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Strange But True History: Squirrel Cage Jail

For seven years, I worked about two blocks from the Squirrel Cage Jail Museum in Council Bluffs and never once stepped foot inside. It took working in another city for me to realize that this jail, this odd little jail, was definitely something I wanted to see. And so, one random cabin fever stricken day during the pandemic, I dragged my family and my friend’s family for a tour.

UPDATE: This post was first published in 2022 and has been updated in September 2023.

And here’s how a jail tour with kids went down. 

Young jailbird holding Squirrel Cage Jail sign

Related post: 19 Great Things To Do In Council Bluffs

But first, why is the Squirrel Cage Jail important?

The jail was built in 1885 and was in use until 1969. It’s main reason for being preserved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places is quite simply, it’s a three-story lazy susan jail structure. And it’s the only one that’s three stories tall. I believe the actual term is revolving jail. 

A map of historic rotary jails in the United States

So, they’d have to rotate the floor to get the open door to lineup with pie-shaped jail cells. Crazy, right?

There were others built in America back in the day. Eighteen to be exact. But, only three remain (the other two are one-story and two-story structures).

Daytime tours at the jail

Our group of six consisted for four children under the age of 12, so we arranged for a daytime tour for our group. It was pandemic time, so private group tours were the norm.

We started out in the gift shop area, which had some historical photos on display and bottles of Squirrel Cage Jail wine available for purchase. Unrelated things, of course.

A tour guide talks to kids on a Squirrel Cage Jail tour

Our guide first showed us the solitary confinement cell, which naturally, each child wanted to step inside and experience for themselves.

Not strange at all.

The tour took us through living quarters of the jailers and then onward into the prisoner part. It’s a little eerie, especially if you’ve heard the rumors about the place being haunted.

The tour guide does address those rumors. She doesn’t dispel them.

And for those wondering, no, nothing supernatural happened while we were there.

We peeked inside cells, flipped through old records, and even visited the infirmary. Names scratched into walls remain to this day.

It was insightful, and lasting only about an hour, it was just long enough to hold the kids’ interest.

Is the jail haunted?

Everyone wonders it: Is the jail really haunted. Records show that four individuals have dies in the building. The one everyone seems to say is the true haunter is Jake Bird, a serial killer.

A view of the three-story rotary jail

And staff reports have included strange sounds and eerie happenings. The upstairs living quarters of the jailkeeper is apparently a notoriously haunted spot.

Ask your tour guide and he or she will probably have a story to share.

You can read some interesting reports of apparitions, ghost cats, etc., here

Ghost hunts at the jail

So for the really curious and paranormal believers, you can stay overnight in the jail. These nighttime experiences range in length of time spent with investigators who bring all the paranormal equipment needed (trigger objects and EMF readers), plus non-alcoholic drinks and snacks. 

If you go

A sign in front of the Squirrel Cage Jail Museum

Squirrel Cage Jail Museum

Where: 226 Pearl St., Council Bluff

Hours: Open November through March, Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. and hours April through October Thursday, Friday, Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Admission: Historical and Preservation Society of Pottawattamie County members and kids 5 and under: FREE; adults, $10; seniors (60+) and students, $8; and kids (6-12), $5

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