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‘Squirrel Cage’ tells story of rotating jail

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“Human Squirrel Cage: Nodaway County’s Rotary Jail” is the latest book by local writer and historian Susan Cronk. The daughter of former Nodaway County Sheriff Roger Cronk, the author lived in the jail’s adjoining sheriff’s quarters as a girl. The “squirrel cage” housed prisoners for more than 100 years and was replaced by the current jail in 1986.

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Susan Cronk

MARYVILLE, Mo. — Nodaway County historian and author Susan Cronk has announced the publication of her 13th book, “Human Squirrel Cage: Nodaway County’s Rotary Jail.”

Patented during the late 19th century, rotary jails were designed by architect William H. Brown and built by the Haugh, Ketcham & Co. iron foundry of Indianapolis, Indiana.

Fastened atop a giant “lazy Susan” platform, the jails consisted of wedge-shaped cells that could be rotated like a merry-go-round to bring them into line with the structure’s sole door.

According to Cronk and other sources, the idea was to create a secure building in which prisoners could be held in near-total isolation from jailers and guards.

The pie-shaped cells rotated around a core containing a sanitary plumbing system, and the circular cell block was turned by a single guard using a hand crank.

Unfortunately the jails encountered problems almost immediately, with inmates becoming trapped and injured by the mechanism or purposely interfering with its operation. 

The Nodaway County Jail, completed in 1882, was no exception.

Writes Cronk: “The designers of the rotary jail promoted its design as being one of the safest ever created. This would prove false, over and over again, in every rotary jail ever built between 1881 and 1889. Heads and limbs of prisoners were crushed, ears nearly torn off, bones broken, and death visited more than once.”

The first safety issue arising at the Nodaway facility, Cronk states, came in 1883 when the metal-laden structure was struck by lightning, shocking two prisoners, one of whom was slightly injured.

Problems related to the jail’s construction and rotating mechanism persisted for years, until the lazy Susan was intentionally and permanently disabled in 1924.

As many as 18 rotary jails were built across the Midwestern, Southern and Western United States, including three in Missouri. Besides Maryville, the other two Show-Me State jails were constructed in Maysville and Gallatin. The Gallatin lockup still stands though is not in use.

Maryville’s “frozen” rotating jail housed prisoners until 1985, when it was replaced by the current facility. Cronk, the daughter of former Nodaway County Sheriff Roger Cronk, lived in the old jail’s adjoining sheriff’s quarters as a girl.

Other tales told by Cronk in “Human Squirrel Cage” describe a prisoner baptism, an execution, a honeymoon, inmate deaths and the “imprisonment” of several raccoons seized from poachers.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Cronk, who spent five years researching the book, “so you may as well let the jail’s history speak for itself.”

In addition to tracing the history of the “squirrel cage,” Cronk’s book also tells the story of Nodaway County’s incarceration facilities since construction of the first jail, a log cabin built around 1846 and torn down in 1853.

Cronk said  Nodaway County made do without a county jail until 1859, but that three more jails, including the squirrel cage, were constructed before the current building was completed more than 30 years ago — the first Nodaway lockup built in the 20th century.

She further notes that the “merry-go-round jail” remained in use for just over 102 years and was apparently the longest functioning such structure in the United States.

Only three rotary jails remain standing, the one in Gallatin and similar buildings in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Crawfordsville, Indiana.

“Human Squirrel Cage” is Cronk’s fourth nonfiction work. She has also written nine novels. A fifth volume of nonfiction, meant as a companion to “Human Squirrel Cage,” is due for release later this year. 

“Thanks for the Hospitality but We Gotta Go” will detail the 50 escapes and 19 attempted escapes from the old rotary cell block.

Copies of “Human Squirrel Cage” can be purchased through Amazon.com and will soon be available locally at the Nodaway County Historical Society Museum, located at 110 N. Walnut in Maryville.

Cronk’s website address is www.susancronk.com.

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Staff writer Anthony Brown can be reached at tbrown@maryvilledailyforum.com or by calling the newspaper at 660.562.2424.