Rotary Jail Museum – Crawfordsville, Indiana - Atlas Obscura

Rotary Jail Museum

The first spinning jail built in the United States is the only one that still turns. 


There was a point in history when people were still trying to perfect the perfect cell in which to keep that wiliest of creatures: man. This quest for the perfect jail led to some odd and often inhumane forms of incarceration, some of which still survive. 

One such example is the rotary jail, the only still working example of which is Indiana’s Rotary Jail Museum. Rotary jails were a unique innovation in penitentiary design where the cells were wedge-shaped spaces arranged around a central hub. The entire hub could then be spun by a mechanism beneath the cells that was controlled by a hand crank. The cells would spin around so that the door could only be accessed from one opening. This innovation almost caught on in the late 1800s and somewhere between six and eighteen of the spinning jails were built in America. Unfortunately the almost whimsical prisons had the fatal habit of trapping inmates’ limbs in between the bars, breaking and crushing them. After a number of such incidents, most of the rotary jails were closed or converted to a more stationary operation. 

Today the only still operating example of the rotary jails is one in Crawfordsville, Indiana. While the jail no longer holds criminals, the massive gear beneath the cells can still rotate, standing as a strange example of innovation outstripping utility.

Know Before You Go

The museum is not open during the winter months and is closed until spring.

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