Gallatin’s Squirrel Cage Jail is Approved: March 1, 1887

Squirrel Cage Jail in Daviess County Missouri
Daviess County Sheriff

The Daviess County Court accepted a report from one A.M. Irving on this date in 1887, which called for the construction of a rotating jail. The court, having accepted the report, ordered it to be built on land donated by the city of Gallatin.

The rotating Squirrel Cage Jail in Daviess County is a unique artifact of American penal history, reflecting an innovative approach to incarceration that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This architectural curiosity, also known as a “Lazy Susan” jail, was completed in 1889 and represents a rare example of a rotary jail design, which was intended to maximize efficiency and security with minimal jailer supervision.

The concept of the rotary jail was patented by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh in 1881. The design featured a large, cylindrical structure divided into wedge-shaped cells that radiated from a central core, like slices of pie. This core contained the mechanism that allowed the jail to rotate, enabling access to only one cell at a time. The idea was that a single jailer could control all the cell doors from a central location, reducing the risk of escapes and the need for multiple guards.

Daviess County’s Squirrel Cage Jail, in the northern part of the state, was one of approximately eighteen such facilities built in the United States, but over time, the rotary design fell out of favor due to mechanical failures, safety concerns, and the inhumanity of its confinement conditions. The rotating mechanism often malfunctioned, and the inability to quickly evacuate inmates in case of fire or other emergencies highlighted significant safety issues.

Despite its operational drawbacks, the Squirrel Cage Jail in Daviess County is an important piece of penal history. It ceased functioning as a jail in the 1930s but has been preserved as a museum. Today, it offers visitors a glimpse into a bygone era of penal innovation and reflects the evolving attitudes toward prison design and inmate treatment. The jail is not only a testament to the ingenuity of past generations but also serves as a reminder of the importance of humane conditions for those who are incarcerated. Through its preservation, the Squirrel Cage Jail continues to educate the public about the complexities of criminal justice history and the ongoing challenges of prison reform.