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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Grace, Gumption and Glory: Kate Chase Sprague, Part 2

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

February 1868

With the popularity of Grant for the Republican ticket, Salmon bypasses the idea of a third party and heads straight towards the Democrats. He was a candidate in the 1856, 1860 and 1864 election, and has no qualms about switching parties to ease his ‘maggots of the brain’ desire for the land’s highest office.

Kate takes up residence at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in NY to act as her father’s de facto campaign manager, but she also stays with William’s cousin, Susan Sprague Hoyt and her husband, who live one block from the hotel. Chase headquarters are at the Clarendon Hotel. When asked about her father’s chance for success, Kate quips “It is all a question of whether the Democratic Party has the sense to seize its opportunities. I feel that when the South seceded the brains of the party went with it. Since then it has rarely missed an opportunity to blunder.”[i]

Grant and Colfax 1868 campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The convention considers twenty men for the nomination, but none has gathered enough support to gain it. Then, late on the ninth, a virtual stampede for Horatio Seymour, led by Samuel J. Tilden, ended the struggle. On the 22nd ballot, he received 317 votes, becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in the coming election against Grant.[ii] Kate feels the failure most keenly. The letters of leading Democrats, in addition to Van Buren, Seymour, and Tilden, suggest that party leadership never took the Chase camp seriously, instead using the chief justice to force the nomination of a more traditional Democrat.

One newspaper editor wrote a week after the convention, Chase “was on every man’s tongue, but in no man’s heart.”[iii]

The Capacity of Women

By the end of 1868, Washington society acknowledges that Kate’s marriage is an unhappy pairing; the Spragues continue to move in polite society, though often not together. When William brakes his leg, Kate takes up full-time nursing duties and is happy. As soon as William is up on crutches, he returns to Providence, dismisses his wife, and returns to work. Leaving for shopping in New York, a disconsolate Kate writes her father “…my occupation were gone.”

Later, Kate leaves for Providence on the eve of her 5th wedding anniversary. Waiting for William at his office, he appears to Kate “small, and mean”, begrudging every dollar given to her. No question of home, or of their son, not even the courtesy of a chair. He has forgotten every anniversary after their wedding, including this one and she concludes that he is a “coarse, dirty boor.”[iv] Stung by his criticism in front of his employees, she realizes that her spending habits were “great in the other extreme” and that he is right to impose some check on her, but she despairs of his “littleness of soul.”[v]

William’s re-election to the Senate in March 1869 begins a series of rambling and incoherent speeches which stab Kate and many others in the back. He accuses fellow legislators, the press, and American women of corruption and immorality. He then attacks lawyers, who he claims failed to warn the American people of the coming Civil War, wrote laws no one but other lawyers can understand, and believe they have more power than the president. In the middle of it all, he introduced a petition for women’s suffrage. Salmon sends a letter to Kate saying “My heart is full of sympathy for you, my precious child…out of this great trial might come true peace.”[vi] For once, her father is sympathetic.

William Sprague, photograph between 1865-1880, Brady-Handy photograph collection, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Much of what William advocates serves his own interests – lower taxes, tariffs on manufacturers, easier credit and inflated currency to help business borrowers like himself. His comments on the corruption of the Gilded Age politicians were, however, on target and his warnings prophetic. Excessive debt, high-interest rates and financial speculation would eventually lead to the financial panic of 1873, which triggers depression in North America and Europe until 1879, even longer in some countries. Sprague’s proposal to create a new Financial Council that regulates interest rates and the money supply would come to fruition more than forty years later with the creation of the Federal Reserve.[vii]

William also attacks fashionable dress, questioning “whether those adornments clothe any more virtue and integrity than do garments of a less gaudy and less luxuriant quality.” Kate, seated in the Senate gallery, dressed in black cashmere and lace, suffers through her husband’s newfound love affair with oratory.[viii] Humiliated, she leaves before William’s final speech on April 8th. Her father continues to advise her to “humble her pride…turn the other cheek.”

Sprague eventually loses all influence as a Senator. He is now a man without a party, having destroyed his standing with the Republican leadership. More importantly, he damages his relations with the most powerful business, political and newspaper interests in his native Rhode Island.

A Second Chance

Kate gives birth to her second child, Ethel, in October 1869. Soon after the birth, Salmon purchases a large brick house and fifty acres on the northeast outskirts of the District of Columbia. The Federal-style manor, built on a knoll overlooking the city, sits three miles from the Capitol building. Nettie, at age twenty-two, runs the household while her father refurbishes the rundown farm estate.

Salmon suffers a mild stroke while touring Minnesota and Niagara Falls with Nettie during the summer of 1870. Kate and William come at once and a week later moves him to Canonchet to convalesce. Late in the year, Nettie becomes engaged to William Sprague Hoyt, a younger cousin of William’s one generation removed. Will Hoyt is the son of a wealthy NY merchant whose dry goods business, Hoyt, Spragues & Co., is the principal commissioning agent for selling the printed textiles of A. & W. Sprague Manufacturing. In contrast to the happily engaged couple, Kate and William remain at odds with one another, avoiding each other’s company whenever possible.

John Hay, a former Lincoln secretary, would serve as groomsman and gives one of his characteristically sardonic remarks. Nettie is “a very nice girl and no end of talent,” whereas Will is “a very nice fellow – and no end of cash.”

The Texas Adventure

On Halloween, Thomas Jenckes, a Rhode Island congressman running for reelection, drops a bombshell at a Providence campaign rally: William Sprague, the valiant warrior of Bull Run, is a traitor. He charges that Sprague “violated the Articles of War of the United States in holding commerce with the enemy, and aiding them with money and munitions of war.” Jenckes’ motives were dubious, a political enemy of Sprague, he was running for office against one of Sprague’s friends. But his information appears solid. He reads from a military investigative report provided in late March 1865 to then secretary of war Edwin Stanton describing Sprague’s alleged involvement (full confession from Harris Hoyt) in an illegal plot to smuggle arms and other supplies into rebel Texas in exchange for cotton. Stanton never acts on the report and the confession disappears after President Johnson’s impeachment trial.

The wedding of Mr. W. S. Hoyt and Miss Nettie Chase at St. John’s Church, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 1871.

On a happier note, Nettie and Will marry on March 23, 1871. The ceremony is held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, with the reception at the house on Sixth and E Street. Salmon, haggard and shrunken from illness, manages to give his daughter away. Nettie glows in a white gossamer gown adorned with natural orange blossoms. Kate draws the most attention, dress in green silk with matching pink silk train, point lace overdress and shawl, reports gossip columnist Miss Grundy.[ix] Salmon stands behind Nettie and alongside Kate during the ceremony, still smarting from the shocking snub from his son-in-law the previous month. Faced with a proposal to raise the salaries of the chief justice and associate justices of the Supreme Court by $4,000 (the chief justice made just $6,500 per year and the associates $6,000 per year), Senator Sprague cast the deciding vote against it. If he had abstained or merely absented himself the day of the vote, the measure would have passed. Instead, the justices received a $2,000 raise.[x] This slight, by extension, is meant for Kate as well.

The Final Campaign

Kate urges Salmon to start thinking about the 1872 presidential campaign during the summer, despite the fiasco of the 1868 campaign. The following February, Kate gives birth to her third child, a girl named Katherine, called Kitty (in honor of Salmon’s first wife.) Sadly, Kitty had a mental disability that leaves her forever childlike. Kate holds a reception in April for her father, with the intent of convincing prominent politicians and opinion makers that he is physically up for another run for office. Her parties are elegant, with dancing and elaborate ice sculptures.

Kate engages Horace Greeley (lower left) in conversation while entertaining at Canonchet, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 24, 1872.

Salmon makes a valiant attempt not to slur his speech or reveal his trembling hands. Not many were fooled, however. The Liberal Republicans and Democrats nominate Horace Greeley to run against Grant for his second term. When Salmon is passed over, both he and Kate support Greeley, who ends up losing in a landslide to Grant in November.

Three weeks after the vote, Greeley dies, before the electoral college even has a chance to meet. Salmon is one of his pallbearers. Not long afterward, Salmon’s health deteriorates further. Towards the close of the Supreme Court term, in March and April 1873, he becomes much weaker. He leaves Washington on May 3 for New York City to visit Nettie, who had given birth to her first child, a daughter, after which he plans to see Kate in Rhode Island and relatives in Boston before traveling to Colorado to spend part of the summer. On the evening of May 6, at Nettie and Will’s home on West Thirty-Third Street, Salmon suffers a massive stroke and is discovered unconscious in bed the next morning. Kate and William rush to be by his side, along with Chase’s friend Hiram Barney. He dies that morning surrounded by his family, at the age of 65. Kate is halfway through her fourth and final pregnancy.

President Grant attends the funeral service in Washington, along with James Garfield, Roscoe Conkling and numerous other dignitaries. Chase’s body lies in state in the Supreme Court room in the Capitol, on the same catafalque that had been used for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral eight years earlier.

The demise of her father and decline of her marriage liberates Kate in such a way that she begins to live her life on her terms. She no longer suffers the slights and expectations of her father, nor does she have to pretend that her marriage has turned out to be anything but a failure.[xi]

Black Thursday

On the morning of September 18, 1873, Jay Cooke, the man who runs the most powerful bank in the country, is entertaining President Grant at his Ogontz estate just outside Philadelphia. Cooke had spearheaded Chase’s effort to finance the Civil War and has invested heavily in the expansion of the railroads. But by 11 am, as he was driving Grant to the train station, his bank goes bust. The speculative railroad bubble burst, driving Cooke into bankruptcy overnight. The failure of Cooke’s empire sets off a chain reaction throughout the financial world, setting into play the Panic of 1873, one of the worst economic depressions in US history. Stocks plummet, numerous businesses fail and hundreds of thousands are thrown out of work and into poverty.

A bank run on the Fourth National Bank No. 20 Nassau Street, New York City, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 4 October 1873.

Among the casualties is William’s company, after the announcement that Hoyt, Spragues & Co. (Nettie’s husband’s business) has gone belly up. Unlike the Hoyt firm, A. & W. Sprague’s problem isn’t its book value, its assets exceed its liabilities by several million dollars. The banks cut off Sprague’s credit, and, unable to borrow money, it can’t pay its debts as they become due. Both over speculation and tight government fiscal policies cause the crash: the nation’s business and population have expanded, and the supply of money doesn’t keep pace. Ironically, William warned against all of this in his 1869 Senate speeches, but he fails to heed his advice, and continues to expand himself.

Though largely friendless in Rhode Island, Sprague’s creditors agree to place the company into a trusteeship under the direction of Zechariah Chaffee, smart financially but with no real experience in the textile business. Sprague mortgages away almost all his property and gives promissory notes to his creditors at 7.3% interest to be repaid in three years, when he wrongly assumed that the depression will be over. William steps down as president, essentially becoming an employee to Chaffee. Kate’s last child, Portia (named in tribute to Kate’s father, whose middle name was Portland) is born November 3rd, just as William’s business is collapsing.

The good times are over.

Before Black Thursday, there was nothing that Kate couldn’t afford. A. & W. Sprague is worth $3 million in 1856, $6 million in 1865, and $19 million on the eve of the 1873 panic, employing more than eight thousand people.[xii] Kate’s wardrobe includes an $18,000 French silk dress she orders from Paris not long after Nettie’s wedding. She barely gives a second thought to contributing a thousand-dollar floral arrangement to Grant’s second inaugural ball in March. If William admonishes her spending, her mother-in-law encourages it.

Family friendly relations hit the skids when, within a year of the collapse, Will Hoyt (Nettie’s husband) and Charles Francklyn (who had married Will’s sister Susie) file suits against various members of the Sprague family. Alleging the Spragues had conspired to deny them the full benefits of the family textile business many years earlier before they reached maturity. The lawsuit is unseemly, as no one expected the business to fail. They pursue their claims all the way to the Supreme Court, losing at every stage. This causes a permanent rift between the two families. Kate and Nettie barely speak to one another afterward.

Edgewood Manor.

The sisters disagree further on what to do with Edgewood. As co-beneficiaries, Kate wants to live there, but Nettie wants it sold and proceeds split. After acrimonious exchanges, Kate buys out Nettie’s share for $16,000 plus interest. Nettie insists that they sell the furniture and other items. Kate can’t bear it and takes her children to Europe, where, given her financial constraints, she can educate them less expensively.

Kate also continues to support William’s cause to rebuild his business from Europe. She writes letters to various third parties extolling his virtues, talents and integrity.[xiii] Writing to William in December 1875 from her modest apartment in Paris, she tries to lift her husband’s spirits at a critical moment, offering to “go home at once to help you bear it with heart and soul…”[xiv] Unfortunately, with the release of Mary Viall’s self-published book The Merchant’s Wife, or, He Blundered: A Political Romance of Our Own Day and Other Miscellanies, it was clear that her long-standing affair with William was not over. When William ignores Kate’s offer to stand by his side, she stays in Europe, returning in October 1876, right in the middle of a presidential election.

By now, she had an admirer of her own, Roscoe Conkling.

"...the Finest Torso in Public Life."

Roscoe Conkling stands over six feet tall, with a full head of flaming red-gold hair and penetrating blue eyes. A Senator from New York, he previously turned down President Grant’s offer to succeed as Chief Justice after Chase’s death in 1873. Considered the undisputed political boss of the Republican party in NY and head of that state’s well-oiled patronage machine, Conkling is also a close affiliate of Grant.

Kate and Roscoe ran in the same Republican circles since the Civil War, attending both of Grant’s inaugural balls and the weddings of Kate’s sister Nettie and Grant’s daughter Nellie. Conkling is also among the mourners at Salmon’s funeral. There are multiple sources for when their affair started, but the best evidence is that the affair started after Kate’s return from Europe in late 1876. Another source contends that it began in early 1878, after a dinner party that Kate hosted at Edgewood. From that moment forward, Conkling pursued her openly.

Kate and Roscoe had much in common. Both grew up in a political atmosphere in a home visited by some of the foremost figures of the day.[xv] Both received private schooling in New York City as a teenager. Both were raised Episcopalian, but not particularly religious. Conkling, however, is the opposite of Kate’s husband. Where Sprague is short and stooped, Conkling stood ramrod straight. Sprague’s dark, drooping mustache and features make him look haggard, whereas Conkling had broad shoulders, a tight waist, and a muscular chest. He is a fitness freak, in an era where most men paid little attention to their physiques, and adopts a regimen of vigorous exercise, including boxing. And Conkling dresses flamboyantly, a “veritable bird of paradise” among a sea of black-clad colleagues.

Unlike Sprague, Conkling does not indulge in either alcohol or tobacco. And whereas Sprague rarely gives speeches and usually embarrasses himself when he does, Conkling is a master orator. Senate galleries fill up, mostly with women, just to hear him speak, often sending flowers to his desk. The only thing William and Roscoe have in common is an eye for the ladies. Conkling is only nominally married to (Horatio Seymour’s sister) Julia, a quiet woman who has little interest in politics. Kate is ten years younger than Julia. A senator’s son, upon seeing Roscoe and Kate together at a Washington reception, said that judging by their appearances, “these two people were intended by their Creator for each other.”[xvi]

Blanch Bruce. In 1881, Bruce was appointed by President Garfield to be the Register of the Treasury, becoming the first African American to have his signature featured on U.S. paper currency.

Kate sees a side of Conkling most others do not. While James Garfield later said that Conkling was “inspired more by his hates than his loves,” Kate saw him as someone capable of genuine acts of compassion. In 1875, he was the only person to escort former slave Blanche Bruce, the first African-American elected to a full Senate term, up the aisle to take the oath. When the senior Senator from Mississippi, who by custom should have performed the honors, refused (hiding behind a newspaper), Conkling stepped forward and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Bruce, I did not until this moment see that you were without an escort, permit me. My name is Conkling.” Becoming his mentor in the Senate, the grateful protégé named his only newly born son Roscoe Conkling Bruce in 1879.

All Politics is Personal

On election night, November 1876, it appears that the Democrat, Tilden, has won. However, if the twenty disputed electoral votes in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon all go to the Republican (Rutherford Hayes), then he would squeak out a victory instead. Both parties charge fraud, and there is talk of a renewed civil war. Outgoing President Grant supports a bill to create an independent electoral commission to resolve the controversy. That commission is made up of fifteen members: five congressional Republicans, five Democrats, and five Supreme Court justices – two Republicans and two Democrats, who in turn will choose a fifth from their court brethren. Neutral observers were urging Conkling to do the right thing and support the commission.

The New-York Tribune reported in January 1877 that no one knows what Conkling will do, but that was wrong. Kate knew.

“Senator Conkling will support the commission with a speech,” she whispers to Billy Hudson, a journalist she met at the 1868 convention. Now a political writer for the Brooklyn Eagle, Hudson gets the scoop. On Jan 24 & 25, 1877, Roscoe holds the Senate spellbound as he makes the case for an independent body to decide the election. Partisan Republicans mourn the bill as a guarantee of Tilden’s election. David Davis, the fifth Supreme Court representative, unexpectedly resigns, throwing the advantage to an eight-to-seven majority for Hayes. The Commission declared Hayes the winner, but the Democrats refused to accept the results and began a filibuster to delay the final vote count beyond the March 4th inauguration date when a Democratic-controlled House might be able to decide the outcome.

Tilden’s forces pin their hopes on a showdown Senate vote on whether to accept the commission’s certification of the Louisiana vote in Hayes’ favor. When that day comes, on February 19th, Conkling is nowhere to be found. Absent his support, the case for Tilden collapses. It turns out Conkling had taken the train to Baltimore, supposedly summoned by Kate to join her at a friend’s house. Another story goes that Republican Party Leaders, at a two a.m. meeting, told Roscoe that his political future would be ruined if he didn’t support Hayes. Not wanting to be ‘persona non grata’ in his party, he backs the Republican. Whatever the turn, Kate ultimately got her revenge against Tilden, who in the 1868 Democratic presidential convention, schemed to defeat her father for the Democratic nomination.

The Cinderella of the Republican Party and Her Haughty Sisters. Hayes appears as Cinderella, who must tend the White House while her evil step-sisters, former president Ulysses S. Grant, and Senator Roscoe Conkling, leave for the campaign ball. Cartoonist: Joseph Keppler, October 13, 1880.

Extreme Cruelty

Returning to Canonchet to secure financial support from her husband, William explodes into a drunken rage, making a bonfire on the front lawn using bedding and furniture from the house, which he breaks up and flings upon the flames. Money was always an issue between them (William would urge her to spend when he felt guilty, and Kate would engage in bouts of conspicuous consumption when she felt wounded.) Kate says William threatens to kill her that night.

A few months later, in February 1877, he attacks again.[xvii] Storming into Kate’s bedroom in the middle of the night, apparently more drunk than usual, William dragged Kate from her bed, hauled her over to the bedroom’s second-story window, “and attempted to throw her therefrom.” Kate describes the attack as “extreme cruelty.” She and her daughters moved back to Edgewood, encouraged by William, likely so he could continue with his extramarital affairs.

Summer Sojourn 1877

Kate’s late-June trip back to Europe was a chance for a private trip away from prying eyes, to spend time with Roscoe and to visit her son, Willie, who remained in school in Germany. Traveling separately, Roscoe arrives in Southampton on June 27th. He tours Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s house and then leaves for London, where he does not present any letters of introduction or register his name at the hotel. Roscoe did attend a dinner given by Minister Edwards Pierpointe and his wife in the Prince of Wales’ honor. Julia and Ulysses S. Grant also attend, and the former first lady makes a point of complimenting Roscoe’s wife.

Kate wears her (House of) Worth dress, along with the bracelet.

Both return, separately and alone, in August. Kate wears a bracelet with an inscription in German that reads, “I lock you into my heart and throw the key into the Rhine, and now you must always be within me.” It is one of the few mementos she keeps her entire life. The giver is not identified, but Conkling is the logical candidate. Kate is 37, reinvigorated and in the bloom of love.

“I lock you into my heart and throw the key into the Rhine, and now you must always be within me.”

Edgewood Receptions

January 1878 finds Kate at Edgewood. Men continue making morning calls, as her house serves as a mecca for political counsel, but the wives stay away. Newspaper stories start appearing linking her with Conkling. They show up together in the Capitol for the unveiling of Francis Carpenter’s famous painting depicting Lincoln’s first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which Salmon Chase is looking over the president’s shoulder. Stories crop up about them passing notes in the Senate and locking themselves behind closed committee room doors while Conkling’s secretary stands guard. Kate makes a point to be present in the Senate gallery whenever Conkling is scheduled to speak.

Meanwhile, Kate’s mother-in-law Fanny tries to encourage reconciliation by paying Edgewood a rare visit that summer. When Willie returned from Europe in late July, Kate agrees to go back to Canonchet with the girls. Her stay is brief. Around the end of August, Sprague is arrested in what Kate will later describe as a “disgraceful orgy” with Mary Viall at Nantasket Beach in MA. According to newspaper accounts, the two of them are drunk and disorderly and are evicted from a seaside hotel where Viall is staying. Humiliated, Kate once again returns to Edgewood with the girls. Willie stays with his father and is eventually sent to an agricultural academy in Maryland in early 1879.

Showdown at Canonchet

In June 1879, Kate hires a German professor, George Linck, to tutor Willie during the summer for $50/month. While continuing to stay at Edgewood, she sends the pair to Canonchet in June, hoping to bring the girls with her in a week or two. William, however, objects to the idea of a tutor, saying Willie needs a break, and the expense might be made aware to his creditors. William orders Linck to leave, but Kate tells him to stay until she arrives to straighten things out. After being ordered by William to leave twice, Linck does just that.

By mid-July, Kate asks Linck to join her and the girls at Watch Hill, another seaside resort town in Rhode Island. Sprague shows up unexpectedly, apparently drunk, and blows up when he sees the teacher, threatening “If I find you near my children or place, I will surely kill you…” Linck moves to a boardinghouse on Silver Lake.

The Court settles the Sprague family lawsuit on Monday, August 4th, with Canonchet to be sold at auction on in thirty days to satisfy a judgment on behalf of the National Bank of Commerce in New York. The proceeds will go to the creditors under the trust-deed and assignments to Mr. Chaffee. William will see no profit from the sale of his estate.He leaves Canochet for business in Portland. Kate believes he will return the following Saturday evening, August 9th. On Wednesday afternoon, August 6th, Roscoe Conkling arrives at Canonchet and joins Kate, the children, the Martin family and other house guests.

Postcard of Canonchet, Naragansett Pier, Rhode Island.

William unexpectedly returns to Canonchet late Thursday evening, sending no word of his early return. He doesn’t seek Kate out and leaves early the next morning, not realizing that Conkling is there. He spends the morning, forgetting his troubles with billiards and booze at the Studio, where he learns of Roscoe’s presence at Canonchet. Fueled by a mixture of drink and exhaustion, and upset about the imminent loss of his home, William is “angry beyond measure.” The cuckolded husband tells his drinking partners “Senator Conkling was trying to do for (my) home in Rhode Island what he had already done for (my) home in Washington and (I am) determined to put an end to it once and forever.”

Kate summons Linck back to Canonchet “on important business” early in the afternoon. Meeting him on the front steps, Kate whispers “the Governor has just arrived”, and at that, Linck jumps back in the buggy to leave. Linck claims Sprague stops him, peers in, and shakes his arm in a menacing manner. Releasing him, Sprague races into the house while Linck speeds away. Sprague reportedly pursues the tutor through town. Linck’s landlady’s daughter reports that Sprague bursts in, gun in hand, looking for him. Not finding Linck, he goes in search of Conkling. William finds Roscoe on Canonchet’s piazza with the Martin family and other houseguests. Threatening Roscoe and “acting wildly” he asks Roscoe if he’s armed, to which Roscoe replies “No sir, I am not.” In the middle of the confrontation, the Sprague carriage pulls up for Kate and Roscoe’s afternoon ride. Kate calls for her shawl, but William forbids his wife to leave the porch.

William tells Roscoe he has five minutes to “vacate the premises before bullets started flying.”

Roscoe grabs his hat and walking stick from the house and goes down the stairs to the carriage platform. Ethel, aged 10, runs down the stairs and throws her arms around Roscoe, begging him not to go. Kate tells Ethel “No, Ethel; Mr. Conkling will go, but no one shall hurt him or us.”

At this William shouts “Now you have left this house you must leave this place. If you want to save your own life, you must leave Narragansett Pier.” He adds that if he ever finds the senator in his house again, he will kill him, armed or not.[xviii] With this threat hanging in the air, the senator’s carriage speeds away. Kate, meanwhile, springs into action. Declaring she will “never sleep under the same roof with Mr. Sprague again,” Kate orders her guests and children to prepare to leave Canonchet that afternoon. Her maid packs the family’s and Roscoe’s trunks, and she takes her children and guests to the Tower Hill House Hotel (in Narragansett.) The guests register and Kate does not. A hotel maid overhears her say “I hope I shall be able to keep this out of the papers.”

William, still angry and armed with his shotgun, pursues Roscoe into Narragansett. Finding him in front of Billington’s Café, Roscoe crosses the street, and William follows, motioning violently, shouting “Have you not gone yet, G(od)d(amn) you?” The senator responds in a low voice, but Sprague shouts “No sir; no sir; I want this distinctly understood. Go away from here at once…if you don’t I’ll blow your brains out; and further, never cross my path again. If you do, be armed. I shall be armed, and if you cross my way I shall kill you.” Soon afterward Roscoe’s trunks arrive from Canonchet, and within 3 hours the train for Providence departs with the Senator on board.


Kate lives in seclusion, huddling with her lawyers as the showdown between Sprague and Conkling makes sensational newspaper headlines across the country. The flood of stories about Kate and Conkling’s relationship cause considerable embarrassment to both of them. Kate’s first public comment, written on Aug 13th, her 39th birthday, gives her version of events and publicly comments on the sad state of affairs between her and William. It makes the front pages all over the country. Unfortunately, Kate’s statement is full of holes.

She attends an ill-advised summit meeting at Narragansett Pier accompanied by her daughters and their nurse, a Providence lawyer, Robert Thompson, and Emma Fosdick, an old Cincinnati friend living in Connecticut. The purpose of the trip, the New York Sun reported, was to collect what belongs to her from Canonchet before returning to Washington. The meeting breaks down into a “stormy and painful” interview. Sprague has seen Kate’s inflammatory public letter, which he calls a “tissue of falsehoods.” When he asks if she is planning to return to Canonchet, she replies “I fear for my life if I do.” “I’ve never harmed anyone,” he says, “and you are safe.” Sprague demands the surrender of his daughters, but Kate resists. The lawyers confirm that Sprague is on strong legal grounds to take them, and accordingly, their daughters are collected and delivered to him. At the end of the meeting, he takes his daughters and their nurse back to Canonchet. Kate stays behind, becoming very upset, and decides to follow them. She is driven after nightfall, accompanied by her two lawyers, and Emma. Upon arrival, one or both of the lawyers stay overnight, but William refuses to allow Emma into the house, setting off another argument.

On Aug 16th, New York Sun runs a front-page story describing Kate as being under house arrest, with the headline “Is His Wife a Prisoner?” Facing a public relations nightmare, Sprague soon allows a reporter into the mansion to interview her. It concludes with Kate labeling all insinuations of an affair between her and Conkling as “outrageous slanders” and “monstrous falsehoods.” Admitting to marital infidelity might jeopardize her chances of retaining custody of her children. For this and many other reasons, it makes sense for Kate to deny the affair. And when the New York Times editorialized that the “vain senator,” having clouded her name, “had not the self-respect nor the manliness” to come to her defense, Kate reasons it is better to be an object of pity than condemnation.

The Last Straw

Fearing some sudden outbreak from William might threaten her or her daughter’s lives, she starts planning their escape. First, she begins sending jewelry, papers, furniture and expensive artifacts out of the mansion. Sprague is aware of this but does nothing to stop it.

Sprague comes home drunk on Saturday, August 29th, going to the upstairs room where the nurses are dressing the girls. When he knocks for admittance, Kate replies “Don’t come in.” Incensed at this command, he rushes into the room and shouts, “I’ll show you who is master here,” and while the girls scream in fear, he grabs Kate around the neck and shoulders, drags her across the room and tries to throw her out the window. One of the nurses intervenes, and William storms off to his room. Later that evening, Kate arranges for livery driver Tom Handy to bring a carriage and two wagons to the house after dark, when Sprague is expected to be absent from Canonchet. But he doesn’t go, and the plan for flight is temporarily aborted.

A Daring and Courageous Flight

The next day, as Sprague dozed in the front room of the mansion after his customary late afternoon swim in the bay, first Kate, then the girls and their nurses, carrying as many personal items as they could, slip out the back and hurry along a private lane. They avoid William’s loyal staff; Morris the overseer, Ernest the cook, and the busybody relative of his, Arthur Watson, who has kept watch over Kate and her daughters.

Tom picks up the girls and two nurses at a prearranged spot. After heading in the direction of the waterfront village, he drives a few hundred yards inland to a place along Tower Hill Road, where Kate is waiting. A second horse-drawn wagon, driven by Richard Brown, meets them there. Kate rides in the buggy as the girls, and their nurses are crammed into the four-seat wagon with their smuggled belongings. With that, they head towards Wickford, where they plan to catch a boat to the shore of Massachusetts, then travel overland into New England and the safety of friends. They travel quickly over the bumpy Tower Hill Road, nervously looking behind them, fearing the sight of William Sprague in pursuit.

Meanwhile, William, realizing Kate and the girls are gone, mounts his horse and races towards the Narragansett pier, thinking they are on the 5:30 pm train. Accosting the conductor, Mr. Hale, he asks “Have you lugged off my children?” The mud-spattered former governor searches the train, and not finding his family, remounts his horse. Racing along the Kingston Road, he sends his son Willie towards Wakefield, where Kate took the girls the night after the shotgun incident. But they aren’t there either. They have simply vanished.

Kate and her party, realizing they’ve eluded William and his posse, travel north, stopping at the Four Chimney House to rest the horses. They make their way to Wickford, where they sit down to supper with friends. Afterward, the party travels another three miles to a place called Chapin’s on the shore, where Handy charters a small sloop to take them across the bay. It’s now after midnight. They set sail for Fall River, MA, but in midstream, Handy advises the captain to change course and land at Bristol, RI. In Bristol, Handy engages a double-team of horses to take them to Lonsdale, a small village just outside Providence.

Austin Corbin's house.

After the meeting with her lawyers in the city, Kate pays a stable keeper $50 for a fresh team of horses, which drives them to Walpole, MA, where they rest before heading to Boston. She buys Handy a new suit and he accompanies them to Norwich, CT, where they embark by boat for Long Island. The bedraggled party ends up in Babylon, NY, at the home of Austin Corbin, a wealthy real estate developer of Coney Island and a distant relative of Kate. They stay two weeks then make their way back to the safety and seclusion of Edgewood.

The emotional abuse William levels at Kate is not at an end though. Initially sequestering her at Canonchet, isolating her and using the girls as his personal possessions, he uses threats, both specific and vague, to gain her cooperation. William also keeps Kate and his daughters in financial isolation, which Kate cites again and again. He is hardly destitute after the crash of 1873. Sprague travels, drinks in town, frolics with women, and considers railroad investments, all while choosing not to draw a salary from A. & W. Sprague Manufacturing. Kate, on the other hand, lacks a strong kin network of support. She has no cohesive extended family, no living parents, and is estranged from her sister Nettie. William moves in the manly worlds of business and politics and has a considerable family with whom he spends large amounts of time.

Kate laments that she is “maligned and ground down until I have felt that I was a target at which everybody could fire, and yet without means or method to redress.” Kate is not accustomed to bad press. The rumors of her affair with Conkling, beginning in 1878 and thru the first part of 1879, cause some members of respectable society to pull away from her, but that was nothing compared to the ostracism she now faced post-shotgun.

Conkling’s strategy regarding Canonchet was to ignore it. To many, he has abandoned her in her hour of need, further evidence of his vanity and selfishness. Conkling’s nemesis, President Rutherford B. Hayes, gloats in his diary about Conkling’s fall from grace. Indeed, Roscoe relinquishes any serious thought of making another run for the presidency. And the scandal would be the scab that wouldn’t heal in his political struggles with Hayes’s successor in office.

Performance Art

Julia Conkling.

Nonetheless, Kate and Roscoe continue their affair but take their liaisons underground, trying to convince others there is nothing romantic between them. In January 1880, Kate gives a dinner party in her little house on Connecticut Avenue, in Washington’s Diplomatic Quarter, for Conkling and his wife, Julia (shown at left.) The press sees through the ruse as a way to keep up appearances. One correspondent reports that “the suppliant air of Mrs. Sprague was counterbalanced by the rigid reserve of Mrs. Conkling,” who, in town for the first time in many years, seems to rebel. The reporter notes, “Mrs. Conkling does not pretend to have the slightest reconciliation with her husband” and hurries back to Utica, NY the next day.

A luncheon at Edgewood that April for female journalists (influential society columnist Olivia wrote an article describing the event titled ‘A Dinner with the Queen of American Aristocracy’), was followed by Kate attending the Republican National Convention that summer in Chicago. Conkling pushed for Grant, four years out of the presidency, to run for a third term. The general was a favorite going into the convention, but the surprise winner, who emerged after 36 ballots, was Kate’s old friend James Garfield. Roscoe’s only solace was that the Grant supporters, 306 of them, followed his command and stayed the course, voting for the general through the final ballot. They became known as the “Immortal 306”, or “Old Guard.” At one annual reunion dinner, they pass out small breastpins consisting of a miniature silver sword drawn thru a set of diamonds that formed the number “306.” In photos taken years later, Kate can be seen wearing her “306” pin, given to her by Conkling. It is one of a handful of mementos she holds onto until her death.

James Garfield, part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Garfield needed Conkling’s support, and he got it. Roscoe campaigned energetically and brought Kate along with him. On Tuesday, November 2, 1880, Republican James Garfield beats Democrat Winfield Hancock by 102 popular votes or just .02%.

Three days later the New York Sun printed a story under the headline “Mrs. Sprague to Sue for Divorce.”

Divorce and Politics, 1880

Winchester Burton, Kate’s New York lawyer, goes to Canonchet to serve papers on Sprague seeking the return of a piano and part of Kate’s wardrobe. He finds the house barricaded. William is determined to fend off his creditor’s attempts to take possession of Canonchet. He vows that any man who tries to enter the grounds will be “shot down like a cur.” Burton leaves, but when Richard Thompson, Kate’s personal property trustee, tries to retrieve some of Kate’s belongings by attempting entry to the house from the beach side. Willie sees him, draws his pistol, and fires. Thompson’s law partner presses charges, and 15-year old Willie is put on preliminary trial for murder. Sprague posts a two-hundred-dollar bond. The farce of a trial ends with dismissal due to lack of evidence. Kate never recovers all of her belongings. In fact, William repurchases some of the household items that were auctioned off to meet his debts, among them Salmon P. Chase’s signed commission from Abraham Lincoln appointing him chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In December 1880, Kate files her divorce petition. She accuses her husband of having “committed adultery with divers women at divers places and times,” of having repeatedly assaulted her, of having tried to kill her by throwing her from a window, and of suffering from “habitual drunkenness.” She adds that William had falsely accused her of “gross improprieties with other men.” He claims not to be the father of her children, imprisons her within their Narragansett mansion, and sought “frequently to have criminal intercourse with the female domestics and guests of the family, causing them to leave the house.” Kate requested reasonable alimony, custody of their four children, and the right to return to her maiden name.

A month later, William countersues. His divorce petition alleges that Kate has “been on terms of close and improper intimacy with other men” and “that she had willfully and without cause deserted the bed and board of your petitioner,” while “absenting herself from his home and household for long periods of time.” William also claims that she fails to attend to the domestic duties “incumbent on her as a wife and mother.”

Roscoe is Finished

Vice President Chester “Chet” Arthur was Conkling’s old friend and protégé before the election. Thinking the President owes him for his support during the election, Roscoe is angered by Garfield’s appointment of James G. Blaine as Secretary of State and his refusal to appoint Conkling’s choice, Wall Street banker Levi Morton, for Treasury Secretary.

Conkling’s desire to handpick a Stalwart for the open New York Senate seat is an important test of his political power. Kate’s friend, Richard Crowley, enjoyed the backing of the Vice President. Conkling secretly preferred Thomas Platt. Kate, as a way to be of assistance, wrote a letter to Arthur stating that both she and Conkling prefer Platt.

Platt is eventually elected, promising the Blaine forces he will side with Garfield’s appointments of Half-Breeds over Stalwarts. Stalwarts are for political machines and spoils system-style patronage while the Half-Breeds believe in civil service reform and a merit system. The president then names one of Conkling’s bitterest enemies, William Robertson, as the port collector for the NY Custom House, the most plum patronage job in the country and a position Conkling considers his to control.

Conkling is livid, and Arthur pleads with Garfield to withdraw Robertson’s appointment. John Hay, Lincoln’s former secretary and Kate’s friend and former admirer, brings Garfield a note from Whitelaw Reid, calling this “the turning point of his whole administration,” warning Garfield that if he gave in, Conkling would effectively become president and Garfield, a laughing stock. At this, Conkling resigns his Senate seat in protest, thinking he can gain vindication by getting himself reelected by the New York legislature, which he controls. Platt also resigns. It’s a mistake they will both regret.

When Hay learns of Conkling’s resignation, he predicts “Roscoe is finished.”

Platt withdraws from the race on July 1st after newspaper reports him caught with a married woman in his Albany hotel room. Conkling is eventually outpolled by an aging, upstate congressman. With his Senate career over and rejected by the men he once controlled, Conkling announces he is quitting public life to practice law.

Less than four months after taking office, on July 2nd, Garfield is walking with Secretary of State Blaine across the train station in Washington, preparing to embark on a summer vacation. As they walk, Charles Guiteau, a delusional political groupie who’d been stalking both men for a job for weeks, fires two bullets at the president’s back. On being apprehended by police he declares, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.” Frustrated by the administrations refusal to give him the diplomatic post he felt he deserved and depressed by Conkling’s resignation from the Senate, Guiteau concludes that Garfield had to be removed. After lingering for months, Garfield succumbs to his wounds in September 1881 at a New Jersey seaside resort where he had been taken to recover.

With Arthur as president, Conkling assumes he will be offered a high position in the administration, preferably treasury secretary. He is wrong. Kate, still viewing Arthur as Conkling’s ex-lieutenant, embarks on a letter-writing campaign. Beginning with a letter to former Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, whose infamous “Pomeroy Circular” all but sank her father’s presidential prospects in 1864, she then directs a letter to the President on October 12, 1881. Kate writes the letter in the ornamental, literary, even poetic style that is her hallmark, showcasing her talents for diplomacy, political advocacy, and cajolery. For her, all politics are personal. She tells Arthur he now has the power, indeed the duty, “to make full restitution to vindicate the man who, when you were assailed, never stopped to weigh the chances of the popularity of your defense.” Arthur resists giving Conkling a cabinet position, knowing the public uproar it would create. He did, in February 1882, name Conkling to a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed the nomination and Conkling brusquely rejects it. He will not be mollified with a bone thrown to him by the man he begins to call “His Accidency.”

Single Again, and Not

Both sides of the Sprague divorce reach a settlement in February 1882, and the divorce itself is finalized on May 27, 1882. Kate receives no alimony (but she retains the right to apply for it in the future), no settlement from the still considerable Sprague estate, and no child support for their three daughters, of whom she gains sole custody. Willie, at age 15, decides to remain with his loose-living father. Most importantly to Kate, she is given permission to regain her maiden name.

Fort Canonchet

August 15, 1882, William again barricades himself within the walls of Canonchet, trying to stall the auction proceedings. Trustee Chaffee finds the gates locked, the bridge over a stream that crosses the front drive destroyed, and armed squads of mill employees patrolling the grounds. William trains the troops himself, invents a system of codes and signals, and even designs his flag. Willie patrols the front lawn on his gray pony, fortified with a club and pistol. Canonchet is eventually purchased by Frank Moulton for $62,250, but Sprague refuses to leave. Moulton applies to the courts but dies before a decision can be reached. His wife, Emma, not wanting a prolonged legal battle, quitclaims the property back to William.

The Second Mrs. Sprague

William takes a temperance vow on Christmas day. Ten months after the divorce, in March 1883, William marries Dora Inez Weed Calvert (below, left), a singer of dubious talent twenty-three years his junior. She spends over $30,000 redecorating Canonchet, where they continue to live a comfortable and economically secure life.

Dora brings her younger sister, 15-year old Avice, to live at Canonchet. Her admirers include the oil magnate Colonel Gerritt Wheaton, who often stays at Canonchet, her brother-in-law, and Willie. Soon after Avice arrives, Willie begins to read her poetry and take her for walks along the shore. She and Willie quietly marry on July 25, 1885. But Willie hastily leaves when he notices his young bride is already pregnant. She delivers a baby girl, named Inez, within months of the wedding. Willie sues for divorce and is angry with his father for siding with the Weed sisters. Sprague turns his back on his only son. After the divorce is granted, Avice marries the Colonel, who is possibly the father. Although the child is legally a Sprague, Kate never considers Avice’s baby to be her grandchild.

A New Beginning in Europe

Kate spends the winter of 1882-1883 in New York so she could be closer to Roscoe, who had set up a lucrative law practice in Manhattan. But they appear to end their intimate relationship, albeit amicably. Kate makes it known she would sail for Europe that summer and spend several years there with her daughters. That same summer, Conkling takes a trip to Yellowstone with his wife, although there is no restoration of affection between them.

Returning to America, and Edgewood, briefly in 1884, Kate attends the inauguration of George Hoadly, her divorce lawyer, as Ohio’s new Democratic governor. Back in France, Kate rents a small villa on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest, thirty-seven miles from Paris, where she raises her daughters, takes up painting and masters local history. One foreign correspondent describes her in detail “Her face is a face that, once seen, is seldom forgotten.” Her eyes still change from dark brown to amber, her nose remains small and feminine, and her smile is “bewitching,” though her hair had dimmed from golden red to brown. He added “She is, in the loftiest sense, a politician, and if she had been of the other sex, she would have been certain of an extraordinary following…What a magnificent lobbyist she would make! Any measure she should advocate would sure to pass. Her magnetism, when she chooses to exercise it, is well-nigh irresistible. She has so many charms and gifts that she may be considered one woman in a hundred thousand.” This article means so much to Kate that, unlike the other interview she granted over the years, it is found in her private papers after her death.

There was one more rendezvous with Roscoe, who made a sudden trip to Europe in mid-1885, supposedly for health reasons. Perhaps some romantic embers still burned? Kate provides diplomatic advice to Conkling’s old friend Levi Morton, now the US minister to France.

Reinternment and Remorse

In August 1886, Kate returns again to the US for the removal of her father’s remains from Washington, where they had lain in a borrowed vault of the Cooke family, for reburial in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. Nettie is there, the first time the estranged sisters have seen each other in many years. They clasp hands around the casket as a brief display of reconciliation.

Brooklyn Bridge during the blizzard, photo by Wallace G. Levison, courtesy of the Google-hosted LIFE Photo Archive.

Death also claimed her old love, Roscoe. On March 12, 1888, New York witnesses one of the most fearsome blizzards of the decade. Although he is suffering from what is most likely a brain tumor, Roscoe trudges twenty-five blocks through waist deep snow from his office on Wall Street to the New York Club because a cabbie proposes to overcharge him. Arriving at his club covered in snow and ice, he staggers through the front door and collapses in the hall. Club employees revive him and move him to his rooms. For the next two weeks, he rallies, but the lingering respiratory infection, combined with an abscess on his head, forces him to seek medical attention. Doctors drain the abscess, but found that it had “begun to press dangerously upon the membranes of the brain.” Delirium and coma follow and although doctors hope Roscoe’s legendary strength will pull him through, his wife and daughter are summoned. Learning about his condition, Kate goes to New York to see him, but Roscoe’s friends refuse her request to go to his bedside, probably on the wishes of his wife. Roscoe succumbs a week after his operation, a victim of pulmonary edema.

This Unnatural Crime

Kate keeps up a steady correspondence with Willie, as he drifts from one job to another. He writes to tell her his days of drinking and hard living are behind him. But inwardly, Willie is in a downward spiral. In early October 1890, he takes his life by slitting his wrists in a Seattle boarding room, where he had taken a newspaper engraving job. Apparently changing his mind, he tries, without success, to stop the flow with a shirt. Failing this, Willie resignedly wraps a chloroform-soaked sheet around his head. He dies at the age of twenty-five. Kate lashes out at her ex-husband, writing him to say that “at your door lies this unnatural crime.” She loses her father, her son and her former love, returning after Willie’s funeral at St. Peter’s by-the-sea in Narragansett to the familiarity of Edgewood.

Kate Chase's Victory

A longtime adherent of temperance, Kate supports legislation against saloons, or liquor establishments, within one mile of the Soldiers’ Home in the suburbs of Washington. Edgewood’s grounds are within the one-mile protected zone. The reform is successful in March 1891, signed by President Harrison, and the newspapers call it “Kate Chase’s Victory.” Endorsed by the Prohibition (or “Home Protection”) Party, whose platform repudiates drink and endorses women’s suffrage, the reform appeals to Kate because of her belief that temperance protects women and children from male violence. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) calls sobriety measures “home protection”, saying that drunkenness ruins families by diverting resources to saloons and paving the way for family violence.

By the mid-1890s Kate sells sold almost everything she has of value, has asked every man of wealth she knows to invest in Edgewood and has failed to find a buyer for the dilapidated estate.

Her borrowing efforts exhausted, she attempts to farm the estate to bring in much-needed income. Kate raises chickens and vegetables and drives her carriage to deliver eggs in the city. Despite her considerable efforts, she can’t make farming pay. The income from asparagus, milk and eggs can’t keep an estate like Edgewood, which requires constant upkeep, afloat. In the years after Willie’s death, Kate borrows $44,000 against Edgewood, but the failing farm gobbles up the capital. At one point she almost sells the property, but bad luck strikes again. An old friend of her fathers offers Kate $115,000 for the estate, but a thief mugs the old gentleman as he conducts the final inspection. He dies a few days later.

In June 1895, Washington Loan and Trust, which holds the mortgage on Edgewood, forecloses, and gives Kate until February 1, 1896 to buy back the property. They require Kate and Kitty to leave immediately. The pair travel first to Ohio, then to New York, hoping to influence wealthy investors to turn Edgewood into a monument to her late father.

Not a Sound is Heard

A group (including Henry Villard, J. P. Morgan, C. P. Huntington, Levi Morton and other politicians from Ohio) contribute to a fund that pays the mortgage and allows Kate an income of $4K/year for two years. The consortium announces that they intend Edgewood as an investment, the land it stands on has considerable value as part of a future suburb. In the meantime, the trustees believe Kate can live off the proceeds of 15 lots carved from Edgewood’s grounds. Unfortunately, the state of decay of the estate prevents the group from paying her the second year’s income as stipulated.

Kate has no income on which to live, except what she makes from farming.

A reporter goes out to visit and finds the house partially empty, much of its furniture auctioned off, the roof leaking, dust and cobwebs everywhere and the windows dirty. An empty picture frame hangs above the fireplace though the marble bust of Salmon P. Chase still graces the mantel. “Not a sound is heard about the house,” he reports “and over the whole place hangs an air of solitude, of desolation that makes the dingy mansion seem a black cloud in a bright landscape.” The mansion played host to important men, like Garfield, Grant, Sumner, Sherman, and Conkling. The grounds where the First Rhode Island Regiment had camped at the beginning of the war lay nearby, as did the hills and woods where Kate and William had once ridden, he on his white stallion and she on shining black Atalanta.

In April 1897, Kate’s only grandchild (Ethel’s son) is christened Salmon Portland Chase Donaldson in honor of the chief justice. ‘Chase,’ as he is known, is a great source of pride in the trying times of his grandmother’s waning days.

By May 1899, with the real estate market improving, the Edgewood trustees decide to sell the property. The expected proceeds would pay off the investor group and provide Kate with an annuity to live somewhere else. Her health failing, and the farm with it, Kate declines all offers of assistance. Without a servant, Kate prepares all the meals for herself and Kitty. She never complains about the downturn in her fortunes.

Kate’s final resting place, near her father, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati OH.

In July, after showing symptoms of Bright’s disease (the general name for kidney ailments), she sends for a doctor. But by this time, she is suffering from the final stages of kidney failure, congestive heart failure, and severe high blood pressure. Her doctors predict her demise with enough time for her daughters to gather at her bedside, Portia from Narragansett Pier and Ethel from Brooklyn. Kate dies at 3 am on July 31, 1899, surrounded by her three daughters. Her funeral, conducted at Edgewood, is attended by her daughters and a few friends. Nettie is absent. Her casket is placed in the library, near the bust of her father. Several of Kate’s former African American servants acted as pallbearers, among them William Joice, Salmon Chase’s longtime valet.

Portia and Ethel close up Edgewood, sell the farm animals, and give their mother’s dogs to a farmer several miles away. The dogs find their way back across the city to Edgewood’s porch, where they are found waiting for Kate. Ethel arranges for her mother to be temporarily interred at the nearby Glenwood Cemetery. Kate’s remains are then transferred, at government expense, per instruction of President McKinley, in a special car to Cincinnati. There she is laid to rest beside her father in the family plot at Spring Grove Cemetery, near the Clifton area where she grew up.


I first read about Katherine Jane Chase Sprague in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’ and subsequently have read every book about her I could find. Particularly helpful to my research were; ‘Spur Up Your Pegasus, Family Letters of Salmon, Kate, and Nettie Chase, 1844-1873’ by James P. McClure, Peg A. Lamphier, and Erika M. Kreger, ‘Kate Chase & William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage’ by Peg A. Lamphier, and John Oller’s ‘American Queen.’

Kate held a front row seat to many of nation’s turbulent events during the mid-to-late 19th century. Limited only by her gender, she carved a path envied by many as the politically astute individual she was raised to be.

Thrust at an early age into the role of hostess for her father’s political ambitions, she tried in vain to cure what Lincoln called “presidential fever” by helping him secure the White House. “Wives, and to a lesser extent daughters and mothers, have often acted as political liaisons for the men in their lives.”[xix] From Salmon to William, to Roscoe, she campaigned on their behalves; writing letters, hosting parties, and promoting their ideas and desires as best she could. Kate sought unconditional love, and when that eventually eluded her, she looked inside herself and soldiered on. It’s hard not to apply our 21st-century beliefs and judge her slighted, but Kate lived and loved within the boundaries of her time. I can confidently say if Salmon’s oldest daughter had been born a century later, what a memorable politician she would have been!


[i] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p101.
[ii] Ibid, p102.
[iii] John Oller: American Queen, The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, p125.
[iv] Ibid, 130.
[v] Ibid, p129.
[vi] Ibid, p111.
[vii] Ibid, p140.
[viii] Ibid, p112.
[ix] Ibid, p150.
[x] United States Statues at Large, 10:655, 16:493; Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 3rd sess., 1870-71, 2:1256, 1262.
[xi] Ibid, p128.
[xii] Ibid, p128.
[xiii] John Oller: American Queen, The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, p160.
[xiv] Ibid, p160.
[xv] Ibid, p163.
[xvi] John Oller: American Queen, The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, p165.
[xvii] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p145.
[xviii] New York World, 13 August 1879.
[xix] Peg A. Lamphier: Kate Chase and William Sprague, Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, p251.


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