The Squirrel Jail in Council Bluffs was built in 1885 and was in continuous use until 1969. The design and size of the Historic Pottawattamie County Squirrel Cage Jail make it a one-of-a-kind structure. It was one of 18 revolving (“squirrel cage,” “human rotary,” or “lazy Susan”) jails built. It is the only three-story one ever built. Built at a cost of about $30,000, our unique jail has three floors of revolving pie-shaped cells inside a cage. The front part of the building had offices for the jailer, kitchen, trustee cells, and quarters for women.
The signatures and dates of many of its’ infamous prisoners remain scratched in the cell walls. It remains a well-restored snapshot of an interesting era of our society. Today, only 3 revolving jails remain a one-story structure in Gallatin, Missouri; a two-story structure in Crawfordsville, Indiana; and the unique three-story jail in Council Bluffs. All three are preserved as museums. The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County today owns and operates the facility today.
From the Historical Society’s website:
“Historical Society tour guides routinely tell visitors nobody has called the Squirrel Cage Jail home since 1969. Some folks may disagree with that wording: ‘no BODY’ may call it home, but as for spirits, that’s a different matter.
The feelings of goings on at the jail that are other than mortal dates back to well before the 1885 structure’s use as a museum. Bill Foster, who worked as the jailer in the 1950’s, opted not to use the fourth floor as his apartment, “because of the strange goings-on up there.” He reported hearing people walking around on a floor that had nobody on it, a sensation sufficiently concerning to motivate him to bunk on the second level prisoner floor instead.
The spirit may actually date back to the jail’s origin. A former jail tour guide claimed she believed the ghost to be that of J.M. Carter, the man who oversaw the building’s construction. Mr. Carter was the first resident of the top floor apartment and, according to her theory, has never left, continuing to watch over the one-of-a-kind building to this day.
There have also been reports of a full body apparition on the fourth floor identified as Otto Gufath, also a former jailer. Museum staff add whatever spirit is present, it is friendly; despite an occasional door that opens by itself, strange lights, or peculiar noises, no one has ever felt frightened or in any danger.
There has been some evidence of a female spirit as well. A few years ago a woman working on a project in the building after hours had been experiencing peculiar sensations. She walked through the building and was shocked to see a little girl with a very mournful expression dressed entirely in gray… inside a cell whose bars were locked with no way in or out. Occasionally, visitors have reported feeling that something was tugging at them, reported a great feeling of sadness in some of the cells, or simply felt that there was a presence there beyond those visible.
The feelings of being watched of followed have been most frequently noted on the third and fourth floors though the voice of a little girl has been picked up in various places throughout the building, as has the presence of two ghost cats.
In most literature ghosts are associated with grizzly or at least multiple deaths. In its long history, only four deaths are known to have occurred in the Squirrel Cage Jail. One prisoner died of a heart attack, one in a three-story fall when trying to carve his name on the ceiling, and one prisoner hanged himself in his cell. The fourth death followed an accident in which an officer shot himself in the confusion of fortifying the facility from an angry mob threatening to storm the jail during the Farmer’s Holiday Strike of 1932.
If the deaths aren’t enough to justify a haunting, some point to the fact that the building is on the site of the old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church morgue. Additionally, though actual prisoner deaths were few, the cold, damp, dark, tiny pie-shaped cells were likely a very depressing place to spend time. That in itself may be worthy of a ghost or two.
But all of this is speculation. Is there any science to support any paranormal activity within our Jail? Several modern investigative teams are trying to do just that. In the summer of 2005, the Paranormal Research and Investigative Studies Midwest (PRISM) group brought sophisticated test gear and cameras to the Jail and spent the night. They captured on film a cabinet door opening by itself three times. Several electromagnetic spikes were recorded on special meters and infrared thermometers noted abnormal temperature fluctuations. More importantly, the team was able to correlate these readings with orbs (tiny balls of light) recorded on video.
In 2008, the Carroll Area Paranormal Team (CAPT) investigated the jail, conducting EVP and video tests. The group members, all specialists with trained eyes toward signs of potential paranormal activity, noted unexplained light upon occasion in the infirmary and unusual sounds. Their investigation was preliminary but they felt there was sufficient evidence to suggest the jail is haunted.
In recent years interest in the jail amongst paranormal investigators has increased exponentially as word of mysterious findings has circulated amongst the curious.
There remain skeptics. A jail researcher spent two nights on the fourth floor in the 1980s and reported nothing out of the ordinary. Following
the PRISM session, two Historical Society museum guides decided to spend all night in the Squirrel Cage themselves. The night proved a disappointment — they neither heard nor saw nothing unusual.
Professional investigators explain this discrepancy by noting many indicators of potential paranormal activity are subtle and could easily escape the attention of someone not trained to notice them. Also, some people are more sensitive to paranormal activity than others. These are the folk most likely to pick up on unusual feelings or see things like full body apparitions. So, it may be some who spend
the night simply aren’t tuned in enough to have any memorable encounters.
The Jail isn’t the only building in Council Bluffs that is a potential haunt for ghosts. Librarians have reported a strange light near the top of the second-floor stairway of the old Council Bluffs Library. Patrons had also occasionally reported feeling cold spots in the catalog room. Interestingly there have been no such reports since the building became the Union Pacific Museum, nor any at the new Council Bluffs Library.
Stories of ghosts have also circulated about the General Dodge House, Bersheim House, and the old City Hall which has since been demolished.”
To learn more or to hear recordings of paranormal activity go to www.thehistoricalsociety. org/paranormal/scj-paranormal.html.