Thursday, November 29, 2018

Ep. 284 - Squirrel Cage Jail

Moment in Oddity - Old Mike

Cornish Funeral Home in Prescott, Arkansas had a very unusual display for years. The display featured the embalmed, mummified remains of a man that everybody just knew as Old Mike. The reason they called him Old Mike was that no one knew who he was. The story is that Mike was a traveling salesman in the early 1900s and he would come into Prescott occasionally on the train to sell his wares, which consisted of stationary and pencils. He would sometimes stay overnight and then leave on the train the next day. No one really got to know the guy. Nobody knew about his family or where he came from. One day, the townspeople found Mike lying under a tree, dead. He had passed away sometime in the night. He was taken to the local funeral home, but no identification for him was found. People only knew that his name was Mike. So the funeral home embalmed him and decided to put him in the window to see if anyone recognized him. And there he was for the next 60 years. He became a tourist attraction and a challenge that young boys gave to each other. You know, "I dare you to touch Old Mike." In 1975, a petition finally got the state attorney general's office to request that Mike finally be given a proper burial and so he was laid to rest that May with a few people in attendance. The idea that a funeral home would put a body on display in hopes that someone would claim it and do it for 60 years, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Architect Stanford White Born

In the month of November, on the 9th, in 1853, Architect Stanford White was born in New York City. Stanford White was a renowned architect. He had been a member of the prestigious firm McKim, Meade and White and designed the Washington Square Arch, Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden. He was well liked, but he had a side many didn't know about him. He had a taste for young chorus girls, even though he was married. He had a red velvet swing in his 24th Street studio and he would invite a teen-aged Evelyn Nesbit to come have a swing. Nesbit was an artist's model and a cast member in Broadway's hottest musical comedy at the time. Nesbit had another admirer though named Harry Thaw. He was a wealthy playboy and on the evening of June 25th in 1906, Thaw murdered Stanford White during a performance of Mam'zelle Champagne on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. This was called the Crime of the Century.

Squirrel Cage Jail (Suggested by Jessica Garcia and Lynne Larsen Savage)

Old jails just seem to be crawling with spirits as we have come to find from the several jails covered on this podcast. No matter the country, region or city and no matter the size, prisons hold spirits. One incredibly haunted jail can be found in Iowa. Council Bluffs was known as the Great Railroad Center of the Northwest. Before that time, it was a hub for trade between Native American tribes and white settlers. The Squirrel Cage Jail was built here in 1885. This jail has one of the most unique designs of any jail I have ever researched. This prison had a long run, being used until 1969. Today, it offers tours giving a glimpse into penal history and is said to be home to several spirits. Join me as I explore the history and hauntings of the Squirrel Cage Jail.

The reason why Council Bluffs was considered the Great Railroad Center of the Northwest is because nearly every city in the state of Iowa is connected by rail to Council Bluffs. The town was originally known as Traders Point, being named by Francois Guittar who was a St. louis businessman. He came to the area in 1824 and established the town as a base for fur trading and other mercantile business with the local Native American tribes, the most prominent being the Potawatomi for whom the county where Council Bluffs is located is named. The trading was friendly because the chief of the Potawatomi was Billy Caldewell, who was the son of a Potawatomi mother and a Scots-Irish immigrant father. This became a desired destination in traversing the Missouri River for a multitude of groups working their way to the western United States. On the Oregon, the California, the Mormon, or the Lewis and Clark trails. The town eventually came to be known as Kanesville and it became a Mormon winter encampment. The claim to fame for Kanesville was that Mormon leader Brigham Young was sustained as the second prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the tabernacle here. The Mormon settlers left in 1852 and the town was renamed Council Bluffs after a site that was 20 miles north that had been named Council Bluff by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They had met with the Otoe Tribe on that bluff, which was near the Missouri River. The county needed a jail and Council Bluffs was picked as the location.

The Squirrel Cage Jail was originally known as Pottawattamie County Jail. The building is found at 226 Pearl Street in Council Bluffs and was built in 1885. The interior of the jail consists of revolving cells that are technically called a rotary jail. This was a design by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh, both from Indianapolis. They patented the design in 1881 and it would be used in eighteen jails in the United States. The patent on the design stated, "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."  This would mean that the jail could provide maximum security with minimum jailer attention.  It was said that if a jailer had a trustee he could trust, he could control the jail. The cells were wedges that resembled the shape of a pie and these were seated on a platform that rotated in a carousel fashion. They were more secure in that there was only one opening and so only one cell could be accessed at a time. a man would hand crank the gears that were beneath the structure to rotate the entire cell block. The design had an upgrade with a core sanitary plumbing system. There was just one problem. Inmates limbs would get caught either accidentally or on purpose due to self-harm and become severed. By 1939, all the rotary jails had been condemned save one, the Squirrel Cage.

The Squirrel Cage is unique from the other revolving cell jails in that it was the only one that was three-stories tall. The building itself was designed to be four-stories and this was a grand plan in that the prototype upon which it was based was only one story and had only eight cells. The total cost for the build was $30,000 and when it was complete, all three floors of the jail had the revolving pie-shaped cells, each with their own toilet, and there were quarters for women, a kitchen, trustee cells and offices for the jailer and other staff. The construction took only five months. The architects, Eckel and Mann, designed the building exterior with a Victorian style. They incorporated Romanesque arched windows, detailed brickwork and limestone trim. From the outside, it does not look like a prison, it looks like a mansion.

The first inmates arrived on September 11, 1885 with Sheriff Theodore Guittar at the helm. These inmates included Miles Mullen who was a horse thief, Frank Scofield, a forger, John Gordon who had violated tax laws, Ed Rankin and the Brock Family, Mr. and Mrs. and their daughter, all doing time for larceny. Not long after opening, the jailer quarters on the fourth floor revealed another issue with the revolving jail. The malodorous odors from the sewer system traveled upward. The second floor women's jail area was soon converted to a living space. Opinions of the jails were harsh. The danger to inmates limbs was an issue as was the lack of ventilation, but many townspeople were critical of the fact that prisoners had their own toilets when many of them did not. It was thought the prisoners were being coddled. But others focused more on the danger and an editorial was written that decried the jail saying, “Rotary cells of the present jail not only are a farce, they are dangerous to the lives of the prisoners.” And imagine a fire in one of these places!

Citizens signed petitions and the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in 1910 to ask voters for $75,000 so that a new county jail could be built and this would include a residence for the Sheriff and his family. Well, apparently there weren't that many in town who supported such an idea despite the complaints and petitions. The resolution was not passed and no new jail was built. Squirrel Cage would continue on for forty more years as a rotary jail. In 1960, a prisoner died of natural causes, but it took two days to retrieve th corpse because the rotary mechanism malfunctioned. After that, the mechanism was disabled.  Access had to be cut through the outer cage to cells, so that they could be reached from the floor or landings and the jail continued to operate until 1969.

After the jail ceased operations in 1969, it was acquired by the Council Bluffs Park Board. In 1972, the Squirrel Cage was named to the National Register of Historic Places. This is only one of three revolving jail cell prisons still in existence. The jail was still in great need of restoration efforts by 1977 and the Historical Society took up the effort. They are the current owners and operators of the facility and they offer tours. One of the things visitors can see are the signatures and dates made by some of the former infamous residents on the cell walls. The jail is open from 11am to 4pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April through October. There are many visitors and staff who claim to have experienced supernatural things at the jail.

Paranormal experiences date back to before the prison was ever built here. The apartment on the top floor was not only not used because of the odors, but there are claims that strange things happened up there. Bill Foster was a jailer there in the 1950s and he moved out of the fourth floor after experiencing what he called, "Strange goings-on up there." He reported hearing disembodied footsteps on the the fourth floor. These are thought to belong to J.M. Carter who oversaw the jail's construction. He lived in the top floor apartment for a while. There is a previous jailer haunting the fourth floor as well. He was named Otto Gufath and his full-bodied apparition has been seen.

The experiences indicate that there are both intelligent and residual activity. Nevermore Paranormal investigated the jail and claim to have caught EVP of laughing, a voice saying "Give it to me" and "You can't" said by a little girl with a southern accent and "Whose there," and there has been shushing. The Paranormal Research and Investigative Studies Midwest (PRISM) group investigated in 2005. They managed to video a cabinet door opening by itself three times. They also captured orbs on video at the same time that EMFs registered electromagnetic spikes and temperature changes were noted. In 2008, the Carroll Area Paranormal Team (CAPT) investigated the jail and they captured unexplained light activity in the infirmary and unusual sounds.

Carla Borgaila with the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County has said she has had the following experiences, “I have had my hat pulled off my head and my hair played with. I have seen mists, shadows, full body apparitions, footsteps, voices and doors closing. In addition to the little girl, there are reports of a teenage girl, several men – some inmates, some jailers – and a couple different women’s voices caught on EVPs or audibly heard during the night. We also have two ghost cats that are known for brushing up against peoples legs. Many groups have caught ‘meows’ on their recorders and seen the little striped cats going through doorways.” 

Heavy breathing and sighing and the jingling of keys have been heard and strange lights have been seen. The audible voice of a little girl singing has been heard. This little girl has been seen coming from the juvenile detention center by many people. These claims come from investigators from all over the country, which makes the claims more believable since they all have had similar stories without contact with each other. A woman working on a project in the building after hours, saw the little girl. She was dressed in gray and inside a cell that was locked with no way in or out.

Staff claim that whatever spirits happen to be in the jail, they are friendly and non-threatening. There is a great feeling of sadness throughout the building. And there are reputedly two ghost cats on the premises. So why do we have hauntings here? There were four deaths in the prison. A prisoner was trying to carve his name on the ceiling and he fell three stories. Another committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell. A third prisoner had a heart attack. The final death came about during the Farmer's Holiday Strike in 1932. An angry mob was storming the jail when an officer accidentally shot himself. The Sheriff at the time was named Lainson and he had hired 98 special deputies to get rid of blockades caused by the strike. He promised “to fight it out if it takes 5,000 deputies,” adding “if the Pottawattamie county jail bulges with picketers it will just have to bulge. I’m going to see that law and order are maintained.” Some strikers took that to mean that the jail was bulging with their buddies and word spread  that 1000 men were on the way to Council Bluffs. Tensions flared and the Sheriff told the press that if the jail was mobbed, his men were armed and would handle it “in the best possible manner.” Deputies had been told they could shoot to kill should any farmers try and storm the jail. A tragic accident occurred when special deputy Claude Dail was shot and killed from a gun that accidentally discharged during a weapons test.

So with four deaths, we have some fuel for paranormal activity. There was a lot of sadness within the walls as well. But where is this young female ghost coming from? St. Paul's Episcopal Church had a morgue that was on the site before the jail. Is it possible that spirits from some of the bodies that passed through here are now inside the jail? Are there other reasons for the activity? Is the Squirrel Cage Jail haunted? That is for you to decide!

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