- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

Official Washington took time out from the war for a long-awaited social extravaganza on a crisp November evening in 1863. The occasion was the wedding of the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to Sen. William Sprague of Rhode Island, one of the richest men in America.
Although the bridegroom was a U.S. senator, Kate Chase was the one who attracted attention. The first daughter of a politically ambitious father, she made no attempt to disguise the driving ambition she felt for her father and herself. Nevertheless, a succession of male admirers had been charmed by her dark good looks.
Rep. James A. Garfield, whose wife was home in Ohio, felt compelled to rationalize his visits to the Chase home. Kate "is a woman of good sense and pretty good culture," he wrote home. She has "a good form but not a pretty face, its beauty being marred by a nose slightly inclining to pug."
There was a degree of cynicism regarding Kate's marriage to Sprague, who was not known for either his looks or his charm. Skeptics noted her father's well-known presidential ambitions and speculated that when Chase sought the presidency, Sprague would be the one to pick up the bill.
Within a year of Kate's wedding, however, her father's political fortunes changed abruptly. Weary of Chase's intrigues, Abraham Lincoln first fired him and then appointed him to the newly vacant post of chief justice of the United States. In so doing, the president appeased Chase's political following while removing Chase as a political rival.
In the early years of her marriage, Kate gave birth to three children, but soon she and her husband went their separate ways. Sprague, a heavy drinker, was quarrelsome when in his cups. In the late 1860s, Kate devoted her attention to constructing Canonchet, a Rhode Island mansion overlooking Narragansett Bay. Her father died in 1873 in Washington, and after an appropriate period of mourning, Kate set about taking a lover.
Roscoe Conkling, unlike Sprague, was one of the stars of the U.S. Senate. A native of New York, he had been one of the founders of the Republican Party. Few people had a neutral view of Conkling, who was one of the most parodied politicians of his day.
He was proud of his broad shoulders and athletic build, qualities that led one wag to call him "the finest torso in public life." Conkling often treated political rivals with contempt, a practice that did not win him friends in Washington. A Senate colleague, James G. Blaine, referred on the floor to Conkling's "high disdain, his grandiloquent swell, his majestic, super-eminent, overpowering turkey-gobbler strut."
Yet it was to Conkling that Kate Chase Sprague turned her attention.
Besides his other shortcomings, Sprague had lost his fortune in the crash of 1873, and on one occasion supposedly had attempted to push Kate out a window. When Congress adjourned in summer 1879, the Spragues packed up for Canonchet, and from there, Sprague left for Maine on business. He had scarcely departed when Conkling arrived.
Several days later, Sprague returned earlier than expected. Kate claimed to be going about her household chores when she was told that her husband was coming and was armed. When he arrived, it was to a carefully staged picture of domestic tranquillity. Kate was seated on the porch, reading poetry to her guests. Nearby, Conkling was studying the morning paper.
Sprague walked up to Conkling and pulled out a pocket watch. Conkling had 30 seconds to leave, Sprague announced, "or I will blow your brains out." A carriage materialized, and Conkling wasted no time in climbing aboard. To the later delight of his political enemies, he departed in such haste that he left his suitcase behind.
Sprague was not yet finished, however. After mulling over what he had found, he followed Conkling to Narragansett Pier, where his nemesis sat at a cafe. Sprague declared that he had had enough of Conkling's perfidy and asked whether Conkling was armed. When the New Yorker protested that he was not, the long-suffering Sprague replied, "I don't intend to shoot an unarmed man, but I tell you now that if you ever cross my path again I will shoot you at sight!"
In the wake of this melodrama, Kate moved out of Canonchet to a hotel in Providence; Conkling sent an agent to retrieve his luggage; and the press had a field day. Popular sympathy, for once, was with Sprague. For the first time, the drab ex-millionaire, seeking to stave off bankruptcy, was a sympathetic figure as he defended hearth and home.
Whatever residual appeal Kate had with the public vanished with the publicity surrounding her affair with Conkling.
Her life continued its downward spiral. In May 1882, she was granted a divorce from Sprague on grounds of nonsupport. She was awarded custody of their two daughters but not of their son. She resumed using her maiden name and returned to Washington, but money was short, and many people in Washington wanted no part of her.
Conkling played a prominent role in the Republican Party for a time but was defeated for re-election to the Senate in 1881. He resumed his law practice in New York City and was there during the famous blizzard of 1888. He ignored a warning not to walk the streets during the storm and died of exposure a few days later.
Kate's fate was more poignant. She lived for years on land that had been owned partly by her father on the outskirts of Washington. Friends of her father's helped pay off the mortgage, but Kate had little on which to live and was reduced to farming the land. Only her neighbors knew the identity of the prematurely aged woman who drove a shabby carriage to deliver eggs.
Early in 1899, her neighbors realized that Kate was in danger of starving. They brought her case to the attention of President McKinley's secretary of the Treasury, who offered her a clerkship in the Treasury Department. She was not able to accept. Weakened by disease and malnutrition, she died on July 31, 1899.
The Washington Evening Star put her obituary on the front page. No hostess as young as Kate Chase, the paper noted, had ever "held the prominent and controlling position" in capital society that she had held.
There was no mention of Conkling.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of numerous books on history and biography, including "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand."


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