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Kate Chase Sprague

Ambitious Political Daughter

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Kate Chase Sprague With Gen. J. J. Abercrombie and Statff, About 1863

Kate Chase Sprague With Gen. J. J. Abercrombie and Statff, About 1863

Buyenlarge / Getty Images
Kate Chase Sprague

Kate Chase Sprague, About 1870

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

You may have heard of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, part of President Lincoln's "Team of Rivals," and later Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. But did you know that his daughter, Kate, helped promote her father's political ambitions? Or that Kate, toast of the town during the Civil War as an unmarried young and pretty woman, became embroiled in a scandalous and messy marriage and divorce?

Occupation: hostess, political advisor, celebrity
Dates: August 13, 1840 – July 31, 1899
Also known as: Katherine Chase, Catherine Jane Chase

Kate Chase Sprague Biography:

Kate Chase was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 13, 1840.  Her father was Salmon P. Chase, and her mother was the former Eliza Ann Smith, his second wife.  Kate was named Catherine Jane Chase at birth, after her father’s first wife, Catherine Jane Garniss, who had died.  Kate formally changed her name to Katherine Chase later.

In 1845, Kate’s mother died, and her father remarried the next year.  He had another daughter, Nettie, with his third wife, the former Sarah Ludlow; four other children of Salmon Chase had died young.  Kate was quite jealous of her stepmother, and so in 1846, her father sent her to a fashionable and rigorous boarding school in New York City, run by Henrietta B. Haines.  Kate graduated in 1856 and returned to Columbus.

Ohio’s First Lady

While Kate was at school, her father had been elected to the Senate in 1849 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 and returned from boarding school, became close to her father, and served 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 later credited this failure to Mary Todd Lincoln’s continuing dislike of Kate Chase.  Salmon Chase also took on Lincoln, competing 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, and Kate accompanied her father to Washington, DC, where they moved into a rented Greek Revival mansion on 6th and E Streets Northwest.  Kate held salons at the home from 1861 to 1863 and continued to serve as her father’s hostess and advisor. With her youth and beauty, and the expensive fashions for which she became famous, she was a central figure in Washington’s social scene – and in competition with Mary Todd Lincoln, who as White House hostess had the position that Kate Chase thought she should have had.  The rivalry between the two was publicly noted. Kate even attended battle camps and publicly criticized the president’s policies on the war.

Kate had many suitors.  In 1862, she met the newly-elected Senator from Rhode Island, William Sprague.  Sprague had inherited the family business, in textile and locomotive manufacturing, and was very wealthy.  He had already been something of a hero in the early Civil War: elected Rhode Island’s governor in 1860, he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 where he acquitted himself well at Bull Run.

Marriage

Kate Chase and William Sprague became engaged, though the relationship was stormy even then. Sprague broke off the engagement briefly when he discovered Kate had had a romance with a married man.  But they reconciled, and were married in an extravagant wedding at the Chase home on 6th and E Streets on November 12, 1863.   A reported 500-600 guests attended, and a crowd also assembled outside the home.  The press covered the ceremony.  Sprague’s gift to his wife was a $50,000 tiara, and the Marine Band played a wedding march especially composed for Kate Chase. The bride wore a white velvet dress with a long train, and a lace veil.  President Lincoln and most of the cabinet attended; the press noted that the president arrived alone, unaccompanied: Mary Todd Lincoln had snubbed Kate.

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 United States Supreme Court.

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 abusive to his wife both physically and verbally.  Kate, for her part, was extravagant with the family’s money, not only spending it on her father’s political career, but on fashions – even while criticizing Mary Todd Lincoln for her extravagances.

1868 Presidential Politics

In 1868, Salmon P. Chase presided at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.  Already, Chase 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 in the Senate; like many Republicans, he voted for conviction, likely increasing tension between William and Kate.  Johnson’s conviction failed by one vote.  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; more likely, it was his support for voting rights for black men that led to his defeat.  Salmon Chase retired to his Edgewood mansion. 

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

A Deteriorating Marriage

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

William Sprague’s finances suffered huge losses in the depression of 1873, and, after her father’s death, Kate began spending most of her time at Edgewood.  She also began an affair at some point with New York Senator Roscoe Conkling – rumors were that her last two daughters, born in 1872 and 1873, were not her husband’s – and after her father’s death this 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, and, after William Sprague left the Senate in 1875, the attendance by the wives virtually ceased.

In 1876, 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, who had won the popular vote.

Kate and William Sprague lived mostly separately, but in 1879, Kate and her daughters were at Canonchet in August when William Sprague left on a business trip.  According to the sensational stories in the newspapers later, Sprague returned unexpectedly from his trip, found Kate with Conkling, and 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, something still difficult for a woman under the laws of the time. She asked for custody for 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 the three daughters, with the son to remain with his father, and she also won the right to be called Mrs. Kate Chase rather than using the name Sprague.

Declining Fortune and Health

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.  She 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, at 25, committed suicide, making her more reclusive.  Her daughters Ethel and Portia moved out, Portia to Rhode Island and Ethel, who married, to Brooklyn, New York.  Kitty, mentally disabled, 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.

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.

William Sprague had remarried after the divorce and lived on at Canonchet until his death in 1915.

Kate Chase Sprague Facts

Education

  • Early: at home, under father’s supervision
  • New York City boarding school run by Henrietta B. Haines, 1847 - 1856
  • Lewis Heyl’s Seminary in Columbus, Ohio: music, languages especially French

Marriage, Children

  • husband: William Sprague (married November 12, 1863; wealthy industrialist, Rhode Island governor then Senator; had been in Union Army at Bull Run)
  • children:
    • 1865: William (committed suicide 1890)
    • 1869: Ethel
    • 1872: Portia
    • 1873: Catherine or Kitty (mentally retarded)
    • Some sources give 1872 as Kitty’s birth year and 1873 as Portia’s

Books About Kate Chase Sprague:

  • Peg A. Lamphier. Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage. 2003.
  • Eleanor Harper Shumaker. The Belle of Washington. 2005.
  • Alice Sokoloff. Kate Chase for the Defense. 1971.
  • Mary Merwin Phelps. Kate Chase, Dominant Daughter: The Life Story of a Brilliant Woman and her Famous Father. 2012.
  • Ishabel Ross. Proud Kate, Portrait of an Ambitious Woman. 2011.

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