Back in the Day

The narcissism of William Sprague

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Kate Chase Sprague and her daughter sat on one side of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Narragansett while her ex-husband, William Sprague IV, sat on the other side with his new wife. The gold-mounted, solid rosewood coffin at the front of the church was so covered in floral arrangements it was barely visible.

Kate arose and walked toward the coffin. Her attorney had received a promise from William that he would have the lid of the coffin removed for a moment so that Kate could cast her eyes one last time upon the young man inside. But William now changed his mind, and Kate dissolved into tears as she sank back into her pew. In just a couple of hours, her only son would be placed within the Sprague family tomb at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. She would never see his face again.

Catherine Jane Chase, often referred to as “Kate,” was the daughter of Salmon Portland Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. Both her mother and her stepmother died when she was young and she spent much of her childhood in boarding schools. Intelligent beyond her years and an exquisitely beautiful young woman, she gained the attention of many well-to-do men when accompanying her father to political gatherings. Perhaps it was ill fortune that led her path to cross that of William Sprague during the dedication of a monument to Oliver Hazard Perry in Ohio in 1861.

William’s Cranston family owned the famous A & W Sprague Company, a small business that had exploded into a wealth-building empire. Despite having no political experience, William had now been elected governor of Rhode Island, and it was assumed by many that his family had purchased the position for him.

While money talked, William wasn’t particularly well liked. Serving as leader of the First Rhode Island Regiment, all of the men under him packed up and left camp. Furious, he demanded that more troops be sent. When none came, he too packed up and went home. He spoke discourteously to those employed in his family mills and talked down to people on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

But he was magnetic at the same time; dashing and debonair, full of confidence and bravado. Twenty-year-old Kate Chase fell for him. He was aware of her fondness for him and told her so in a letter, which also explained his fondness for himself. The relationship began to blossom. Then it stopped. William had found someone else equally enthralled with him, a Providence woman named Mary Viall. He had no further contact with Kate until Mary informed him she was pregnant. William’s interest in Kate was reignited and attention to Mary ceased.

On Nov. 12, 1863, William and Kate were married. The union was anything but happy, and Kate soon learned she was more of a prisoner than a wife. William spent money lavishly while refusing to tell her what he spent it on. She was never allowed, however, to keep a single cent on her person. When she attempted to explain to him how this made her feel, he shared his response through a letter, as he often did rather than speak to her directly. He told her he hoped she was not going to prove herself a “burden” to him, through such complaints.

The discourse in the marriage was no secret to those close to the two families. All could see that Kate was not happy. On one occasion, she spoke to her father about the situation and William found out. He wrote her yet another letter, forbidding her to ever speak to another person about their matrimonial issues and offering to forgive her this one time as “a special favor.”

Kate gave birth to their first child and only son, William “Willie” Sprague V, in 1865. Daughter Ethel followed in 1869, Katherine in 1872 and Portia in 1873. Despite having a family to support, William’s money found other uses and Kate would often have to beg him for money to be used on necessities, which he would refuse to supply. Finally, unable to take anymore, she packed up the children and moved to Europe.

Soon, she received a letter from him informing her that he intended on entertaining other women and that she should not blame him for that as he enjoyed indulging in such things. When she responded, stating that she simply did not care what he did with other women, he was made furious by her lack of jealousy. His ire grew when an announcement by her was published in newspapers, explaining that she had left her wealthy and well-known husband due to his refusal to support her and their children, as well as his neglect and indecency. She then hired a divorce attorney.

William threatened that if Kate went through with the divorce, he would legally take the children from her. Rhode Island law supported fathers in being granted complete custody following a divorce. Kate’s lawyer advised her to stop the proceedings, lest she lose her children. She did as he said but sent another announcement to the newspapers to explain her change of plans: “I bore with meekness the unmanly sneers and reproaches showered upon me, not responding save when my children’s relations to me were touched upon.”

This caused explosive anger in William, and he went to the court and demanded custody anyway. He took the children back to his home in Narragansett. Unwilling to be separated from her children, Kate returned to her husband. This was an opportunity for him to tell everyone that Kate had returned home and that it was for the best because she was suffering from a mental illness.

After enduring all the psychological abuse she could handle under William’s roof once again, she took the children and escaped while he was sleeping. Despite her attorney’s advice, she filed for divorce again and asked for her personal possessions in the house. William retorted that nothing in the house belonged to her. He then filed his own divorce petition, perhaps believing the split wouldn’t be so humiliating if it appeared he had chosen it. In 1882, Kate was granted her divorce and custody of her children. Less than a year later, William married again.

Now poverty-stricken, Kate supported herself and her children by selling milk, eggs and vegetables door to door.

By 1890, 25-year-old Willie was trying to find himself in the world. He moved around often, starting then leaving a string of jobs. That autumn, he was working as a manager in the engraving department of the Seattle Journal in Washington. On Oct. 7, he didn’t show up for work and a co-worker went to his boarding house looking for him. A half-filled bottle of chloroform lay on the floor beside the bed and a sheet which had been wetted with chloroform was wrapped around Willie’s head.

Upon receiving the tragic news of her son’s suicide, Kate penned a letter to her ex-husband: “This terrible blow ends our poor boy’s life of struggle and disappointment. If God forgives you, he will be merciful indeed. For, at your door, lies this unmerciful crime.”

After the church services, as the pallbearers picked up the coffin, Kate attempted to approach the box again but the Sprague family crowded in front of her, blocking her access as her son was carried away. As the funeral party departed for the cemetery, she stayed behind, sitting in the pew, sobbing hysterically.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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