By John Oller (Guest Contributor)
In this age of emails, texts, and smartphone cameras, it is harder and harder for public figures to avoid having their extra-marital affairs and other sexual hi-jinx laid bare for the world to see (just ask Tiger Woods, Anthony Weiner, or Justin Bieber). But in days of yore, unless amorous letters were written (and preserved, not burned), determining whether a well-known person was, in fact, guilty of adultery or sexual indiscretion was largely a guessing game.
In researching my biography of Kate Chase Sprague, the beautiful and politically ambitious daughter of Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, I confronted the same question that faced earlier biographers: whether she had an extra-marital affair with Roscoe Conkling, the powerful U.S. senator from New York. Rumors of their liaison persisted for years until the summer of 1879, when Kate’s husband, William Sprague discovered his wife having breakfast with Senator Conkling at the Sprague mansion in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Sprague allegedly chased Conkling out of the house with a shotgun, creating a scandal that made the front page of every major newspaper in the country.
Despite Kate’s insistent denials, most historians have assumed that she and Conkling were lovers. Still, no one has ever had any proof. But I found several new pieces of evidence that, I believe, significantly bolster the affirmative case. Most of these are mementoes and photographs of Kate that have been passed down to her descendants over the years and never seen outside her family.
For example, I was shown a small breastpin that Kate kept until her death consisting of a miniature silver sword drawn through a set of diamonds that formed the number “306.” It represents the 306 delegates at the 1880 Republican National Convention who, at Conkling’s urging, continued to support the losing effort of Ulysses S. Grant to gain the presidential nomination for a third term. In photographs taken years later, Kate can be seen wearing her “306” pin, given to her by Conkling—an indication of her strong feelings for him (image above). Indeed, the pin is one of only a handful of mementoes she kept until her death.
She also kept a bracelet with an inscription in German that reads, “I lock you into my heart and throw the key into the Rhine and now you must always be within me.” The giver is not identified, but Conkling is the logical candidate. She was photographed wearing the bracelet in 1877, the same year she and Conkling are believed to have traveled together in Europe. Upon his return to America, Conkling extolled the people and “land of the Rhine.”
I also was shown a short parting note Conkling wrote to Kate in 1883, around the time of their amicable breakup, in which, quoting Shakespeare, he alludes to the love and happiness they had found in each other, but which could not survive the envy and scorn and prurient interest of lesser people.
Finally, I discovered in the research papers of an earlier biographer the previously unpublished fact that Kate tried to visit Conkling at his deathbed in 1888. She was prevented from doing so by his wife, from whom he had long been estranged.
One might argue that none of these discoveries, in themselves, proves the existence of a physical relationship. But together with the previously known facts, I believe that this new evidence establishes the case, in the eyes of history, beyond a reasonable doubt.
John Oller is the author of American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague—Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal.