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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 436


This is the grave of Kate Chase.

Born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Kate Chase was the daughter of the legendary Ohio politician Salmon Chase. Her mother died when Kate was five and she had a rough relationship with Chase’s next wife, although she didn’t live too long, just like Chase’s first two wives. Kate was sent to New York for schooling for nine years, learning not only education but the acceptable social norms of the early Victorian era. Known both for her striking beauty and incredible intelligence, she took a lively interest in the politics of the age, impressing everyone from Charles Sumner to Carl Schurz. She was one of the chief advisors of her father and his towering ambition from a young age. Kate Chase was the very rare woman in these years to be a real political insider; one can see in a later era that she quite likely would have run for high office herself.

When Salmon Chase became Secretary of the Treasury, a position he believed below him when compared to the bumpkin Abraham Lincoln, Kate was a chief hostess and therefore she knew everyone in Washington. Like her father, she was extremely opinionated and unafraid to show it, even when it went against official Lincoln policy. But as a young woman, her ultimate fate was still to be married off to another high-ranking political leader. This turned out to be William Sprague, governor of Rhode Island. He was a huge rising star in the Republican Party; a wealthy textile magnate, he was elected governor at the age of 29 and just about to go to the Senate for the first of two terms. Politically and financially, it seemed like a great match. His gift to her of jewelry at the wedding cost $50,000. But the marriage was a complete and total disaster. They both committed adultery pretty openly. They had four children, but it’s entirely likely not all four were fathered by Sprague. He was certainly no more faithful, plus he was a big time drinker.

Kate was able to put some of this aside for awhile, in order to support her father’s career. They both plotted to replace Lincoln in 1864 with Chase. This completely blew up in their faces and Chase was forced to resign. Lincoln then named him Chief Justice, but this was demotion by promotion their eyes. Salmon wanted nothing more than to reach the Oval Office and Kate wanted nothing more than that too. But Sprague voted as a senator to convict Andrew Johnson of the impeachment charges against him. The Chases believed that this would make it harder for him to get the Democratic nomination that year. What, you say? Wasn’t Salmon Chase a Republican? Well, yes, but he wanted to be president so bad that he switched parties in 1868 to get a nomination! Kate basically ran the plot to get him the nomination. The idea was that Horatio Seymour would nominate Chase. But instead, Seymour accepted the nomination himself. She blamed Samuel Tilden for this and later would have her revenge.

See, the affairs continued on both sides. In 1876, Kate was sleeping with Roscoe Conkling, the most powerful New York politician of the day. In that election, Tilden was the Democratic nominee. But of course the election was disputed. And Conkling worked hard to make sure that Rutherford Hayes won the office instead of Tilden. Conkling may well have done so either way, but Kate definitely enjoyed that.

Sadly there wasn’t too much in her later life that she did enjoy. They lost most of their money in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873. In 1879, Sprague walked in on her and Conkling. Chasing them around with a shotgun, he tried to throw her out a second story window. She and Sprague finally divorced in 1882. She took her last name back, as well as the kids and went to live in her father’s house after a long trip to Europe. Why her name contains his name on the gravestone is not something I know. Maybe Victorian propriety. Their son Willie committed suicide in Seattle boardinghouse in 1890. After this, she pretty much lived as a recluse in their crumbling mansion. She entered into abject poverty, having to raise vegetables and chickens and sell them door-to-door for a little money. Pretty sad, but even in this corrupt economy of the Gilded Age, with none of these fortunes really long or old enough to traditions strong enough to keep declining families with a state of respectability, it really was possible to go from riches to poverty with surprising rapidity. She also suffered from Bright’s disease and died of it in 1899, at the age of 58. In the aftermath, all the major newspapers of the day ran obituaries praising her amazing political acumen and abilities, but none of that helped her in her late life.

Kate Chase is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio.

This post was supported by LGM reader contributions. I think it was a worthy visit. I hope you do too. If you would like this post to discuss more 19th century women interested in politics, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is in the Bronx and Sarah Grimké is in Mattapan, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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