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Kate Plake, b. 1838
The Southern Husband Outwitted by His Union Wife
Philadelphia: Printed for the Authoress by Moore & Brother, c1868.

Summary

Kate Plake published two works in her lifetime: a pamphlet titled Trouble and Romance, or, Real Life of Mrs. Kate Plake in 1866, and the book-length The Southern Husband Outwitted By His Union Wife around 1868. Apart from these two texts, however, no other information about Plake's life can be found. Consequently, the autobiographical details she provides in her texts are unverifiable. Furthermore, it suggests that Plake may be a pen name.

According to Plake's account in her 1868 narrative, she was born at a place called the Bend of Slate in Bath County, Kentucky, on March 16, 1838. Her maiden name was Gore. On December 5, 1858, she married a first cousin whom she refers to only as Mr. Grifin. She and Mr. Grifin moved from Kentucky to Missouri and had a daughter, Myrtle. Plake eventually returned to Kentucky, divorced Mr. Grifin and remarried. Plake also separated from her second husband, whom she does not name in her narrative. The details of her life after 1868, including the date, place, and cause of her death, remain unknown.

Plake begins The Southern Husband with recollections of her childhood in Kentucky, which is "free from all sorrow and anxiety" (p. 10). Sadly for Plake, this idyllic state does not last (p. 10). As she enters adulthood, Plake encounters an aunt, who is "so extremely wicked" that she is happiest when she is "blasting the reputation or stabbing at the character of some one" (p. 12). Plake herself soon becomes the aunt's favorite target. Plake's situation improves briefly when the aunt moves to Cass County, Missouri, but Plake later agrees to marry one of the aunt's sons—her first cousin, Mr. Grifin—when he tells Plake that he "could not endure life without" her (p. 19). Plake's hated aunt thus becomes her new mother-in-law.

The couple's marital woes begin almost immediately. Mr. Grifin decides that the couple will move to Missouri, and once there Plake learns that her husband has "completely deceived" her and cannot afford a house of his own (p. 27). This situation forces the couple to move in with Plake's hated mother-in-law, who treats Plake like a hired hand. Plake begs Mr. Grifin to find a different place to live, but he refuses. One day, after drinking a glass of water that Mr. Grifin brings her, Plake is temporarily blinded and begins foaming at the mouth. She thus comes to suspect that her husband is trying to poison her. A neighbor helps Plake recover from this episode, but after a second attempted poisoning, Plake vows to leave her husband and return to her family and friends in Kentucky. Infuriated, Plake's husband and mother-in-law prevent her from seeing her daughter. It is here that a pattern emerges: Plake attempts to escape from her husband and mother-in-law but is repeatedly drawn back into their home, usually by promises of being allowed to see her child. This cycle of cruel treatment, escape, return and more cruel treatment escalates with each occurrence. "You are my wife," Mr. Grifin tells Plake; "I shall do just as I feel disposed; if I choose to kill you, I shall do it" (p. 39).

The abuse becomes increasingly extreme and bizarre until Plake is finally tied down to a bed and "guarded" (p. 45). One of her brothers-in-law devises a plan whereby the family will slowly poison Plake with small doses of quinine, a drug he says will give Plake "a strange, wild appearance" that will convince outsiders she is insane and thus in need of perpetual confinement (p. 45). Upon hearing this plan, Plake promises herself that she will "die first" before submitting to it (p. 48). Later, an American Indian chief (of an unnamed tribe) visits the home and sees Plake tied to a bed. She begs the chief to help her, but her brother-in-law has her restrained in a straitjacket. Her husband then tries to take her to Harrisonville, Missouri, to have her declared insane, but she escapes. She finds shelter with a sympathetic couple, who arrange for her to return to Kentucky, but she is unable to obtain custody of her daughter before she leaves.

Back home in Kentucky, Plake gets divorced and then remarries, this time to an older widower who has seven children. Unfortunately, she finds "little more felicity" with this man than she had with Mr. Grifin, and they soon separate (p. 115). The Civil War is now under way. Plake receives word that "Missouri was altogether under military control" and that her daughter is living with her mother-in-law on an Army post in Harrisonville (p. 118). In 1863, Plake finds them, and after another series of conflicts—including a physical altercation between the two women—finally regains custody of her daughter. Plake and Myrtle return to Kentucky, where Plake approaches Governor Thomas E. Bramlette about serving as a spy for the Union. Although at the start of her book Plake promises to describe the time she spent "installed in the Secret Service Corps" of Kentucky, her service to the Union actually comprises a very small portion of her narrative (p. viii). Both the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives and the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs are unable to confirm that a Secret Service Corps ever existed in the state, casting doubt on the veracity of this portion of Plake's narrative.

Later, in order to support herself and her daughter, Plake decides to write the story of her life and publish it. In order to do so, she travels to St. Louis, Missouri, to have a pamphlet printed. While she is away on this trip, she leaves Myrtle with a couple in Kentucky. Unfortunately, Plake is gone so long that this couple leaves Myrtle in a children's home in Ohio, where she is adopted by a wealthy family. Plake and her daughter are thus once again separated, and the narrative ends without further mention of Myrtle. Before closing, however, Plake does inform her readers of the whereabouts of Mr. Grifin, who, while serving in the Confederate Army, receives "a shot which blew the top of his head off" (p. 159). Plake closes The Southern Husband by reprinting a poem about her life written by someone who had read her earlier pamphlet.

While Plake's narrative does contain some discussion of her abolitionist sympathies and service to the Union cause, the narrative's overriding preoccupation with the protracted struggles between Plake and Mr. Grifin's family makes The Southern Husband read less like a Civil War memoir and more like what might be called a domestic captivity narrative. Rather than being kidnapped by Americans Indians (the more typical setting for captivity narratives written by white women), it is her husband's family—and marriage itself—that imprisons Plake, and from which she struggles to escape.

Works Consulted: Gayle Alvis, Walter Bowman, Joe Horton, and Jim Pritchard at the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, and Brandon K. Slone at the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs assisted with research for this summary.

Harry Thomas

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