Used throughout the Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first, and last, rotary jail both have ties to Indiana.
According to a patent filed in 1881, the first rotary jail was designed by architect William H. Brown and built by the Haugh, Ketcham & Co. iron foundry in Indianapolis.
The premise behind these interesting, if impractical, structures was simple:
Prison cells were built on a rotating platform, with only one opening for the entire jail, with the idea being that it would be easy to manage and impossible to escape from.
As great as these convict carousels may sound in theory, in practice they caused a lot of problems for inmates and prison staff alike.
Almost immediately, there were issues with prisoners’ limbs getting crushed by the mechanism (or of the mechanism breaking due to prisoner interference). Due to all of the headaches involved in their upkeep, most of the rotary jails ceased to be rotary within a few years, with cells being welded into a stationary position and given individual doors.
By 1939, all of the rotary jails in the United States had been condemned, with the exception of the Pottawattamie County Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa, which ceased operations in 1969.
The Montgomery County Jail and Sheriff’s Residence was built back in 1882, with a 2.5 story brick residence and a rotary jail.
No longer used to house inmates or the sheriff, the building now contains a local history and prison museum; in 1975, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’re passing through Crawfordsville, the museum and jail are definitely worth checking out, but even if prison carousels and condemned 19th century jails aren’t your thing, the building itself is located in the Crawfordsville Commercial Historic District, which is a neighborhood well worth the trip in its own right.
The Crawfordsville Commercial Historic District contains some wonderfully preserved architecture from the 19th and early 20th century, including the Otto Schlemmer Building, which was built all the way back in 1854. Like the rotary jail, the Schlemmer building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and the entire neighborhood followed suit in 1992.
Wonderful architecture and archaic prisons – there’s something for everybody in Crawfordsville.