Kate had yet to arrive at a satisfactory arrangement with her husband. Sprague had insisted that Kate spend the summer of ’seventy-nine at the estate in Canonchet, near Narragansett, so that he might have some opportunity to see his children, but Kate knew that Sprague was more likely to spend his time playing billiards in a tavern and would merely pat Willie and the three girls on their heads en route to some drunken dissipation. It was not long before Sprague vanished upon some hunting trip to Maine with his cousin.
Fortuitously, Senator Roscoe Conkling had some legal business in Newport, and it would have been impolite to fail to visit Kate, Rhode Island being such a small state. The traditional decencies and sanctities of marriage being constantly present to Kate’s mind, she extended an invitation to an elderly couple who had long been friendly to the Chase family, Mr. and Mrs. Throop Martin, who had once expressed a desire to spend a few days near the ocean, and soon arrived at Canonchet with a daughter and her friend.
Conkling’s sojourn at Narragansett passed blissfully. The glorious weather nearly demanded that a gentleman escort a lady upon the promenade, and it was not in Conkling’s nature to refuse such demands. It soon emerged, however, that the good people of Narragansett lacked that discretion that characterizes the conduct of affairs in Washington.
Kate rummaged about her trunk. She had secluded herself in the room at Canonchet furthest from Sprague’s bed-chamber. Several of Kate’s belongings were strewn about the room and under the bed, there being space insufficient for a woman of her station.
Beneath some hastily packed clothes she found the parcel of letters, bound together with twine that had been tied and untied many times. She sat upon the bed, for there was nowhere else to sit, and found the letter that she had read so often before.
“My darling Katie,” Father had written —
Your letter by express mail came to me this morning. I read it with profound interest and deepest sympathy for you. Trust God, accuse no one but yourself, cherish every wifely sentiment whether reciprocated or not, and all will come out right.
Kate dropped her hands with the letter in her lap. Ever since she had been sent away to Miss Haines’s school as a girl, Father had written her several times a week. She was parted from him so often that she was far more accustomed to opening her heart to him in writing than in speech. She had always told him everything in her letters, and when she came home one night to find Sprague disheveled, holding a bottle of whiskey that could not mask the odor of cheap perfume, she wrote at once to Father. The Chief Justice had already departed to ride circuit, hearing cases in Richmond or Baltimore, she could not recall which, and he had responded to her immediately. But Father had not said what she had wanted him to say.
She wrinkled her nose. Father had been so different when he was ambitious. She shuffled through the letters, until she found an older letter, better suited to her taste, written to her when she was only fifteen.
“I am writing, dear Kate, in the Senate Chamber,” Father’s letter began —
So I write under disadvantage. Since I wrote last I have received two letters from you, each of which gave me a great deal of pleasure. I observe a gradual improvement in your style of composition. It will be a great advantage to you to cultivate a habit of seeing. Then accustom yourself to talk of what you see and write details, and in a dramatic style. There is the greatest possible difference in charm between the same narrative told by one person and by another.
So spur up your Pegasus and make him keep step. Let Pegasus use his wings, but you must use the reins.
Now she smiled. Father had written her many such letters, and until she had children of her own she had not understood that raising children was not unlike sowing seeds upon a rocky field, where one could never be sure where a sprout might take root and grow.
Kate sat down to breakfast upon the piazza. It was a warm, sunny August morning.
“Good morning, Mrs. Sprague,” said the maid. “Madame is awake early. I hope you slept pleasantly.”
“Yes,” sighed Kate, who had not slept much at all. A soft breeze blew pleasantly through her hair.
“I am happy to hear it.” The maid paused and began to count the place settings at the breakfast table.
“There,” said the maid. “That is twelve.”
“Twelve?” Kate inquired. “There are four children, four Martins, the tutor, Senator Conkling, and I. That makes eleven. Have we acquired another guest since last night?”
“Yes, Madame,” said the maid. “Mr. Sprague returned last night.”
Neither woman spoke for a moment.
“I see,” said Kate. “Does — ”
The women were interrupted by the arrival of the elderly Mr. Martin.
“Good morning!” he croaked.
“Good morning, Mr. Martin!” cried Kate. The maid left the piazza and went back to the kitchen.
“I had a devilish time getting to sleep!” Mr. Martin complained. “The heat, you know! But we are so close to the ocean that the air must have cooled considerably once I was asleep. It was most satisfactory.”
“The air is very fine here.”
“Now let me have some tea, and dear Kate, I must ask you to read more of that novel to me. My eyes are weak, and my hands shake terribly.”
“Good morning!” Conkling stood in the door. He was immaculately washed and combed, his Hyperion curl hanging just so upon his forehead. The rising sun shone upon his golden-red hair, and he stepped out onto the piazza as a conquistador.
“Senator,” said Kate, her voice quivering slightly. “Won’t you please have some breakfast?”
“I should be delighted,” said Conkling, taking a seat and helping himself to the newspapers.
“How did you sleep, Senator?” Kate asked, buttering a scone.
“Very well, Madame. The air cooled off most pleasantly. I slept straight through the night without interruption.”
Mr. Martin snickered softly to himself, for he was no fool.
After breakfast, Kate began to read aloud to Mr. Martin from a novel. Conkling remained at the table with his newspapers.
“What is that infernal noise?” exclaimed Mr. Martin.
Willie ran out of the house, breathless.
“Mamma! Papa is here! His gun is loaded, and he will kill someone for sure!”
Kate looked at Conkling, who held her gaze steadily. But when Kate turned back to Willie, Conkling’s hand trembled as he turned the page of his newspaper.
“Now, Willie,” Kate said, grasping his hand and pulling him close, “Papa will not hurt anyone.”
With a heavy thud Sprague strode out onto the piazza. He appeared to have slept in his clothes, his wild black hair and moustache unkempt. In his hand he held a pistol.
“Willie has nothing to fear,” he growled.
“Good morning, Sir,” said Kate.
Sprague stared at her for a long moment.
“You must excuse me,” said Kate. “I was reading to Mr. Martin. Willie, please ask your sisters to come to breakfast.” But Willie could not move.
Sprague laughed softly. He turned away from Kate and Willie and began walking over to Conkling, slowly raising his pistol. He stopped three feet from Conkling, who did not look up from his newspaper.
“You have thirty seconds or I will blow your brains out.”
Kate clutched Willie’s hand, and he placed his other arm about her shoulder. Mr. Martin licked his lips at the unexpected course the morning had taken.
Conkling rose slowly. He calmly folded his newspaper and walked over to Kate, Willie, and Mr. Martin.
“Mrs. Sprague,” said Conkling, “your husband is very much excited and I think it better that I withdraw. But if my departure puts you in danger, I will stay, no matter what the consequence.”
“Do not mind me, Senator,” said Kate, gazing up into Conkling’s eyes. “If my husband is in a passion, however, I know that there is no use trying to argue with him, as it might lead to violence.”
“I agree, Mrs. Sprague. Allow me some time to prepare my bags. Good day, Sir.”
He bowed slightly to Sprague, who was still seething.
By the time Conkling returned to the piazza to bid farewell to Kate, young Ethel had joined Willie clasping their mother’s hands.
“Farewell, Mrs. Sprague,” said Conkling, bowing slightly.
Ethel burst into tears. She let her mother go and ran into Conkling, seizing him about the waist.
“Oh stay, Sir, please stay!”
Conkling placed one hand over the young girl’s shoulder. She was barely ten years of age, yet afraid of her own father.
“No, Ethel,” said Kate. “Mr. Conkling will go, but no one shall hurt him or us.”
“There, there,” said Conkling. He looked about, but Sprague was not to be seen. “Can you please escort me to my carriage, Ethel?”
With Ethel sobbing about his waist, Conkling walked down to the drive, where a carriage was waiting. Kate and Willie followed them, still hand in hand. Extricating himself from Ethel, Conkling bowed and kissed her hand.
“Now go to your mother,” he said. Conkling looked at Kate for a long moment, then leapt inside the carriage. The carriage-man whipped the horses, and the carriage sped away.
A few moments after Kate and the children turned and went back into the house, Sprague leapt upon a horse and galloped after Conkling.
Conkling’s carriage wheeled into Narragansett without incident. After some consultation with the driver, Conkling determined to continue the breakfast that had been so dramatically interrupted. He strode into Billington’s café.
“Good day!” he announced. “I should like a meal of some breakfast crackers, with a glass of milk.”
The proprietor, a pleasant and rotund fellow, stared at him from behind the bar. Now, Conkling noticed that there was no else in the café. He turned around.
Sprague was standing in the middle of the street, his pistol pointed at Conkling.
Conkling remonstrated with himself. Of course, Sprague would have arrived in town faster than the carriage — he knew all the roads.
“Would you disgrace this humble establishment with an act of violence?” he called out.
“Step into the street like a man,” Sprague growled.
“Of course,” Conkling said. He turned briefly to the proprietor. “I regret that this ruffian has disturbed your business.”
He straightened his pink waistcoat, adjusted his yellow cravat, and not for the first time wondered whether he ought to wear more subdued colors, to present less of a target for a marksman.
Conkling stepped out from Billington’s and into the street, not ten paces from Sprague, and could smell the drink off him. He threw a glance up and down the street and perceived many of Narragansett’s finest citizens hiding behind windows and peeking out of doors.
“Have you not gone yet, G_____n you?” Sprague roared.
“Here I am.”
“You should have known better than to set foot in this state!”
“Why?” Conkling tilted his head. “It has been many years since you were Governor.”
“You know what I mean!” Sprague’s hand trembled upon the pistol.
Conkling carefully observed Sprague and reckoned that he would probably miss.
“I will accept no apology for what you’ve done,” Sprague growled.
“You will think better of all this tomorrow,” Conkling said.
Sprague was not a man devoted to reflection, and the suggestion confounded him.
“Out!” he cried. “Now!”
“But I have just asked for breakfast.”
“It shall be your last meal.” Sprague raised his pistol again.
“My last meal?” Conkling asked. “What manner of offense have I ever given to you, to permit you to act as judge, jury, and executioner?”
“You know full well!” Sprague thundered. “Leave my wife alone!”
“Your wife?” Conkling cried. “I have at every moment acted with nothing but noble intent and most perfect manners with regard to your wife. I have been a gentleman. What sort of accusation are you making against me?”
Sprague spat. “I know there is something between you and my wife!”
“Would you impugn the honor of your wife in such a manner?” Conkling thrust out his chest and hooked one thumb in his belt as if he were on the floor of the Senate. “She is your wife — and yet you cast such aspersions upon her! I have sisters, Sir — I have sisters! — and I would rather follow their hearse, than have one of them receive an injury so irreparable as that which you would inflict upon your wife. I would rather the dirt fall upon their coffins than see one of them be robbed of their priceless reputation, without which a woman is a casket without a jewel, a ship without a rudder, a helpless, hopeless wreck on Fortune’s lonely shore.”
Sprague was utterly perplexed by this rejoinder. Having no other response, he pulled back the hammer of his pistol.
“Sir!” Conkling said. “A man of your military experience and trained observation could not have failed to observe that I carry no weapon. Will you shoot me unarmed, in a public place, before the tender eyes of women and young children? How unmanly!”
Sprague hesitated. He cast his glance in either direction, observing that there were an inconvenient number of witnesses. He finally lowered his pistol.
“Then go arm yourself,” Sprague cried, “and stay armed! I do not intend to shoot an unarmed man, but if you ever cross my path again I will shoot you on sight!”
Sprague stared at Conkling for a moment, now uncertain. Then he abruptly whistled for his horse, jumped on it, and rode off. The townspeople waited a few moments, then, trembling, tried to go back about their business. Conkling, for his part, turned back to Billington’s.
“Where are my milk and crackers?” he asked.
Two weeks later, Sprague went swimming in the bay after luncheon. He did not drown, much to Kate’s dismay, but the execution of her plan did not depend upon his death, although it might have improved her general circumstances. She waited until Sprague walked up from the shore, his long black hair tangled and dripping, and deposited himself in one of the front rooms for a nap. The mansion fell silent, as the master’s afternoon rest was the only moment of peace for the household. Sprague’s cousin had recently arrived at the estate, and the night before had been particularly loud and restless.
Kate sat in her little room. She was in travel dress, her trunk well packed and ready. There had been some stumbling about as Sprague settled down to his nap, but it finally ceased. She waited, then waited longer, for the sleep of the inebriate is unsteady and does not take hold at once. She consulted her pocket watch. She rose from her bed, crossed the room, and delicately unlocked the door. Noiselessly, she glided down the hallway to the girls’ room and turned the handle.
There was a sharp catch of breath from the governess. She, too, was in travel dress and stood holding Ethel’s and Portia’s hand. Kate raised one eyebrow. Where was little Kitty? The governess tilted her head slightly, and Kate saw Kitty curled up in the corner, crying softly. They had not explained the entirety of their purpose to Kitty as they had to Ethel and Portia. Kate’s shoulders sagged, but only for a moment. She nodded at the governess, who tiptoed out of the room with Ethel and Portia.
Kate strode softly to Kitty and knelt down.
“My darling,” she said, “come with Mamma.”
Kitty stretched out her arms, and Kate lifted her from the floor, straining slightly, as she was no longer so little. Kate gritted her teeth as Kitty buried her face in Kate’s neck, her tears further dampening skin already wet with perspiration.
The hallway outside the girls’ room was empty. Clutching Kitty to her, Kate crept around the corner.
There was someone standing with his back to her, wearing one of Sprague’s riding coats, but he was too small of stature to be Sprague. He turned. It was Willie.
“Mamma?” Willie asked. “Where are you going?”
Kitty’s eyes widened. Kate looked at Willie with deep importuning.
“Do not concern yourself with me,” he whispered.
Kate staggered, as if a blow had landed between her shoulders. She grasped Kitty ever tighter.
“I am a man now,” Willie whispered. “Go.”
Kate stared hard into Willie’s eyes, for he was only fourteen, and no man.
“Go,” Willie repeated. “He suspects that you will do this.”
Kate opened her mouth but did not know what to say. Kitty began to wail.
“Kitty?” came a servant’s voice from downstairs. “Are you well, little Kitty?”
Kate took one last look at Willie and hastened down the hall, through the bedroom, and down the narrow stairway, her shoulders brushing the wall with the weight of the child. She emerged into the kitchen. The cooks were standing silently, for they had already witnessed the abrupt departure of the governess with Ethel and Portia and had long supposed that this day would come. As Kate clattered across the stone-tiled floor in her heeled boots, she thought she saw tears in their eyes.
Then she was out. Good old Tom had rigged a coach and was waiting for her in the back. Ethel and Portia were already inside, and the governess climbed in after Kate lifted Kitty, now crying softly, into the coach.
“Cemetery Road,” Kate whispered to Tom and hoisted herself into the coach. Tom whipped the horses.
Kate fell into the coach exhausted. Her blouse was entirely wet. Portia embraced Kitty, who was now quiet — now! Kate thought ruefully — but Ethel sat wringing her hands.
“Now what, Mamma?” she whispered.
“We shall drive past the cemetery, to Tower Hill Road.”
“But he will see that Tom’s coach is gone,” Ethel insisted. “And then what?”
Kate shook her head. “Your father will no doubt think we shall drive south, to take the train from Narragansett Pier. Therefore, we must drive north, and take the ferry from Wickford.”
“But then where?” Ethel cried.
“My dear girls!” Kate exclaimed. “We shall not be cast to the winds! Home is where it has ever been for the Chase family, at Edgewood.”
“What about Willie?”
“Willie is a man now and wanted to remain with your father. But we shall see him again, I assure you.”
But at the news that Willie would not meet them at Edgewood, Ethel and Portia became downcast. For all of his rough edges, Willie was their brother and was even tolerable some of the time. Kitty, however, let out a long low howl, which Kate eventually decided was a sort of keening, but her immediate impression had been that Kitty had cried, “No.”
The uncommon quiet awoke Sprague. He was so accustomed to the muted commotions of the household, with the servants carrying out their duties and the children playing their games, that the absence of the ordinary noises roused the intuition that is the security of every military man. He sat bolt upright upon his reclining couch and looked wildly about. His cousin had fallen asleep on the floor next to him. Sprague kicked him.
“Get up and find that whore!” he bellowed.
Sprague tore through Canonchet, kicking open doors and shouting at servants, who cowered in fear and said nothing. After several minutes, it was plain that Kate had vanished, along with the girls — his girls, Sprague thought, as he pounded the walls in fury. He met his cousin in the front hallway.
“The bird has flown,” Sprague spat.
“Where do you think they have gone?”
Sprague paused and pondered, always the occasion for considerable strain. “The afternoon train at Narragansett Pier has just left. But I can ride faster than any train. The next stop is West Kingston, and I shall find them there.”
Sprague laughed. “She shall get the whipping she deserves.” He ran from the mansion, mounted his horse, and was gone.
The gentlemen of the press, as might have been expected, found these events the subject of enormous fascination. The tedium of the last month of summer was relieved by the breathless reportage of Conkling’s diversions, Kate’s flight, and Sprague’s fruitless pursuit. Kate reemerged in the most likely of places and summoned a reporter to Edgewood.
“Please report that the kind feelings manifested by my friends has touched me deeply,” Kate told the man from the Washington Post. “I am willing to bear anything in the defense of the truth. And the newspapers in the South, in particular, have taken my side, exhibiting a chivalry that is so characteristic of that region, for they know that I am a woman, and defenseless.”
This piece relies upon a variety of sources. The letters from Chase to his daughters have been revised and condensed from James P. McClure, Peg A. Lamphier & Erika M. Kreger, eds., “Spur Up Your Pegasus”: Family Letters of Salmon, Kate, and Nettie Chase, 1844-1873 (Kent State Univ. Press 2009), specifically at 390 (letter of May 4, 1869); id. at 154 (letter of Feb. 8, 1855); id. at 311 (letter of June 18, 1866).
The story of what happened at Canonchet and Narragansett in August 1879 can never be known for sure, as the leading players all gave conflicting accounts to the newspapers. The most recent assessment of these events is in John Oller, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal, at 183-203 (Da Capo Press 2014). Contemporaneous accounts include “Gov. Sprague’s Troubles: The Excitement at Narragansett Pier,” New York Times, Aug. 12, 1879; “The Narragansett Mystery,” New York Times, Aug. 13, 1879; “The Canonchet Affair,” New York Times, Aug. 13, 1879; “Mrs. Sprague At Her Home: Undisturbed Peace Reigning at Canonchet,” New York Times, Aug. 16, 1879; and “The Canonchet Scandal: Mrs. Sprague’s Flight From Her Home,” New York Times, Sept. 2, 1879.
Conkling’s speech to Sprague is adapted from a summation he gave at a trial in 1854, quoted in Donald Barr Chidsey, The Gentleman From New York: A Life of Roscoe Conkling, at 12-13 (Yale Univ. Press 1935). Kate’s statement to the reporter from the Washington Post is reported in “Mrs. Sprague at Home: The Daughter of the Ex-Chief Justice Safe at Edgewood,” Washington Post, Sept. 20, 1879, at 4.