Since the time of the Madison administration, when Dolly Madison set the tone for Washington Society, the nation’s First Ladies dominated the Washington social scene. Mary Todd Lincoln expected nothing less when she arrived in the nation’s capital in March 1861. She had not expected formidable competition from the Treasury Secretary’s twenty-year-old daughter, Kate Chase, whose primary goal in life was to see her widower father occupy the office then held by Mrs. Lincoln’s husband.
Kate counted among her admirers Governor William Sprague, Rhode Island’s largest and wealthiest citizen, and John Hay, one of President Lincoln’s two personal secretaries, who later in his career would serve as Secretary of State. Sprague’s successful pursuit and Hay’s infatuation with Kate are among the principal topics in Gore Vidal’s brilliantly entertaining Lincoln.
Kate also enjoyed the admiration of the capital’s women, who sought invitations to the Chase home and Kate’s companionship at Washington’s many social events.
In 1863, Sprague left the governor’s mansion for the United States Senate. In November of that year, he won Kate’s hand in marriage, presenting her with a diamond and pearl tiara rumored to have cost fifty thousand dollars – almost one million dollars in today’s money. The wedding guests included President Lincoln and the entire cabinet. Mrs. Lincoln chose not to attend her social rival’s grand wedding.
Although the couple had four children, their marriage ended in divorce in 1882, after her husband’s financial reverses and her alleged affair with Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York. After the divorce, Kate dropped the Sprague name and lived in her father’s home (Chief Justice Chase had died in 1873.) in Washington, DC. She died in poverty in 1899.
The New York Times said of her at her death:
[She] was born in Ohio about fifty-nine years ago. She was educated under her distinguished father’s eye, and when she became old enough to be of assistance to him acted as his private secretary. * * * There was magnetism in her personality and the friendships she made were of the most loyal character. When she went to Washington to reside she found herself in a congenial atmosphere. She was a diplomat of uncommon tact, and within a short time the homage of the most eminent men of the country was hers. She was ambitious, and she wielded her power and the influence of her high social station as no other woman in this country had ever wielded such forces.