Sprague, Kate Chase (1840–1899)

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Sprague, Kate Chase (1840–1899)

American socialite. Name variations: Catherine Jane Chase; Kate Chase. Born Catherine Jane Chase on August 13, 1840, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died of a liver and kidney ailment on July 31, 1899, near Washington, D.C.; daughter of Salmon Portland Chase (a politician) and Eliza Ann (Smith) Chase; educated at Henrietta B. Haines' finishing school, New York City; studied music and languages at Lewis Heyl's seminary; married William Sprague (a politician), in 1863 (divorced 1882); children: William Sprague (b. 1865); Ethel Sprague (b. 1869); Portia Sprague (b. 1872); Kitty Sprague (b. 1873).

Born Catherine Jane Chase in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a wealthy family, Kate Sprague was the only child of Salmon P. Chase and his second wife Eliza Smith Chase . His first wife, Kate's namesake, had died in childbirth. Then, Eliza died when Kate was five. Eighteen months later, she had a stepmother, then a half-sister born in 1847. Despite these upheavals, Kate enjoyed a privileged childhood and began to receive a great deal of attention from her widower father when her stepmother died in 1852. A U.S. senator since 1849, Salmon won the governorship of his home state of Ohio in 1855 and had aspirations of running for the presidency. Kate returned his devotion by leaving her finishing school at age 15 to become his official hostess. She transformed the family house into a social gathering place by redecorating, purchasing expensive furniture, and outfitting herself with a wardrobe suitable for a society hostess. She gave lavish, well-attended parties, drawing up guest lists with an eye to furthering her father's ambitions.

While Chase was unsuccessful in his bid to win his party's presidential nomination, in 1860 he was appointed secretary of the treasury under President Abraham Lincoln. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where Kate once again transformed their new home into a social gathering place. At 21 years of age, she was considered among the city's most prominent hostesses, as well as one of the most eligible young ladies of the area. In 1862, she caught the eye of William Sprague, a Rhode Island industrialist running for senator of his state. He was elected senator in 1863, the same year the couple married. President Lincoln and most of Washington society attended the Chase-Sprague wedding. The couple returned from their honeymoon to make their home with Kate Sprague's father, for whom Sprague continued to act as hostess.

Unfortunately, the marriage proved to be extremely unhappy, due in part to William's profligate ways and to Kate's disillusionment regarding her new husband's stature in political society. Sprague had been under the impression that her husband's position as former governor of the state of Rhode Island and his senatorial rank indicated he was well connected politically and socially, and was shocked to discover that Rhode Island's blue-bloods and his peers in the Senate considered him to be an inferior man who had bought his way into politics. The couple quickly became the subject of gossip when Sprague went alone to Europe three years after their marriage to escape her husband's philandering and bouts of heavy drinking. Despite her father's attempts to reconcile the couple, and Sprague's efforts to find some solace by outfitting their lavish summer home at Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, and promoting Salmon Chase's political career, life took a turn for the worse. After two more failed bids for the Democratic presidential nomination—in 1864 and 1868—Chase retired from his position as chief justice of the Supreme Court, dying in 1873. After her father's death, Sprague had no one to help her cope with her situation and took a lover, New York senator Roscoe Conkling. A national scandal ensued after Conkling was driven from her home at gunpoint by William Sprague, who had unexpectedly returned from a trip abroad to find the couple together. No longer able to show her face in the social circles that had once revered her, Sprague went to Europe, then moved to her father's home near the nation's capital; she and William were divorced in 1882.

Kate Sprague's remaining years read like a Victorian novel. Secluded in her father's home as her family wealth diminished, and becoming increasingly reclusive, she attempted to retain her luxurious lifestyle by selling off the house's furnishings. Her son committed suicide and two of her daughters left her for distant regions of the country, leaving the youngest, Kitty, who was mentally impaired, in the care of her mother. Once the family inheritance was gone, Sprague was forced to sell chickens, eggs, and dairy products door to door in the city where she had once reigned supreme as a leader of society. In 1896, several friends of her father formed a trust fund, which supported her until her death from a liver and kidney ailment three years later.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

suggested reading:

American Heritage. August 1956, p. 41.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut