By Rick Mosher

On an otherwise ordinary day in 1916, Roy Shipman was arrested in Crawfordsville, Indiana, for possession of a live raccoon. History doesn’t record the fate of the raccoon, but we do know what happened to Shipman, and unless he was a local, it was a destiny he probably didn’t expect. Going to jail in Crawfordsville in those days was less a night inside a boring iron cage than it was a ride on a giant iron carousel: Shipman, for better or worse, had landed himself inside a rotating circular jail.

Designed in 1882 by two Indianapolis architects, the Crawfordsville jail was the first of fewer than 20 rotating jails known to have been built in the United States. The general idea of a circular jail probably began with Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon.” The 19th-century social theorist and philosopher conceived of a jail featuring a guard tower that sat in the center of a ring of cells, leaving the prisoners nowhere to hide. Michel Foucault used the Panopticon as a metaphor for the relentless scrutiny imposed on modern man by structures of power. The Crawfordsville historical society uses the word Panopticon as the title of its newsletter. (Actually, it’s the “Panoptican,” but you get the idea.) The full flowering of the circular jail, however, didn’t come until the late 19th century, when full-throttle industrialization and a corresponding call for the humane treatment of workers spilled over into the penal realm. The circular jail can be seen as the embodiment of both the rise of industrialization and the social awareness that it spawned. Mechanized in every sense, it was also believed to be safer for guards and healthier for prisoners, a modern alternative to the filthy and dangerous conditions of most existing jails.

The jail served the people of Montgomery County efficiently for many years, and after it was closed to criminals in the early 1970s it was opened to tourists. A museum since 1975, the old jail has offered the curious a glimpse inside one of the only three circular jails left standing in America, and the only specimen in the world that still rotates.

Picture a huge iron layer cake divided into eight slices. Each slice is a cell, but there are no bars or walls on the outer edge. The “cake” rests snugly inside an iron shell with one door, guarded by a sheriff’s deputy. The cell block itself rotates on a central axis as thick as an oak tree, with one cell facing the door at a time. The main gear, located in the basement, is accordingly Brobdingnagian. And to make the whole thing go, the deputy is supplied with a heck of a crankshaft.

The jail is on the northwest side of a city otherwise known as the site of Wabash College and the home of Ben-Hur author General Lew Wallace. It sits inside a handsome red brick building you’d never guess contained the iron behemoth within. The sheriff’s family lived in the front of the house, an example of that phase of post-Civil War architecture known as the “nameless period” for its conflation of styles, and their quarters have been converted into a modest historical museum. Rotating exhibits have included a display of World War II uniforms and memorabilia, and an annual show of quilts. But the centerpiece of the old jail museum, naturally, is the old jail itself.

Montgomery Historical Society president Jonathan Dean, a Crawfordsville native with a doctorate in history from the University of Chicago, has devoted himself to unearthing the jail’s history, as well as to keeping the big wheel turning. In the course of his research Dean has turned up some evocative stuff. He says records show that a man found wandering the streets of Crawfordsville was arrested, presumed insane, and put in the jail overnight for safekeeping. The prisoner’s name, recorded in the huge logbook Dean rescued from the rubbish heap, is Greek. Dean imagines that the arresting officer, a person unlikely to have much experience with foreigners, thought the lost Greek was actually a babbling lunatic and acted accordingly. In addition to the insane, the jail regularly hosted large groups of tramps (tramp, says Dean, was a specific term for an itinerant worker and should not be confused with the also common hobo, who was more of a bum). On cold nights, says Dean, they would arrive en masse at the railroad line outside of town and ask to be held in the jail as a kind of courtesy until the sun warmed the ground. But there were other ways to go to jail in Crawfordsville besides simply asking; you could also go for a ride on the iron merry-go-round for being “plain drunk,” for being “incorrigible” and, oddly enough, “incorruptible,” for handing out pro-German literature, and for the crime of bastardy.

The circular jail was welded into place in 1939; an iron door was put on the outer wall of each wedge and it became just another jail, albeit one with an unusual floor plan. One reason for the immobilization was fear of fire–a blaze in a filled-to-capacity circular jail would have grisly results–but Dean says that there were no such catastrophes at Crawfordsville. Bigger threats, he says, came from the prisoners intentionally crowding to one side of the circle, a trick to bind the gears and keep the jail from turning, preventing the processing of inmates. A museum flyer also recalls the irascible jailbird who persisted in sticking his wooden leg between the bars at the end of his cell, jamming up the works. Worth a laugh, maybe, but the image raises the less than jovial picture of any flesh-and-blood body part coming between the rotating jail’s grinding iron slabs.

On the second floor is an identical set of eight cells, the second layer of the rotating cake. These cells, Dean says, were used to separate juveniles from their more hardened counterparts on the ground level. Up on the third floor the architecture settles into straight lines and angles and nothing rotates, which was probably a good thing, because the third-floor inmates were the lunatics and the infirm. Here the historical society has installed a Plexiglas portal that looks down along the central shaft of the jail, into the inner workings of the machine. It also looks down into the jail’s sewer, since the commode in each cell emptied into the middle. This was where the ventilation shaft ran as well–maybe the third floor wasn’t such a haven after all.

Peering into the plumbing is fine, but the real payoff of the old jail museum is in the basement, where you can watch the gears turn as Dean rotates the jail. When the jail was new, the precision of the gears was allegedly such that a five-year-old armed with a pencil could produce enough torque to make it go. But once Dean begins to actually wrestle the monster around it becomes clear that turning the jail is anything but child’s play. Standing in the basement, you hear a clatter, then a subtle grinding, and then the entire ceiling begins to creep around your head. Tiny flakes of rust fall from the center axis. Distant, mournful creaks and groans drift through the air. It’s reminiscent of a scene in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” set in another mechanical jail: the walls begin to heat up, slowly turning red-hot, and then they close in, inexorably pushing the poor prisoner toward the bottomless pit in the floor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lloyd DeGrane.