And Now a Brief Word about Kate Chase . . .

The Incomparable Kate

Remember that girl in high school? The one who always looked great–clothes perfect, never a hair out of place? She came from a socially prominent family and was really nice to everyone. She dated several popular boys. Her grades were good, she won Homecoming Queen, and her prom dress was not only beautiful, but also very fashionable. There was nothing to hate about her but still . . . how could anyone be that perfect? That perky? You hated her anyway.

Then comes the reunion–maybe the 20th–and sure enough, just as you’d secretly hoped, the wonderful marriage she had made was in shambles, she looked tired and worn, and the glitter was definitely OFF!

Well . . . meet Kate Chase.

Mary Lincoln

I first read about her in Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, where she was presented in a positive light as the young and accomplished hostess for her father, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. Mary Lincoln, in her mid-forties and the mother of four boys by the time the Lincoln’s came to Washington, failed miserably when compared to twenty-one year old Kate’s freshness and energy.

The “wet hen” analogy comes to mind with respect to Mary Lincoln. When the Chases–father and daughter–arrived at the first White House levee on the evening of March 8, 1861, this conversation was said to have ensued:

Mrs. Lincoln: “I shall be glad to see you any time, Miss Chase.”

Miss Chase: “Mrs. Lincoln, I shall be glad to have you call on me at any time.”[1]

The Lincoln-Chase relationship went downhill from thereon, and with good reason.

Salmon Chase and his daughters. Kate is on the right.

Educated by her father and in private schools, Kate Chase became the emotional focus of Salmon Chase’s life after the deaths of her mother and stepmother. By the age of sixteen she acted as his official political hostess, and at twenty she worked earnestly to secure the Republican presidential nomination for him at the Chicago convention in 1860. Mrs. Lincoln knew that Salmon Chase and his daughter thought the wrong man was in the President’s Mansion. Had her father been elected president, Kate would have been First lady. Now her father was only the Secretary of the Treasury, a lack-luster position in Kate’s eyes. While continually attempting to advance her father’s political fortunes, she became a national fashion and social celebrity. Mrs. Lincoln never forgave her.

1861 saw the arrival of thousands of vaguely uniformed troops to the U.S. Capitol in response to Lincoln’s April call for volunteers. One of the initial arrivals was the First Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel Ambrose Burnside. Their governor, William Sprague IV, riding a beautiful white horse and wearing yellow plumes in his hat, proudly led the Rhodeys. Sprague was known as the “boy governor” because, at thirty-one, he was the youngest governor of a state at that time.

The “Boy Governor”

Sprague was not a particularly glamorous man, but he was a multi-millionaire. Little does more to make a man taller, stronger, better dressed and more charming than a lot of money. His family owned the A. & W. Sprague Manufacturing Company, Rhode Island’s largest manufacturer of woven textiles. He also actively fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, which added to his appeal. Although Kate Chase was seen on the arm of many men in Washington at the time, more and more of her attention seemed to be centered on Sprague.

On Nov. 12, 1863, Miss Katherine (Kate) Jane Chase married William Sprague in an elaborate and highly publicized wedding at the Chase home in Washington. It was the social event of the season. William Sprague’s wedding gift to his new wife was a tiara of matched pearls and diamonds that cost more than $50,000. As the bride entered the room, the U.S. Marine Band played “The Kate Chase March,” composed for the occasion by Thomas Mark Clark. President Lincoln attended the reception. Mrs. Lincoln chose not to do so.

Kate Chase in her white velvet wedding dress and $50,000 tiara
William Sprague–a sadder man

In 1864 and again in 1868, Kate used the Sprague fortune to purchase the presidency for her father. Apparently she had traded her happiness for money in a vain attempt to realize the collective dream of father and daughter. Within a year of the wedding, the marriage was already on unstable ground. Sprague was an alcoholic, and took his drinking very seriously. The economic crisis of 1873 put the Spragues in financial difficulty, and an already troubled marriage began to fall apart. Their quarrels were detailed in newspapers, as were the eventual divorce proceedings. The marriage ended in divorce in 1882.

Before the divorce, Kate was accused of having an affair with the flamboyant and powerful New York Senator Roscoe Conkling. According to a well-known story, buttressed by contemporaneous press reports, Sprague confronted the philandering couple at Sprague’s Rhode Island summer home and pursued Conkling with a shotgun. The “incident” with Conkling happened in 1879, but Kate was suspected of infidelities at least ten years earlier. According to Salmon Chase biographer John Niven, “Whether [Kate’s second] child…was Sprague’s or had been conceived by another is a matter of speculation.” [2] In 1882 Kate Chase Sprague, newly divorced, sailed for Europe with her three daughters. She returned to Washington in 1886 and lived there the rest of her life in poverty and scandal as a sort of a Gilded Age Kardashian.

Kate in later years

No one envied Kate now–she was peddling eggs and vegetables house to house just to keep the leaky roof of her father’s old home, Edgewood, over her head. She lived with her mentally challenged daughter, Kitty, in a residence that was falling to ruins around them. After her twenty-five year old son committed suicide, the same drunken failure her husband had been, she had become a recluse. She died of kidney failure on July 31, 1899.  The Cincinnati Enquirer, the paper of her birthplace, said about her funeral:

Hardly more than two or three–and they the nearest relatives on earth–were gathered together yesterday morning around the new-made grave in Spring Grove Cemetery, where, with the simple ceremony of commitment–“Dust to dust, ashes            to ashes,”–the mortal remains of the daughter of Salmon P. Chase were laid to rest forever beside the dust of her illustrious father.[3]

. . . all that is left.

So much for one of the most acclaimed women in wartime Washington. I am not sure if I would have wished such a sad end on those girls in high school.

[1] William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, 23.

[2] John Nevin, Salmon P. Chase, 443.

[3] The Chicago Inquirer, December 21, 1900.

1 Response to And Now a Brief Word about Kate Chase . . .

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!