- The Long Revenge of Zobel Blake
Pessimism distilled: Happiness is possible, but evil; unhappiness is likely, but futile.—Zobel Blake (1867)
Very little is known of the bastard called Zobel Blake. We know he is the only person of record, bastard or otherwise, ever to be called by that name, and that his primary claim to historical significance lies in the fact that he was the very last man to languish to his death in an American debtors' prison. That such a distinction should befall an otherwise obscure man is not surprising; that this notable death took place in New Orleans, however, in the year 1867, more than two decades after debtors' prisons had been formally abolished both by the U.S. Congress and by the state of Louisiana, might well wrinkle one's brow.
Most of what we do know about Zobel Blake, as well as about the strange circumstances of his lonely demise, comes to us from three textual sources. Each of these sources contains a mystery.
First, there are the extant records from one Provisional New Orleans Jail for Debtors, where, if those papers are to be believed, Zobel Blake remained in captivity for the final five years of his life. This untimely jail was in all likelihood established by the fat-faced and grimly mustachioed [End Page 215] Benjamin Butler, that notorious but efficient Union major general, after his capture of the city in 1862. Butler, who was despised and known to be corrupt by the local citizenry, was surely not above such a tactic. Indeed, more than one historian has recently theorized that the most reviled of Butler's decrees, the infamous General Order No. 28—which declared that any local woman who insulted or showed contempt for a Union soldier would be "regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation"—was itself but a ruse, a public diversion from the setting up of the jail, a move that appears to have been carried out in secret.1
Butler, who tacitly regarded every Southern man as being already in debt to the Union, likely intended to use the jail as a means of extorting money from local merchants; indeed, most of the shop owners and tradesmen who found themselves incarcerated there—having promptly paid their ransoms, or so we presume—were freed shortly thereafter. To the best of our knowledge, only the shadowy Zobel Blake stayed a prisoner for any considerable length of time. Whether he had been a target of extortion and had simply refused to play ball, or else actually had debts he could not pay, we do not know.
We know only that Blake, already an old man by that point (his age is listed as eighty in one of the prison records, though that was probably only a guess), came to be imprisoned in the jail in the autumn of 1862, and remained there for the duration of the war, finally perishing—long the only prisoner—in September of 1867. Here, then, is our first mystery: how and why did the prison continue to operate, not only for two full years after the war had come to a close but also with General "Beast" Butler—who'd been rebuked and recalled by the end of 1862—already long gone? Did the private owner of the estate on which the jail had been installed bear some secret malice for Zobel Blake? What forces conspired to keep Blake locked away, and why?
Our second source may be found among the appendices to Senta Heinrich's nearly forgotten, though still not fully discredited, philosophical biography, Kant's Muse. The book caused something of an academic stir when it was first published in 1978, as it proffered the thesis that the chaste sage of Königsberg, at some point between the writing of the first and the third Critiques, did in fact have an illicit sexual relationship with one Gertrude Zobel, a local tea merchant. In appendix 2 to this now unjustly obscure masterwork, Heinrich performs a meticulous, if also admittedly speculative, genealogy of the Zobel family, and concludes that Gertrude, Kant...