On the spot where the McCracken County courthouse currently stands once sat a rotary jail. Yes, a rotary jail! Not many have heard of such a thing, much less that Paducah had one, and if you're anything like me, the first thought that popped in your head was, “We must've had a lot of naughty Rotarians if they needed their own separate slammer.” Nothing like that at all.
It's in considering the nicknames for rotary jails—the Lazy Susan, the Merry Go Round, and the Human Squirrel Cage—that the uniqueness and purpose of their design comes to light. Rotary jails spun! And Paducah had one for over fifty years. In fact, newly discovered evidence indicates that it may have been the first in the country. T
A secure place to lock up ne'er-do-wells is a necessity for any burgeoning town, and Paducah was no exception. Log jails were first erected downtown in the 1830’s, and a brick jail was built in 1868. For a city growing as quickly as Paducah (with an equally growing number of lawbreakers) both of these structures proved insufficient to contain the criminal element. Recognizing the need for a new facility, the city began considering new jail designs in the early 1880's. At the same time, the firm of Haugh, Ketcham and Brown of Indianapolis, IN patented the idea for the rotary jail. Seeing this bastion of modern technology as the solution to all their problems, Paducah was among the first to sign up for the newfangled building at a cost $19,500.
The specifications in the patent state: “The object of our invention is to produce a jail in which prisoners can be controlled without the necessity of personal contact between them and the jailer…it consists, first, of a circular cell structure of considerable size (inside the usual prison building) divided into several cells capable of being rotated.” In other words, the cells were on a giant turntable. Paducah's jail was two-tiered with eight cells per floor, each containing two bunks, making it capable of housing 32 inmates. The individual, pie-shaped cells were divided from one other by solid iron walls, but the cells themselves had neither bars in front nor doors. Instead, the cells rotated within a cylinder of stationary bars, a cage, which contained a single locked door through which prisoners could be admitted, released, or fed. For the sakes of efficiency and economy, the whole mechanism could be operated by a solitary jailer, who through an easy turn of crank on each of the floors, could set in a motion a series of gears in the basement of the jail that rotated the massive, circular block until the desired cell lined up with the door. The cells could even be rotated such that none lined up with the door at all. And because the pointy end of each cell contained a water closet (an innovation for its day), there was no reason why an inmate would ever have to leave his cell until his appointed time. The rotary jail was touted as “escape proof,” providing maximum security with a minimal staff. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, plenty actually. Limbs were crushed or even amputated if an inmate had part of his/her body hanging through the stationary bars when the cells started to rotate. With the ability to only release a single prisoner at a time, the jails were an obvious fire hazard. There are even stories of jailers abandoning their posts for days at a time with the keys in their pockets, leaving no way to rotate the cells and provide prisoners with food and water. The inmates had their tricks, too. One incident had prisoners working together to create a rocking motion in order to throw the jail off its gears. Another resourceful inmate was said to stick his peg leg into the stationary bars of the cylinder forcing the entire mechanism to a standstill. However, a particular problem with rotary jails was that they were also easy to break into. With a solitary guard on duty, there wasn’t much to stop an unruly crowd from overtaking the jail and releasing whomever they saw fit.
The idea of the rotary jail never truly caught on. Fewer than twenty were ever erected, and by the end of the 1930’s they’d all been condemned and replaced. Only two still stand (now as museums), in Crawfordsville, IN, and Council Bluffs, IA. The rotary jail in Paducah was demolished in 1934, but for years it hadn’t been known when it was exactly built. Common thought dated its construction to perhaps 1884. However, with current research underway to register the two remaining rotary jails as National Historic Landmarks, the interest in Paducah’s jail has resurfaced along with some rediscovered articles from archived copies of the Paducah Daily News. The articles definitively state that construction of Paducah’s jail was well underway in 1882, and on June 10, 1882 a tiny article in the middle of the page appears under the headline, New Jail Occupied.
Says the story: “When the prisoners were all in their new quarters, jailer Edwards gave them a chance for a bath; which none declined. The prisoners freely express joy over their new quarters, and are as much delighted as men in confinement could be.” The occupation of Paducah’s jail by that date in June of 1882 precedes the one in Indiana by two weeks, making Paducah’s rotary jail the first in the country open for business. What goes around comes and around, and what was once a deeply flawed and nearly forgotten piece of local architecture is spinning back into historical significance.