Go inside Crawfordsville’s Rotary Jail Museum, the world’s only rotating jail

Destination Indiana

CRAWFORDSVILLE, Ind. – Indiana is home to many interesting attractions, including a jail that rotates.

The Rotary Jail Museum in Crawfordsville was the first-of-its-kind in the country. It was built in 1881 and is now the only rotating jail left in the world.

“There were 18 of them, all in the Midwest,” said Brittany Turpin, executive director of the Montgomery County Cultural Foundation. “Of the 18 remaining, three still stand. The other 15 have been destroyed and this one is the only one that still rotates.”

The idea behind a rotating jail was to save money for Montgomery County.

“They thought with the idea that they jail might be inescapable, you wouldn’t have to have as much reason to believe that inmates could get out,” explained Turpin. “So, you wouldn’t have to have as many guards to watch the inmate. It kind of cut down on salary.”

“They brought this design to Crawfordsville because we were kind of a in a transitional stage, so the jail prior to this had been damaged,” Turpinsaid. “They decided to explore their options for humane ways of keeping inmates until they were able to see a judge.”

To rotate the cells today, you still have to use a hand-crank. It works like a Lazy Susan. The jail has eight wedged-shaped cells on two floors and only one door on each floor. The only way in or out was if the cell was lined up with the door.

“If there’s no opening, then the guards know you can’t get out,” said Turpin.

At one time, the jail could hold 37 inmates. It wasn’t used as a prison, so most inmates didn’t stay for more than two days. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, people would sometimes get arrested on purpose for minor offenses so they could go to the rotary jail.

“The inmates here could get three hot meals, they could see a doctor, they could get their clothes washed, they could take a bath,” explained Turpin. “Depending on their circumstances just to come in and be able to see a doctor and get cleaned up.”

Along with the rotating jail, people can also learn the history of sheriffs that lived and worked in the building.

But there is some other interesting history to learn. The jail did have two executions, one in 1885 and another in 1886. The most infamous one was the execution of John Coffee.

“We really feel like in our historical research that he was wrongly convicted,” said Turpin. “He was illiterate, he was known for doing odd jobs around town, he was easily shaken, and we feel like he was a scapegoat for another crime.”

It took three attempts to execute Coffee.

“Typically, you would not be able to go without air for three minutes before passing away,” said Turpin. “It took nine minutes for his heart to stop beating and they waited a total of 12 before they cut him down.”

Ghost hunters and mediums have come from all over the world to see if they can connect with the spirit of Coffee, but the staff won’t necessarily admit it’s haunted.

In 1938, the jail stopped spinning because of safety concerns. Some inmates would stick their arms or legs out of the cell bars while the jail was rotating, causing some serious injuries.

It closed for good in 1973, after serving as Montgomery County’s jail for 91 years.

Now, it only spins for museum tours.

The Rotary Museum has been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they do plan to open back up to visitors on June 19. They have precautions in place so you can see the spinning attraction while staying safe.

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