This article appears in July/August 60-Plus.
Visitors from Omaha and the spirit realm are welcome at the Squirrel Cage Jail Museum in Council Bluffs.
Carla Borgaila says she has met several of the resident ghosts. She remembers her hat being pulled from her head as she frantically tried to hold it on. “I could feel the fingers on my head,” she remembers. “But no one was there.” Another time, “a guy came into my office and just stood there.”
Despite her personal experiences with ghosts, Borgaila is a realist. “Ninety percent is overactive imagination. Nine percent we can’t explain, but it’s not paranormal. But then there’s that one percent.”
Although a ghost has not spoken to her, she has heard her name called. But she never feels scared or threatened. “They’re like Casper the Friendly Ghost. There’s no reason to be fearful.”
Borgaila, museum coordinator for the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, is responsible for arranging paranormal, as well as regular, tours of the quirky Squirrel Cage Jail. Built in 1885, the jail on a turntable is now a museum.
Adults who want to spend 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. asking questions of alleged ghosts can call for an appointment. But plan ahead. Overnight paranormal investigation groups are already booked two months out. The outing costs a minimum of $175, which covers the first seven people; additional people are $25 each. Youths age 16 and 17 are not allowed without a guardian; only people age 21 and older can schedule an appointment.
Some of the people who died in the building may be lingering. “One is an inmate who hung himself. I firmly believe he’s still there. People describe him to a tee.” Several ghostly jailers also hang around. “People see them.”
Groups spending the night at the Squirrel Cage Jail sometime pick up electronic voice phenomena. “You don’t hear it then, but it shows up in the background when later listening to the audio recording,’ says Borgaila.
Ghost hunting is not the only activity in the historical building. Regular tours are available for individual visitors and groups of 15 or more. Borgaila also has scheduled bridal showers and birthday parties.
Even if ghost-less, the building’s architecture is worth a visit. Originally, prisoners in pie-shaped cells got in and out when a hand crank turned to line the cell up with a single door on each of the three floors. Because the cage rotated and jailers could view all the cells from one place, fewer jailers were needed.
The jail was built to be escape-proof, but 60 inmates escaped over the years. Inmates also had to be careful to avoid getting an arm or leg crushed by the rotating jail.
The county jail was used from 1885 to 1969. Inmates still reside close by. “I run into them all the time,” she says. “It’s a badge of honor. They’re proud they were in one of the most unique buildings in the United States.”
One of three remaining Lazy Susan jails, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Council Bluffs jail is the largest of the 18 built.
Check It Out:
Squirrel Cage Jail
226 Pearl St. in Council Bluffs.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays, major holidays, and
the month of January.
Tours are available year-round.