Jonathan Dean squints into the gloom of the wedge-shaped jail cell in which he stands. "The prisoners, of course, weren't stupid," he comments. "They realized that by shifting around and moving to one side they could interfere with the mechanism, and apparently even jam it." Principles of physics don't usually go hand in hand with prison uprisings, but this isn't your usual hoosegow, and Dean, AM'85, PhD'93, isn't your typical jailer. Armed with a doctorate in history, Dean is director and curator of the Old Jail Museum in Craw-fordsville, IN, featuring one of only three circular jails left standing in America-and the only specimen that still turns.
Designed in 1882 with the idea of giving prisoners nowhere to hide, the jail resembles a huge, iron, three-layer cake, each layer divided into eight slices or cells, with no bars or walls on the outer edge. To keep the prisoners enclosed, the cake rests inside a barred iron shell with only one door. The entire cellblock rotates on a central axis as thick as an oak tree. The main gear, located in the basement, is accordingly Brobdingnagian, and one heck of a big crankshaft makes the whole thing go.
The jail-arranged so that juveniles stayed on the second floor; the mentally ill and infirm on the third-was welded in place in 1939, Dean says, when doors were added to the cells and it became a conventional lockup. When the last prisoner was discharged in the early 1970s, the big gear was unfrozen, and the jail became a museum.
Dean's official duties range from administration to conducting tours to light maintenance. A Crawfordsville native, he was only vaguely aware of the jail's existence while growing up. He began work at the jail upon returning to Indiana in 1991, after three years in Alaska studying the 19th-century fur trade. Dean, who is also president of the Montgomery County Historical Society, soon produced a paper on the jail's construction in the 1880s, but he says that he has yet to get to the bottom of even that brief period. "I'm still finding more. It's really incredible. I think this is the nature of history in general, that things are right under your nose, and you're just really not aware of the story behind them."
In digging up the jail's stories, Dean has often found himself digging in the trash. He rescued a cache of oral-history cassette tapes from disposal, as well as books that record the comings and go-ings of the jail's guests. It is these entries that provide the most colorful images, such as the young man jailed for possession of a live raccoon, and the man with the Greek name booked on suspicion of insanity, whom Dean suspects was only a foreigner trying to make himself understood. He prefers this real, compelling material to the predictable jail legends, what he terms "the kind of vulgar, least-common-denominator stuff" of ghosts and bottomless pits in the basement.
Still, it's easy to conjure ghostly visions when Dean rotates the cellblock. Standing in the basement, you first hear a clatter, then a grinding. The ceiling begins to creep above your head as flakes of rust fall from the axis and mournful creaks and groans drift through the air. Fortunately, as Dean says, the pit in the basement of his jail is only a myth.