The Sprague-Conkling affair started on a pleasant day in August of 1879 at Narragansett Pier, a fashionable resort, in Rhode Island. The people summering there might have overlooked some high-spirited hijinks among their friends and guests. But when a former U.S. senator runs through the street with a shotgun, that’s the sort of thing that’s hard to hush up.
By 1879, William Sprague had left office some four years ago. Born into a wealthy and powerful Rhode Island family, his father had been murdered in 1843. The working-class Irishman who hanged for the crime probably hadn’t done it.
William Sprague, the once-dashing boy governor of the Ocean State, had risen in business, developing manufacturing and printing technologies. Then national politics, as U.S. senator. And society. In 1863, he married Kate Chase, daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase.
Kate Chase, Socialite
Kate ruled as the doyenne of Washington society. Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd abhorred Washington’s social scene, leaving an opening for the beautiful and ambitious Kate to dominate the town. Kate used her influence, and her husband’s money, to help along her father’s political career in hopes he would one day be president.
But by August of 1879, Sprague’s career had taken a turn for the worse. He had lost much of his fortune in the financial crisis of 1873 (aided probably by his own poor decision-making). He had left politics behind and his marriage, which made him one-half of the dominant power couple of the day, would soon implode with the national scandal known as the Sprague-Conkling affair.
On Aug. 8, 1879 at the Sprague family summer home in Narragansett Pier, Sprague caused a stir – to put it mildly. People had seen him running through the town threatening someone with a gun. That was the sum total of the initial reports.
Then a name surfaced for that someone Sprague had chased: Professor George Linck, a German music teacher hired by Kate to tutor their four children. Linck furnished a statement to the press that he and Senator Sprague had just had a misunderstanding.
The press, however, didn’t believe it. The Chicago Tribune called Linck’s statement “only remarkable for its length and bad grammar.” The newspaper also reported “the much-abused Teuton” received a handsome reward — if one believed reliable sources.
As a coverup, the German tutor story was about as bad as they get. Why, if it was all a misunderstanding, had Kate moved out of the summer house to a hotel? Why was New York senator Roscoe Conkling in Rhode Island?
Conkling was a leader of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate and had harbored hopes of selecting the next president if not running for the office himself. Unlike William Sprague, he didn’t drink alcohol. He was athletic, handsome and smart. And it was he who put out the statement from the German tutor.
As all parties involved tried to sit on the story, an incredulous Narragansett Times noted: “It may be shown later that Mr. Conkling was never at Narragansett Pier, that Mrs. Sprague never had a German teacher, and that William Sprague never was married anyway.”
Sprague’s friends defended his actions. Though he was widely known to be a drunk with a violent temper and more than a couple of floozies in his closet, the Providence Press chimed in saying: “the ex senator cannot be blamed for wishing to be lord and master of his own house.”
The Sprague-Conkling Affair
As the Linck explanation fell apart, more questions emerged about Roscoe Conkling. What business did he have in Rhode Island? The story that he and Sprague had work to finish didn’t wash. To the public, the story took shape. Rumors had circulated that Conkling was too close to Kate. Conkling shows up in Narragansett at a hotel to be near Kate, Sprague finds out Conkling is at his own home and decides to chase him out with a shotgun.
The Boston Herald tried to prop up the German tutor story, reporting that the professor had confronted Sprague, perhaps angry over his wages, and Sprague got furious with the German. He ordered the man to leave, and seizing a double-barreled shotgun, threatened to kill him if he did not go.
The newspaper then explained that Senator Conkling had been in the library at the Sprague house, at some distance from the altercation. He’d come to Newport, R.I., with a party of friends, but heard that Sprague wanted to finish some business with him. So he sailed over to Narragansett in a yacht with his friends.
Then, went the Herald story, Conkling heard the ladies in the household screaming and hurried to their aid. They informed him there was “an invalid gentleman” in the house. Conkling bustled the unwanted guest into a carriage.
The rest of the story explained what witnesses had seen: Conkling walking into town and Sprague with a shotgun.
“While walking along he was overtaken by Governor Sprague, who was driving to the Pier. He stopped and asked Mr. Sprague what all the trouble was about, saying he could not understand why he (Governor Sprague) should act so like a wild man. Mr. Sprague said that he knew his own business, refusing to give any explanation of his actions.”
The story that Conkling had an encounter with Sprague had no foundation whatever, reported the Herald in a 19th-century version of fake news.
“It was Senator Conkling’s misfortune to be in the Sprague residence when the Linck altercation occurred, but he took no part in it, and he was in no way involved in the affair.”
Smirch of the Sprague-Conkling Affair
Senator Conkling then retreated to the home of Sen. Henry Anthony in Providence and, the following morning, returned to New York by train.
That story might have held up but for a new report out of Utica, Senator Conkling’s home. Apparently his wife planned divorce proceedings against him and they’d already separated.
Meanwhile, Professor Linck started getting cold feet about his role as the fall guy in the Sprague-Conkling affair. He then began disclaiming his prior statement.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle summarized the story and added: “The bewildered reader will be pardoned for inquiring why the peace of the Senator’s house should not remain unbroken…[if] the cause for all the trouble was the unfortunate German for whom Sprague developed so strong an antipathy.”
The New York Herald blasted away at the Sprague-Conkling affair, chastising Conkling for remaining silent. “[H]e cannot blame anyone but himself if the public accept the worst side of the story already told as the true version. His intimacy with the ambitious Kate has become the subject of scandal everywhere and the recent affair only adds coloring to what was before mere gossip.
“In his imperious way, Senator Conkling may endeavor to brave public opinion but he will find that something more than mere arrogance will be necessary to clear his shirts of the smirching.
Lechery and Cowardice
The New York Graphic needed no further proof:
“Lechery and cowardice cannot be forgiven in a person assuming to occupy a high public position. We very much believe that in the state of Rhode Island lies the grave of Roscoe Conkling’s political future.”
Senator Conkling’s political future was indeed dead. Though he would serve two more terms in the U.S. Senate, he would never run for president. The Iowa Press offered this update on the old nursery rhyme:
Sing a song of Shot Gun
Belly full of rye;
Two loyal Senators making mud pie,
When the pie was opened
The public got a smell,
And Sprague said to Conkling,
“Now you go to H_ll”
In Rhode Island, many speculated that Kate and William would remain married. They theorized that she wouldn’t give up her share of the family wealth and he wouldn’t be able to prove her faithlessness. The theory was wrong.
Kate and William Sprague did divorce. After the disruption at Narragansett Pier, Kate turned to her distant cousin Austin Corbin, a railroad tycoon. He let her stay at his Long Island estate, protected by workmen.
When Kate finally filed for divorce, Corbin told the press that Sprague had made up the entire story of his confrontation with Conkling. He hoped it would distance Kate from the story of the Sprague-Conkling affair.
He Said, She Said
Kate, in her divorce suit, blistered her husband. She charged Sprague with adultery, cruelty and drunkenness. He had repeatedly told their children that he was not their father. On one occasion, she said, he dragged her to the top story of their home and tried to throw her out the window. In a drunken rage he had mounded up their bedclothes on the floor and set them on fire.
Sprague fired back. He said Kate’s infidelity mortified him. He could manage his business and political life, he said, but he couldn’t control his domestic affairs.
William Sprague said he never told a single person about the affair until he found Conkling in his home in Washington. Then he called on Kate’s friends and her father’s friends to end the Sprague-Conkling affair, but he couldn’t. “I found it utterly impossible to control her, or save her from the subsequent consequences,” he said.
And as to the details of the time he ran after Conkling with a shotgun, “I prefer you should gather them from others.”
From 1878 onward, Sprague charged, Kate had had an affair with Conkling and he planned to air the details. He hadn’t done so far on account of the children.
Sprague vowed never to settle the case. But he did. After a year of sniping, the two sides settled in 1882. William dropped all charges of adultery, and the case instead focused on William’s non-support of Kate.
During negotiations, young Willie, the couple’s son, tried to shoot his mother’s trustee when he tried to retrieve some belongings from the Narragansett estate. Kate took custody of the three daughters, William their son.
Sad End to the Sprague-Conkling Affair
The story has a sad ending. Kate died in poverty in 1899, after selling butter and eggs door to door to support herself. Only a handful of people attended the funeral of the woman who once reigned over Washington society. Young Willie had killed himself in 1890.
William Sprague married Inez Calvert of Staunton, Va., in 1883. Shortly after their marriage they returned to the Sprague home in Narragansett. Inez’s brother Orestes Weed visited the estate, and William ran him off with a shotgun, believing he had an interest in one of his daughters.
This story about the Sprague-Conkling affair was updated in 2023. Images: Kate Chase, 1873 PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8592896.South County Museum By Staib – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10378721.