Patrick in the building, nor have any of his employees.

While the spirit of Patrick did try to annoy and bully the people in the jail cells and the jail personnel, back when it was a working jail, perhaps a museum wasn’t quite as satisfying and the activity did go way down to just an occasional haunting, and then disappeared altogether.

Perhaps the spirit of Patrick has had his fun and revenge and has moved onto other structures he knew while alive;finding another place to frequent and remember good times that celebrated his personal power.

While he hasn’t made an appearance for years, he perhaps just took a break.  The “Grey Lady” at the Willard Library took a thirty year break until she came back to stay.

Now that the building has been turned into Dubuque County Offices, however, the spirit of Patrick may be inspired to come back and have some more fun as he may still want to get some chuckles at the expense of the authorities.



The Old Jail Museum
E. 8th and Central Avenue
Dubuque, Iowa

The Old Dubuque Jail (now a museum) is located in downtown Dubuque, at the corner of E. 8th and Central Avenue, which is just across the street from the current Sheriff’s Office & Jail, at 770 Iowa Street, Dubuque, Iowa.




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