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 governor and senator runs through the street with a shotgun, that’s the sort of thing that is hard to hush up.
By 1879, William Sprague was out of office for some four years. Born into a wealthy and powerful Rhode Island family, his father had been murdered in 1843. The man who was executed for the crime was probably innocent.
William Sprague was a one-time dashing boy governor of the Ocean State who had risen in business, developing manufacturing and printing technologies. Then politics, as governor and then senator. And society. In 1863, he married Kate Chase, daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary Salmon Chase.
Kate was 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, which she did. 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 future had taken a turn for the worse. His fortune had been decimated by 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, was about to implode on a national stage.
On August 8, 1879 at the Sprague family summer home in Narragansett Pier, Sprague caused a stir – to put it mildly. He was seen running through the town threatening someone with a gun. That was the sum total of the initial reports.
Then a name was put to that someone Sprague was chasing. It was Professor George Linck, a German music teacher hired by Kate Chase Sprague to tutor their four children. Linck furnished a statement to the press that the whole matter was a big misunderstanding between himself and Senator Sprague.
The press, however, was incredulous. The Chicago Tribune noted that Linck’s statement was “only remarkable for its length and bad grammar, and for which the much-abused Teuton was handsomely rewarded, if reports from reliable sources are to be believed.”
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 and why had he distributed 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.”
As the Linck explanation fell apart, more questions emerged about Roscoe Conkling’s role in the matter. Why was he in Rhode Island? The story that he and Sprague had unfinished business didn’t wash. To the public, the story was taking 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 Sprague had been confronted by the professor, perhaps angry over not being paid, and when he saw the German become furious ... he ordered the man to leave, and seizing a double-barreled shotgun, threatened to kill him if he did not go. Mr. Sprague had previously informed some of the guests that they had better go as it was probable there would be a murder in the house.
“Senator Conkling was at Mr. Sprague’s house during this altercation but saw nothing of it as he was in the library at the time some distance from the scene. It appears that Mr. Sprague had consulted Senator Conkling in Washington some months ago upon a business matter connected with the settlement of the Sprague estate, and, as the business was unfinished, and as it had been intimated to Senator Conkling that Mr. Sprague wished to see him again about it, the Senator went over to the Pier from Newport, in a yacht with a party of Friends."
As he waited in the library, 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 and saw to it that the guests were taken to town. "He then walked to the village of Narragansett Pier, a half-mile or so from the house. 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 report that Senator Conkling had a personal encounter with ex-Senator Sprague, and was shot by him, has no foundation whatever. Nothing of the kind occurred, and the only thing to give rise to the story is what is above related.
"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."
Senator Conkling then retreated to the home of Senator 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, that his wife was planning divorce proceedings against him and that a separation had already occurred. Meanwhile, professor Linck was getting cold feet about his role as the fall guy and 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, and why divorce proceedings should be begun if this story is simply the three black crows over again, and the cause for all the trouble was the unfortunate German for whom Sprague developed so strong an antipathy."
The New York Herald blasted away:
"Senator Conkling still remains silent in regard to the Sprague affair at Narragansett Pier, and he 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. He may endeavor to defy decency by a professed contempt for public opinion, but his position is too prominent to allow of the scandal to pass unnoticed. A continued silence on his part is a confession of guilt and the people will judge him accordingly."
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. He was a laughing stock. Conkling was a powerbroker in the Senate and had harbored hopes of selecting the next president if not running for the office himself. He was now disgraced. 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 – the theory being that she wouldn’t give up her share of the family wealth and he wouldn’t be able to prove she was unfaithful. 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 the entire story of Sprague and Conkling’s confrontation had been made up by Sprague. The hope was it would distance Kate from the story of her infidelity.
Kate, in her divorce suit, blistered her husband. She charged Sprague with numerous incidents of adultery, cruelty and drunkenness. He had repeatedly told their children that he was not their father. On one occasion, she said, he had 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 he was mortified by Kate's infidelity. "While I was able to manage everything connected with my political and business life, I could not control my domestic affairs. That was a great mortification, but I never mentioned it to a single person until I found Conkling in possession of my household at Washington. Then I called upon Mrs. Sprague's personal friends and the friends of her father to save her from what I had before been able to protect her. When Conkling was introduced to my house I found it utterly impossible to control her, or save her from the subsequent consequences.
“As to the details from that time to the time Conkling was driven out of my house 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.
"I have been reluctant on account of the children to examine the situation, but have come to the conclusion that, if they grow up they would never thank me for a course that would palliate a great crime, because it would destroy their moral and intellectual life if they were forced to be subjected to it. I shall leave no stone unturned to bring Mrs. Sprague's whole life out and the crowning iniquity, in my belief, is the Conkling relationship.”
Sprague vowed never to settle the case. But he did. After a year of sniping, during which young Willie, the couple’s son, was charged with trying to shoot his mother’s trustee when he tried to retrieve some belongings from the Narragansett estate, the two sides settled in 1882. All charges of adultery were dropped and instead the case focused on William’s non-support of Kate. Kate took custody of the three daughters, William the son, Willie.
The remainder of the story is a sad one. Kate died in poverty in 1899. Only a handful of people attended the funeral of the woman who was once the most prominent socialite in Washington. 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 was after one of his daughters.