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Discovery Mid-America August 2010

Visiting Gallatin’s ‘Squirrel Cage’ jail

Getting locked up in the local hoosegow is clearly no fun. But back in 1889, when the “squirrel cage” jail was built in Gallatin, MO, it could be downright hazardous to your health.

In those simpler times, the well-being of ruffians and scalawags incarcerated in local jails wasn’t a concern to lawmen and townsfolk. All they wanted was to keep prisoners from breaking out, and the prisoners’ friends from breaking in.

As many movie westerns depicted, most frontier jails were flimsy affairs. Mounted gangs could ride up, tie a rope to a barred window, pull it out, and gallop off with the prisoner.

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The “Squirrel Cage Jail” in Gallatin (photos by Ken Weyand)

In 1861, William H. Brown invented a jail that seemed to offer efficient security: the rotary jail. In his patent application, Brown described a circular jail with pie-shaped cells “capable of being rotated, surrounded by a grating in close proximity thereto, which has only such number of openings (usually one) as is necessary for the convenient handling of prisoners.” Brown stated the purpose of his invention was to “produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer or guard.”

Brown’s jail would rotate around a sanitary plumbing system, at the time something of a novelty in its own right. A hand crank rotated the jail, aided by gears beneath the floor, and by ball bearings on which the whole contraption turned. Haugh, Ketchum and Co., an iron foundry in Indianapolis, built as many as 16 rotary jails in the late 1800s.

But once the jails were built, unforeseen problems developed. Jailers hated cranking the heavy iron jail to release or admit prisoners through the single door. Inmates had a nasty habit of putting their arms through the bars and getting them crushed as the jail rotated. In the event of fires or floods, prisoners would likely be trapped. And the “sanitary plumbing system” usually wasn’t. By 1939, all the rotary jails were deemed unfit.

Most have been torn down. All four that remain are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first one, in Crawfordsville, IN, is still a rotating jail. Others, including the one in Gallatin were modified to be non-rotating with separate doors.

The squirrel cage jail was Gallatin’s third jail. The first, a “pit jail” built of logs in 1841, was replaced by a stone structure in 1858. It was declared unfit for use in 1885.

The eight-sided rotary jail was the only one of its kind to be built with the sheriff’s quarters attached at the time of construction. Built by the Pauley Jail Co. of St. Louis on land donated by the city, the total cost was $11,262.15. The rotary jail provided no ventilation, and prisoners suffered on metal bunks from the cold of winter and the heat of summer. The solid iron walls offered no communication between inmates.

Spartan living for inmates in the squirrel cage jail

As uncomfortable as the jail was, it offered one advantage: home-cooked meals. According to Jim McCarty, writing in a 1987 article in Rural Missouri, the sheriff’s wife did the honors. Mary Louise Appley was the wife of Harold Appley, the last sheriff to use the jail.

“I cooked like I did for my family,” she said, getting an allowance from the state of $2 per prisoner for food. Meals were served through a metal “grub hole” in the wall.

Was Gallatin’s squirrel-cage jail escape-proof? Apparently not. In the winter of 1899, according to a reporter for the Gallatin Democrat, and rewritten for the Daviess County Historical Society by Darryl Wilkinson, a pair of prisoners walked through the “bars of chilled steel to liberty and (to) the freedome (sic) of plying their pilfering vocation.” How they fled the squirrel-cage jail was never discovered. A grand jury later deemed the jail unsafe.

Problems with the ancient turntable and crank system caused the county to give up on the rotary jail, and the squirrel cage was abandoned in 1969. Prisoners were housed in a holding area with an enclosure built from materials from the original jail, and in a separate building located nearby. The jail was closed in 1975.

Krystal Youngs, the guide at the jail, which serves as the town’s visitor center, told me the facility was still under restoration, but much is the way it was in the 1970s, when it was used as a holding center. “The outer part was open, allowing the prisoners to get their food from the ‘grub hole,’ do their laundry and get some exercise,” she said. Graffiti, scribbled by inmates, remains on the walls in the narrow outer hall.

Youngs pointed out a window the prisoners used to let their morning orange juice ferment into “jailhouse hootch,” and the nearby school where children could occasionally glimpse the inmates.

The pie-shaped cells are truly tiny, with just enough room for a double steel bunk and a crude toilet. It is easy to see how serving a term in the cramped jail with its limited light, heat and ventilation, crude sanitation and dangerous rotations to a single doorway would leave inmates “scared straight.”

The jail is located on Water Street, just off West Grand, in Gallatin. Visitors can tour the jail 10-4, Wednesday thru Saturday. Suggested donation is $1. For more details, call 816-284-0807.


Ken Weyand can be contacted at kweyand1@kc.rr.com


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