Crawfordsville is about fifty miles northwest of Indianapolis. Because it needed a new jail in the late 1800s and is close to Indiana’s largest city, it has one of the most unique jails in the country. Architect William H. Brown patented the rotary jail in 1881, and it was built by Haugh, Ketcham & Co. iron foundry in Indianapolis. Crawfordsville built its new jail using the innovative rotary jail system. It consisted of a large round metal “carousel” divided into eight wedge shaped sections. The exterior had bars around it except for one door. A guard could crank a handle and the cells would rotate to the door, minimizing the chances of escape and the need for several guards.
It worked in theory, but after approximately fifteen rotary jails were built in the midwest, the design flaws became apparent. In the event of a fire, the inmates were trapped unless a guard was willing to risk being killed in the fire to crank the handle to rotate the jail. Even more problematic was the chances of a limb being broken or amputated in the bars as cells rotated. This was a problem that happened when intoxicated people passed out against the bars out of view from the guard rotating the cells.
By the 1930s, all the rotary jails had either been dismantled or welded in place and new doors added for each cell. The Crawfordsville rotary jail was welded up in the 1930s and continued to house prisoners until 1973. No longer used as a jail, the building was purchased by Montgomery County Cultural Foundation and was converted into a museum. The old rotary mechanism was repaired, and it is the only fully functioning rotary jail.
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