Council Bluffs Iowa
Squirrel Cage Jail
This former jail is still holding four spectral guests of the state.
Two spirits of senior staff members still like to closely supervise museum folks.
Tom and I took the self-guided tour of the Squirrel Cage Jail on our road trip during the summer of 2021. It is quite a building, with no wasted space; making good use of every square foot.
This sturdy 1885 Victorian brick building is a four story, revolving “human rotary or lazy Susan” jail located at the back of the first three floors; one of three revolving jails left in the United States.
Known as squirrel cages, the thirty cells were like pieces of pie in a circular structure made of three tiers of cells stacked on top of each other and located under the fourth floor superintendent’s apartment. This jail was built in the spirit of a Victorian jail where the superintendent lived in the same structure as the inmates.
Each floor in this kind of jail had one door for each tier of ten connected cells. A hand crank on each floor would turn the ten cells until the one in question lined up with the door on its respective floor. Today, the cells no longer rotate. It would cost $10,000.00 to get this rotation in working order again. Many cells haven’t been turned for around 30 plus years!
On our first visit many years ago while Tom and I couldn’t see the inside because the Squirrel Cage Jail Museum was closed, but an older man was sitting on a bench, in front of the Squirrel Cage Jail. He told me, with a rueful grin, that he had spent some time in “The Squirrel Cage” when he was a young man, caught doing stupid stuff.
On this second visit, the building was open. We could walk all the way around the first floor of the squirrel cage jail cells tier, in the ground floor space. A picnic table where inmates could sit and probably see visitors and eat, was in the back of this section. You can look all the way up to the third floor top tier standing in the back of the first floor jail tier cells. It did indeed look like a giant, three story, squirrel cage. The jail is pretty ugly and depressing inside.
In the front part of the first floor by the front door is a foyer of sorts, with central and side metal stairs that lead up to the second and third floor rooms and jail cell tiers, ending at the fourth floor where the Superintendent’s Apartment was located.
The first floor had an induction into jail office on the right side, and a small, dark closet cell for uncooperative drunks. Another room across the foyer, now an exhibit area was a used in the running of this jail.
The first floor and second floor cell tiers were for petty crime offenders; men, women and juveniles. Some were awaiting a hearing in court while others were serving county time.
The jail’s second floor has a juvenile section located above the induction office. Another set of cells on the other side was for women in trouble with the law. There was another room for a prisoner trustee, a model prisoner who was given additional responsibilities and allowed to stay in this space. The cells for male inmates are in the back of the second floor, on top of the first floor tier of cells.
The third floor had an apartment for the Assistant Jailer, an infirmary & apartment for the onsite doctor, and cells reserved for inmates accused of murder and other dastardly crimes.
The entire fourth floor was an apartment for the Superintendent and his family. The Superintendent’s apartment would’ve been a lovely place to stay and make a home for everyone in the family.
There are various items on display that must have brought great fun to family life; a piano, music box, a bookcase, chairs and sofas to sit in and be together, as well as a dining room, bedrooms, and a bathroom. There probably was a TV set and stereo during the later years that the jail was open.
In the areas located in the front part of each floor are interesting exhibits about the inmates who stayed here, the jailers who took care of them and many other interesting stories and artifacts.
A violent criminal with the last name of Bird was held in the third floor tier cell for his criminal court trial in Council Bluffs Courthouse. After being tried and convicted, he was sent to state prison. When he was let out for good behavior, he fled Iowa for Washington state where he killed a mother and daughter with an axe in Tacoma. He was caught, convicted was sent to die on death row in a Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
A traveling clown by the name of Richard Wilson was often brought into the jail for his own protection, where he also enjoyed a hot meal and a bed to sleep in. He was known as the Clown King, and was once elected in a clown gathering in Iowa.
After the morgue for the Episcopalian Church was torn down on this parcel of land to make room for the jail, the first superintendent, J.M. Carter, oversaw its construction, and spent the longest time working as jailer in charge than any other superintendent.
The jail was occupied by guests of the county continuously from 1884 until 1969, for eighty-five years! The superintendent J.M. Carter and his family and other superintendents who followed, lived at their workplace, which was the custom in the 19th, early 20th century.
In its early days, the hardened criminals and killers awaiting their execution were locked up here in third floor tier cells, according to the free info card which is available when the museum is closed. The last two men hung in Iowa spent their final hours in this facility. The chore of holding “dead men walking”and hardened, violent criminals was later passed onto full-blown prisons.
In its heyday, the holding cells for defendants awaiting trial at the Council Bluffs Criminal Court building and a place to put men, women and juvenile delinquents who were serving county time for various less serious, petty crime offenses.
After it closed for good in 1969, this structure was bought in 1971 by the Council Bluffs Park Board for Preservation. They did all the right things in a timely manner to ensure that this building would be protected and spared from the fate of many older buildings in the 1970’s and ’80’s; a date with the wrecking ball.
The first thing they did was to work on getting this building put on the list of the National Register of Historic Places, in 1972, making it really hard to tear the building down.
Another problem remained though. Having cost $30,000 dollars to build in 1884-’85, the price tag must have been way too high for the Council Bluffs Park Board’s restoration budget. They sought help from the professionals who know how to raise money for such a cause.
In 1977, The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County raised the funds needed to save and renovate the building for future generations. In 1979, the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County bought this gorgeous building and turned it into a museum, and have been in charge ever since.
HISTORY of MANIFESTATIONS
Apparently, this museum is still a jail for spirits, made complete with two spectral superintendents supervising everyone; dead or alive.
Jails and prisons are notoriously known to be haunted. Because of the stress of captivity in small, depressing, uncomfortable cells, and as a result of the suffering, drama, and death which can happen happens naturally or unnaturally in such an unpleasant place of confinement.
Alcatraz Prison National Park, CA (Inmates and guards who died at the hands of others or killed themselves still are there).
The Crown Point Sheriff’s House and Jail Building, IN (An inmate who suffered a bad hanging is still here).
Allegan Jail, MI (Past inmates who perhaps died here are still serving their time).
Squirrel Cage Jail, IA (Of the four people died here while serving time. One inmate had a heart attack, and one killed himself or herself in their cell).
Needless deaths from dumb accidents left the spirits who died this way frustrated, angry at themselves, sometimes ashamed and restless, with a need to rejoin their lives, which were so suddenly taken from them.
Fort Worden Guard House, WA (A guard at the base jail guard house accidentally killed himself while cleaning his gun).
Willamette Heritage Center, OR (A workman was killed in the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill because of a preventable mistake done by him or a fellow worker).
The Palace Theater, NY (A tragic mistake led to a haunting, due to embarrassment and shame. A tightrope performer fell off the rope and died. He is still trying to get it right).
Squirrel Cage Jail, IA (There were two such deaths here. One death was caused by a foolish prisoner stunt. He died after falling from the third level of the jail cage, while trying to write his name on the ceiling).
(The second preventable death happened during a farmer’s strike in 1932, when eighty-four people were arrested. The police were armed with machine guns, to ensure there would be no jail breaks from the angry crowd. No officers were killed by the crowds, but one died when he accidentally shot himself).
Sometimes people in charge of a jail or hotel, airplane or other structure are heavily invested in their work, and have a tough time letting go when their earthly life has ended, and stick around to help the living do things right!
Bullock Hotel, SD (The spirit of Seth Bullock lost faith in the living when they allowed gambling in his hotel. He is now front and center, keeping an eye on wily employees and taking care of the guests; even doing bed checks).
J.P. Speed Museum, KY (The spirit of Mrs. Speed still wants to supervise the living who work here).
Hearthstone Historic House, WI (The spirit of Mr. Priest can’t help himself. He needs to supervise the living like he did while alive with the employees at his factory).
Squirrel Cage Jail, IA (Apparently two spirits of former superintendents are still on the job, sharing the top floor apartment, supervising the living and looking after the spirits that are still here).
A Female Child Spirit
(This could’ve been a woman who wanted to be seen as a little girl, or an actual little girl who was caught committing petty crime in the late 1800s or 1900s).
A woman working on a project in the building was startled to see a spirit of a sad little girl, dressed in gray, sitting in one of the cells, probably in the Juvenile Cells; unavailable to the living.
Visitors have felt an unseen presence tugging on their clothes, like a child would do.
The head docent told me that one day one of her earrings suddenly went missing.
She found it on the sink in the bathroom the next day.
She has heard the music box in the 4th floor apartment turn itself on.
Items in the museum have been moved to odd places.
Feelings of depression and sadness radiate from various cells.
Sad, unseen presences still doing their county time are felt by sensitive people and mediums.
Spirits of Two Supervisors
There are two candidates for what supervisor is haunting the jail, though it seems that both are in residence!
The paranormal activity which happens outside the cell areas, in the hallways, especially in the fourth floor apartment, is thought to be caused by either or both of these restless entities.
In the late 1950s, when Bill Foster became the new superintendent, he experienced enough paranormal activity to realize that the former occupants of the fourth floor apartment were still existing there, despite being deceased! He chose to bunk on the second floor instead!
Spirit of J M Carter
The entity of the first superintendent, J.M. Carter, is thought by some to be the restless, intense spirit who never gave up his position.
This spirit has hung around checking up on jailers and prisoners alike over the years that this building was a jail.
Other living superintendents knew that they had a spectral manager making sure that they did a good job in Carter’s jail.
Apparently, he has assigned himself the new job of watching the living as well as still looking after the spirits still doing time.
The Spirit of Otto Gudath
He was a superintendent at the Squirrel Cage Jail from 1949 to 1958.
A full body apparition of Otto was seen by witnesses on the 4th floor.
He apparently is also keeping an eye on the living and the spirits who are still serving time.
The Dynamic Duo!
These two entities have perhaps teamed up in their after-life retirement years!
Visitors, and remaining spirits are well supervised indeed!
Though deemed to be friendly and cordial, these presences still supervise the museum staff, perhaps looking over the shoulders of the staff to see their progress as they run the museum.
Needless to say, the spectral superintendents follow the living around the third and fourth floor, keeping a close eye on visitors.
Doors have opened and closed by themselves, as they go about their business.
The main docent told me that she hears footsteps in the Juvenile detention cells just above the office.
“Staff and Volunteers have heard footsteps, voices, whispers, and doors moving,” Kat Slaughter, the HSPS museums manager says. “Some have seen dark shadows move across the stairs or past doorways. “
Past and present staff, volunteers and visitors to this interesting museum, have had boatloads of personal experiences; the full sports package, as mentioned above under the Manifestations section.
“The jail has received national attention about its hauntings with spots on Travel Channel’s Most Terrifying Places and Ghost Adventures Serial Killer Spirits.” (Unleashed Council Bluffs Blog Source)
An early group to investigate was the Carroll Area Paranormal Team (CAPT) who did a preliminary investigation of The Squirrel Cage Jail in 2008, and came to the conclusion that there is enough evidence to suggest that this building is haunted. They did a more in-depth investigation of The Squirrel Cage Jail later and found even more evidence. Interestingly they found unexplained light, and unusual sounds in the infirmary.
Auditory evidence: EVPs have been recorded. A boatload of hard evidence has been caught by many paranormal investigation groups. “Paranormal investigators have found EVPs (audio recordings) of voices and sounds of things that weren’t there,” Kat Slaughter said. “They caught photos and videos of shadows as well. Their equipment has picked up EMF hits in areas where there shouldn’t be any electromagnetic interference.”
Paranormal activity in the cells has been caught as well. About 25-30 orbs were caught on film inside the cell area by PRISM paranormal investigators. These orbs corresponded to electromagnetic spikes on special meters, and also to abnormal temperature fluctuations on infrared thermometers.
Psychic Investigations by mediums and psychics have felt great sadness from presences inside the cells.
Investigation Groups have also had personal experiences. Two investigators felt tugs on their clothes by unseen hands, which backs up claims by the staff and visitors who have had the same experience.
Paranormal Activity witnessed in the 4th floor apartment; a hot spot. Paranormal groups who investigate at the Squirrel Cage Jail are never disappointed here as there is always recorded activity.
When I, Julie Carr went into the superintendent’s apartment, I got really dizzy from the presence of a spirit or two, perhaps showing me around.
A picture of a male apparition, taken by a PRISM investigator, was caught on film from outside a window on the fourth floor, where the superintendent lived.
An unseen presence walking in the fourth floor apartment has been heard by the living.
Odd light balls have been noticed there as well.
Cabinet doors have opened by themselves.
PRISM members and CAPT paranormal investigation groups are just two of the many groups who have recorded scientific evidence which suggests that, while The Squirrel Cage Jail closed its doors long ago, some inmates and superintendents are still there, unable to let go.
Some spirits died physically here, while others died emotionally and spiritually. Strong emotions keep them stuck in their cells, still serving time, as they can’t let go of this low point in their lives.
The two spectral superintendents who truly were dedicated to their jobs here, are not ready to retire just yet, because they think that the spirits who are still serving time, as well as the living, need them to continue on in their jobs they once had in this world.
Squirrel Cage Jail
226 Pearl Street
Council Bluffs, Iowa 51503
Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail is now being preserved as a museum, and is open for tours.
Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail can be found in the downtown area of Council Bluffs, on Pearl Street, which is a one way street, running south. It is near the corner of Pearl and Willow Avenue. The Squirrel Cage Jail is just south of Willow Avenue and north of 5th Avenue, and sits on a small park, located just right of the modern Council Bluffs police station and jail complex.
- Squirrel Cage Self-Guided Tour
- A Haunted History of the Squirrel Cage Jail,(This post was originally published on October 30, 2019 on the Unleash Council Bluffs blog).
- Historic Pottawatamie County Squirrel Cage Jail handout.
- Haunted Places, The New Directory, by Dennis William Hauck, pg. 175, Penguin Books, 2002
Our Haunted Paranormal Stories are Written by Julie Carr
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