Biography of Kate Chase Sprague, Ambitious Political Daughter

Kate Chase Sprague with Gen. J. J. Abercrombie and staff around 1863
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Kate Chase Sprague (born Catherine Jane Chase; August 13, 1840–July 31, 1899) was a society hostess during the Civil War years in Washington, D.C. She was celebrated for her beauty, intellect, and political savvy. Her father was Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, part of President Abraham Lincoln's "Team of Rivals," and later served as secretary of state and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Kate helped promote her father's political ambitions before she became embroiled in a scandalous marriage and divorce.

Fast Facts: Kate Chase Sprague

  • Known For: Socialite, daughter of a prominent politician, embroiled in a scandalous marriage and divorce
  • Also Known As: Kate Chase, Katherine Chase
  • Born: August 13, 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Parents: Salmon Portland Chase and Eliza Ann Smith Chase
  • Died: July 31, 1899 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Miss Haines School, Lewis Heyl’s Seminary
  • Spouse: William Sprague
  • Children: William, Ethel, Portia, Catherine (or Kitty)
  • Notable Quote: “Mrs. Lincoln was piqued that I did not remain at Columbus to see her, and I have always felt that this was the chief reason why she did not like me at Washington.”

Early Life

Kate Chase was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 13, 1840. Her father was Salmon P. Chase and her mother was Eliza Ann Smith, his second wife. 

In 1845, Kate’s mother died, and her father remarried the next year. He had another daughter, Nettie, with his third wife Sarah Ludlow. Kate was jealous of her stepmother and so her father sent her to the fashionable and rigorous Miss Haines School in New York City in 1846. Kate graduated in 1856 and returned to Columbus.

Ohio’s First Lady

In 1849 while Kate was at school, her father was elected to the U.S. Senate as a representative of the Free Soil Party. His third wife died in 1852, and in 1856 he was elected as Ohio’s governor. Kate, at age 16, had recently returned from boarding school and became close to her father, serving as his official hostess at the governor’s mansion. Kate also began serving as her father’s secretary and advisor and was able to meet many prominent political figures.

In 1859, Kate failed to attend a reception for the wife of Illinois Senator Abraham Lincoln. Kate said of this occasion, “Mrs. Lincoln was piqued that I did not remain at Columbus to see her, and I have always felt that this was the chief reason why she did not like me at Washington.”

Salmon Chase had a more momentous rivalry with Senator Lincoln, competing with him for the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Kate Chase accompanied her father to Chicago for the national Republican convention, where Lincoln prevailed.

Kate Chase in Washington

Although Salmon Chase had failed in his attempt to become president, Lincoln appointed him secretary of the treasury. Kate accompanied her father to Washington, D.C., where they moved into a rented mansion. Kate held salons at the home from 1861 to 1863 and continued to serve as her father’s hostess and advisor.

With her intellect, beauty, and expensive fashions, she was a central figure in Washington’s social scene. She was in direct competition with Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln, as the White House hostess, had the position that Kate Chase coveted.

The rivalry between the two was publicly noted. Kate Chase visited battle camps near Washington, D.C. and publicly criticized the president’s policies on the war.

Suitors

Kate had many suitors. In 1862, she met newly elected Senator William Sprague from Rhode Island. Sprague had inherited his family business in textile and locomotive manufacturing and was very wealthy.

He had already been something of a hero in the early Civil War. He was elected Rhode Island’s governor in 1860 and in 1861, during his term in office, he enlisted in the Union Army. At the first Battle of Bull Run, he acquitted himself well.

Wedding

Kate Chase and William Sprague became engaged, though the relationship was stormy from the beginning. Sprague broke off the engagement briefly when he discovered Kate had had a romance with a married man.

They reconciled and were married in an extravagant wedding at the Chase home on November 12, 1863. The press covered the ceremony. A reported 500 to 600 guests attended and a crowd also assembled outside the home.

Sprague’s gift to his wife was a $50,000 tiara. President Lincoln and most of the cabinet attended. The press noted that the president arrived alone: Mary Todd Lincoln had snubbed Kate.

Political Maneuvering

Kate Chase Sprague and her new husband moved into her father’s mansion, and Kate continued to be the toast of the town and preside at social functions. Salmon Chase bought land in suburban Washington, at Edgewood, and began to build his own mansion there.

Kate helped advise and support her father’s 1864 attempt to be nominated over incumbent Abraham Lincoln by the Republican convention. William Sprague’s money helped support the campaign.

Salmon Chase’s second attempt to become president also failed. Lincoln accepted his resignation as secretary of the treasury. When Roger Taney died, Lincoln appointed Salmon P. Chase as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Early Marriage Troubles

Kate and William Sprague’s first child and only son William was born in 1865. By 1866, rumors that the marriage might end were quite public. William drank heavily, had open affairs, and was reported to be physically and verbally abusive to his wife.

Kate, for her part, was extravagant with the family’s money. She spent lavishly on her father’s political career as well as fashion—even as she criticized Mary Todd Lincoln for her purported frivolous spending.

1868 Presidential Politics

In 1868, Salmon P. Chase presided at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Chase already had his eye on the presidential nomination for later that year and Kate recognized that if Johnson was convicted, his successor would likely run as an incumbent, reducing Salmon Chase’s chances of nomination and election.

Kate’s husband was among the senators voting on the impeachment. Like many Republicans, he voted for conviction, likely increasing tension between William and Kate. Johnson’s conviction failed by one vote.

Switching Parties

Ulysses S. Grant won the Republican nomination for the presidency, and Salmon Chase decided to switch parties and run as a Democrat. Kate accompanied her father to New York City, where the Tammany Hall convention did not select Salmon Chase.

She blamed New York governor Samuel J. Tilden for engineering her father’s defeat. Historians deem it more likely that it was his support for voting rights for black men that led to Chase's defeat. Salmon Chase retired to his Edgewood mansion.

Scandals and a Deteriorating Marriage

Salmon Chase had become politically entangled with financier Jay Cooke, beginning with some special favors in 1862. When criticized for accepting gifts as a public servant, Chase stated that a carriage from Cooke was actually a gift to his daughter.

That same year, the Spragues built a massive mansion in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. Kate took many trips to Europe and New York City, spending heavily on furnishing the mansion.

Her father wrote to her to caution her that she was being too extravagant with her husband’s money. In 1869, Kate gave birth to her second child, this time a daughter named Ethel, though rumors of their deteriorating marriage increased.

In 1872, Salmon Chase made yet another try for the presidential nomination, this time as a Republican. He failed again and died the next year.

More Scandals

William Sprague’s finances suffered huge losses in the depression of 1873. After her father’s death, Kate began spending most of her time at her late father's Edgewood mansion. She also began an affair at some point with New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, with rumors spreading that her last two daughters were not her husband’s.

After her father’s death, the affair became more and more public. With whispers of scandal, the men of Washington still attended many parties at Edgewood hosted by Kate Sprague. Their wives attended only if they had to. After William Sprague left the Senate in 1875, the attendance by the wives virtually ceased.

In 1876, Kate's paramour Senator Conkling was a key figure in the Senate’s deciding the presidential election in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes over Kate’s old enemy, Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden had won the popular vote.

The Marriage Breaks

Kate and William Sprague lived mostly separately, but in August of 1879, Kate and her daughters were at home in Rhode Island when William Sprague left on a business trip. According to the sensational stories in the newspapers later, Sprague returned unexpectedly from his trip and found Kate with Conkling.

Newspapers wrote that Sprague pursued Conkling into town with a shotgun, then imprisoned Kate and threatened to throw her out a second-floor window. Kate and her daughters escaped with the help of servants and they returned to Edgewood.

Divorce

The next year, 1880, Kate filed for divorce. Pursuing a divorce was difficult for a woman under the laws of the time. She asked for custody of the four children and for the right to resume her maiden name, also unusual for the time.

The case dragged on until 1882, when she won custody of their three daughters, with their son to remain with his father. She also won the right to be called Mrs. Kate Chase rather than using the name Sprague.

Declining Fortune

Kate took her three daughters to live in Europe in 1882 after the divorce was final. They lived there until 1886 when their money ran out, and she returned with her daughters to Edgewood.

Chase began selling off the furniture and silver and mortgaging the home. She was reduced to selling milk and eggs door to door to sustain herself. In 1890, her son committed suicide at age 25, which caused Kate to become more reclusive.

Her daughters Ethel and Portia moved out, Portia to Rhode Island and Ethel, who married, to Brooklyn, New York. Kitty was mentally disabled and lived with her mother.

In 1896, a group of admirers of Kate’s father paid the mortgage on Edgewood, allowing her some financial security. Henry Villard, married to the daughter of abolitionist William Garrison, headed that effort.

Death

In 1899 after ignoring a serious illness for some time, Kate sought medical help for liver and kidney disease. She died on July 31, 1899, of Bright’s disease, with her three daughters at her side.

A U.S. government car brought her back to Columbus, Ohio, where she was buried next to her father. Obituaries called her by her married name, Kate Chase Sprague.

Legacy

Despite her unhappy marriage and the devastation wrought on her reputation and clout by the scandal of her infidelity, Kate Chase Sprague is remembered as a remarkably brilliant and accomplished woman. As her father's de facto campaign manager and as a central Washington society hostess, she wielded political power during the greatest crisis in United States history, the Civil War and its aftermath.

Sources

  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Simon and Schuster, 2005. 
  • Ishbel Ross. Proud Kate, Portrait of an Ambitious Woman. Harper, 1953.
  • “Notable Visitors: Kate Chase Sprague (1840-1899).” Mr. Lincoln's White House, www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/residents-visitors/notable-visitors/notable-visitors-kate-chase-sprague-1840-1899/.
  • Oller, John. American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North" and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. Da Capo Press, 2014