Some of the juiciest gossip post-Civil War centered around NY Senator Roscoe Conkling and Kate Chase Sprague. Both were married, and the liaison was the stuff of scandal!
Kate Chase Sprague (1840-1899) was one of the best known women in Washington during the Civil War years. Her father, Samuel P. Chase, former Governor of Ohio, was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. He had strong presidential ambitions himself, and maneuvered and positioned for the top post for more than a decade, happy to spend his considerable wealth on his goal and his pretty daughter. Both lucky and unlucky in love, Chase had married three times, but the young and attractive women all died before they were thirty-five, thus Kate had been educated and groomed to be his political escort and hostess.
Kate reveled in her exalted social status, all the more since her arch-rival Mary Lincoln despised her. Displaying a penchant for fashionable and expensive clothing that far exceeded Mrs. L, she spent her father’s fortune on lavish entertaining to bolster his ambitions. Chase raised millions for the War, but Cabinet Secretaries were not paid amply, and Chase was an honest man. To continue his pursuit for the presidency in 1864, he needed an infusion of money.
The infusion came in the person of William Sprague, the young Governor of Rhode Island, who had made a fortune in textiles. Barely thirty, he was not only the “boy-governor,” but a political “general.” It is easy to understand what he saw in Miss Chase. She was very pretty, socially “ept,” and at the top of society’s pecking order. It is mind-boggling to understand what she saw in him. Short, ugly, licentious (having already fathered an illegitimate child in Europe), a hard drinker with a vile, violent and abusive temper. But he had money and was willing to spend it. Kate adored her father and bartered her marital happiness for campaign financing.
It was a bad, bad bargain.
Political bosses have been around throughout history. Sometimes they were called “kingmakers.” Sometimes they were called prime ministers. The common thread is their enormous power-behind-the-thrones. Nothing happened without the boss’ approval.
Roscoe Conkling (1829-1888), a middle-class attorney from Utica, NY, was a boss who became wealthy, powerful, and a force to be reckoned with both in NY and on the national level. Interestingly enough, he was never accused of personal corruption; his wealth was considered legitimately earned, not grafted. President Grant once offered him a Supreme Court justiceship, but he declined. Nevertheless, no one in New York Republican politics could be elected dog-catcher without Conkling’s rubber stamp. And the corruption and graft on lesser levels was rampant.
By the time of the Civil War, Conkling had become powerful enough and rich enough to be elected to Congress, and later to the Senate – an election by the NY legislature, rather than by the “people.” (That would require a Constitutional amendment in the 20th century.)
The Sprague Marriage
Within a year, Kate Chase’s marriage had become extremely unhappy. Despite Sprague’s wealth, the groom’s drinking, carousing and abusive behavior had become common gossip, and most Washingtonians knew that the couple’s relationship was bitter and acrimonious. Nevertheless, they would have four children. The last two, according to gossip, might not have been Spragues.
Kate took whatever comfort she could from her children, but mostly from her father, who was always “first” in her life – and politics. Chase’s ambition had reached a point that Lincoln finally had to force his resignation, and in a shrewd maneuver, appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where it was believed he could do no harm.
Meanwhile, once the Civil War ended, Sprague managed to get himself elected Senator from Rhode Island. The marriage deteriorated further, and the couple spent long periods apart. The Sprague house in posh Narragansett and the Chase estate in Georgetown literally put space between them.
Roscoe Conkling’s marriage had never been thrilling, but it had never been abusive or violent. He merely left Mrs. Conkling behind in Utica, and remained in Washington to do as he pleased. The comparison to Sprague was polar. Conkling was urbane and sophisticated. He dressed impeccably, drove the finest carriages, and displayed meticulous manners. He was also about 6’2″, fair-haired with a “Lord Byron” style curl, and usually sported a gold-knobbed walking stick.
Conkling and Mrs. Sprague had been acquainted from their earliest days in Washington, and even prior to her marriage, Conkling was known to escort “Miss Chase” to various events.
As Kate’s marriage continued to deteriorate to a point of whispered “divorce,” Conkling and Mrs. Sprague’s liaison became closer. While neither of them were brazen, they were seen together frequently. The “romance” became an open secret – and a scandal.
The Breaking Point
In the summer 1879, while Kate and the children were vacationing in their Narragansett home, Conkling paid a visit. The story goes that he was wearing his dressing gown, breakfasting with Kate one morning, when Sprague showed up unexpectedly. He was drunk – but still grabbed a shotgun and threatened to throw Conkling (a man nearly twice his size) out of the window (or down the stairs). Then he threatened the same to Kate, and had her locked in her room.
When she managed to escape her “imprisonment,” the Spragues separated permanently. She went abroad with the children. He filed for divorce, which was granted, but she received no financial settlement. In those days, a woman involved in a scandalous affair forfeited any “right” to her husband’s ffinancial support.
Alas for the proud Kate Chase Sprague, she was left in near-bankruptcy. Her last years were spent selling butter and eggs from her Georgetown farm in order to subsist.
Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003