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  • Tayden Bundy

Sentenced to Afterlife: Squirrel Cage Jail

Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa is fascinating. The unique structure is both captivating and unnerving at the same time. Jails are breeding grounds for bad energy. The people that spend time in them are generally filled with sorrow. Those feelings can linger on for all eternity. Many haunted locations were once bustling institutions. Full of people who came and went. But sometimes those people stay behind. Like the once rotating system of Squirrel Cage Jail, they are now locked in time. Whether you are looking to be spooked or want to learn more about the history, this unique place is worth the visit.


The Pottawattamie County Jail, also known as Squirrel Cage Jail, was built in 1885. According to legend, the jail is situated on the previous site of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church morgue. The doors officially opened on September 10, 1885. The building was designed by William H. Brown and Benjamin F. Haugh of Indianapolis, Indiana at the cost of $30,000. Squirrel Cage Jail is one of only 18 rotary cell systems in the United States and the only one that is three stories tall. The cells revolved inside a cylinder cage with only one door opening on each floor. The entire inner cage could be rotated by a hand crank, easily turned by one person.

The jail was designed for maximum security with minimal contact with staff. One jailer and one trustee could run the entire facility together. The cells were designed to limit the ability of prisoners to interact with each other and allowed for only one cell to be opened at a time on each tier. Thirty pie-shaped cells stacked on top of one another from floor to ceiling could house two prisoners each. On average, 25 to 30 prisoners were housed at any given time. Most were petty criminals. Some were in for much more violent crimes such as assault, kidnapping, and murder.

The building also consists of offices, a kitchen, trustee cells, quarters for women and children, an infirmary, a common area, a communal shower, and solitary confinement.

The fourth floor was an apartment for the jailer consisting of eight rooms.

In December of 1969, Squirrel Cage Jail was decommissioned. The rotary device and cells have sat dormant since. In 1977, the county historical society took over ownership and converted the jail into a museum.

Although the cells have been locked in their final resting place, the spirits of those who once lived and worked in the building are still reported to remain restless.


Over the course of the jail’s operation, only three recorded deaths occurred within its walls.

Thomas Reifle

While awaiting trial for grand larceny and bootlegging, Thomas Reifle committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell on April 22, 1897.

Before his death, distraught by his arrest and upset over denied attempts to receive help to meet bond to be released, Reifle paced incessantly along the second-tier corridor.

Reifle was found in the morning by jailer Al Morgan. Reifle had chosen a slow, painful method of leaning forward to strangle himself to death. He wrapped a linen cord, commonly used as a clothing line, around his neck. The thin cord cut deeply into his skin.

Harry Cohan

Harry Cohan died of a heart attack on July 19, 1907. Cohan fell backward in a corridor and died.

Before Cohan’s death, another prisoner said he had a vision of a large man with a dark complexion falling dead in the corridor of the jail. The description was like that of Cohan and several other prisoners recalled hearing about the nightmarish vision before the death occurred.

Cohan’s son refused to take his father’s body and he was subsequently buried by the county.

Joseph Letak

On May 23, 1942, Joseph Letak fell to his death. Letak had climbed to the third-tier catwalk – a restricted area of the jail. Letak fell twenty feet and died as a result of a fractured skull.

Although the 30-inch-wide steel-plated catwalk was installed for emergency evacuations, prisoners would sneak up there because it was cooler.

Ghost Stories

Numerous reports of paranormal activity have been shared over the years. Staff and visitors have reported hearing various unexplained sounds, footsteps walking the corridors, and voices seemingly originating from thin air. Although the assumption could be made that the cells and areas occupied by inmates would be the most haunted, the fourth floor has been given the reputation of having the most activity. Frequently, children can be heard laughing on the uppermost floor. Keys are heard jingling, footsteps pace from room to room, a music box is heard playing, and objects move or fly off the walls.

Several apparitions have been seen throughout the building. The figure of a man in full uniform is often seen walking the corridors as if still making his rounds. Although figures believed to be prisoners have been seen, most of the apparitions are believed to be jailers who never left.

Jim M. Carter oversaw the construction of the jail and was the first person to live in the fourth-floor apartment. Carter is credited as the longest-running superintendent in the history of the jail. Many believe his spirit never left.

Otto Gudath, a former jailer from 1949 to 1958, is also said to still be in the building. Otto stands near a window inside a room on the fourth floor. He has also been seen standing in the same window from outside. According to staff, he is friendly and seems to be continuing his work in the afterlife.

While working in the jail in the 1950s, Bill Foster refused to live in the fourth-floor living quarters. He claimed strange things happened that he could not explain. He reported hearing footsteps, children’s laughter, and that things were mysteriously moved. He chose to live on the second floor where inmates were housed instead of being kept awake by the spirits of those who once resided in the apartment.

In addition to seeing several staff members, a female apparition was seen in the women’s detention area.

And most notably, a museum guest saw the apparition of a little girl wearing a gray dress locked inside a cell.


A historical guide to ghost stories from Nebraska.

Beyond Lincoln: A History of

Nebraska Hauntings


The author:

Tayden Bundy

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