When you are a spy, you want to go unnoticed. With a colorful name like Hercules Mulligan, that can sometimes be difficult, especially if you are also a prominent businessman in British-occupied Manhattan during the American Revolution. Recent popular history has focused heavily on the Culper Ring, but Mulligan was not one of the Culpers. His star turn in recent popular history comes not from the Culper vehicle Turn,but from his inclusion as a character in the hit 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton.
The play has brought Mulligan’s name and legend into the spotlight in recent years. Hamilton is a Hip-Hop take on the life of Alexander Hamilton masterfully told by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on the book of the same title by Ron Chernow. Hamilton is ostensibly non-fiction, though “artistic license” is exercised in places. On the other hand, the life of the real Hercules Mulligan sounds as if it could be fictional. Miranda, in an interview, admitted he could have included many other figures in Hamilton who had bigger roles in Hamilton’s life, but “they don’t have the name Hercules Mulligan, so sorry guys!” Though according to Mulligan’s character in Hamilton, he “needs no introduction,” a song in the show describes him as a New York tailor who while “running with the Sons of Liberty” also does business with the British occupiers, takes their “information and then I smuggle it.” What else did he do? The most recent books that discuss Mulligan’s life, as well as the many web sites that enumerate his accomplishments, include the following (not all are reported by every source):
• He was an early proponent of American independence
• He provided a room for Hamilton while the young future Treasury Secretary attended King’s College, and was a close confidant of Hamilton, heavily influencing his political thinking.
• He was a member of the Sons of Liberty in New York and one of sixty members of New York’s Committee of Observation.
• He participated in “The Battle of Golden Hill”, a Boston-massacre-like event that occurred in New York six weeks prior to its more famous counterpart.
• He used a drunken conversation with New York City Mayor David Mathews to uncover and help thwart the “Hickey plot” to assassinate General Washington.
• Was part of the mob who tore down the statue of King George shortly after independence was declared.
• He was a member of the Committee of 100 in New York and played a major role in the political maneuverings that determined the first New York delegation to the Continental Congress.
• He carried an escape plan from a New York City committee to George Washington when Washington was seemingly trapped in Brooklyn after the battle of Long Island. Washington used this plan to escape to Manhattan.
• He became an intelligence source for Washington within British-occupied New York City, sometimes working in conjunction with Culper Ring members.
• His gathered intelligence revealed Howe’s plan to sail south to Charleston in 1779, based on British requests for lighter-weight uniforms.
• He was arrested by the British after being singled out by Benedict Arnold as a potential intelligence operative. At his trial, he utilized the gift of gab, his “Irish blarney,” to talk his way out of a conviction.
• His intelligence work in New York identified two separate plots to capture Washington, one in 1779 and the other in 1781. Both plots were thwarted, thus the claim that Mulligan twice saved Washington’s life (three times if you count the Hickey plot).
• In recognition of the pivotal role he played inside New York during the War, Washington had breakfast at his home the morning after the British evacuation of New York.
• Though at one time he was a slaveholder (his alleged slave, Cato, was reportedly his frequent intelligence runner), he was a member of the New York Manumission Society.
This brings us to the question: Did he really accomplish all the feats attributed to him? What does the historical record say?
The best sources are primary sources, i.e., documents that were created by an individual or people with whom they interacted as part of their daily lives. Mulligan immediately presents a difficult challenge, especially where his spying activities are concerned. Good intelligence sources do not stay good intelligence sources by leaving a paper trail. If Mulligan were even half as good as his legend, there should be precious little documentation with respect to his intelligence activities (as in fact is the case).
The next best option is a review of writings created later in Mulligan’s life, perhaps by himself as an old man reflecting on his glory days, or perhaps written about him by others. But in sources like this, deeds can become magnified and rendered more heroic through the prism of advancing time. The fish in the fish story starts to grow and it increases in size as it is retold by descendants and historians alike.
The other challenge is one of logic. It is just about impossible to prove conclusively that Mulligan did not do the things history has attributed to him. There could always be another document or set of documents to which we do not have access, because either we cannot find them, nobody has found them, or they have been lost or destroyed.
Having noted all the obstacles to overcome, these are the three most notable actions attributed to him:
• His discovery of the “Hickey plot”
• The 1779 intelligence which purportedly saved Washington’s life.
• Further intelligence in 1781 which again “saved Washington’s life”
While mundane biographical aspects (membership on various committees, etc.) are easier to verify, the details of his life-saving heroics are simultaneously the most sensational and the most difficult to prove. Concentrating on them does not mean disregarding other facts about Mulligan’s life. Looking into those helps build the story by establishing Mulligan’s bona-fides and may (or may not) reflect on the credibility of the rest of the narrative. If a story cannot be verified, maybe its roots can be uncovered
First some basic biographical details on Mulligan: he was born in Coleraine, Ireland, in 1740 and immigrated to New York around age six. Reportedly large in stature and possessing a gregarious, larger-than-life persona befitting his first name, he became a tailor in New York in the mid-1770s. He married Elizabeth Sanders, the niece of Royal Navy Admiral Charles Sanders, a marriage that could have provided him access to information about British plans and strategies. One other useful connection was his brother, Hugh, who worked for the firm of Kortright and Company, a supplier to the British army during the war that also conducted pre-war business in Hamilton’s native West Indies. Over the years Mulligan developed a strong reputation in the clothing business in lower Manhattan, eventually supplying clothing to President Washington. He also did business with many British soldiers and loyalists, providing another potential source of intelligence. Mulligan retired from his business at age eighty and died five years later, in 1825.
There are few source documents to verify Mulligan’s activities. As to secondary sources, the two accounts written closest to the events are by the relatives of Hamilton (son John C., in 1834) and Washington (his step grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, in 1859). Both were written well after the fact and by descendants who did not witness the events they describe.
In the last hundred years, the two major sources are a biography by Michael J. O’Brien, Hercules Mulligan: Confidential Correspondent of General Washington, published in 1937, and a chapter called “Hercules Mulligan: The Affable Spy”, in Paul R. Misencik’s 2013 book Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War.
Mulligan’s first appearance on the stage of history came through his associations with Alexander Hamilton. The precocious Hamilton came to colonial New York under the auspices of several merchants doing business in the West Indies, a group that included Hugh Mulligan. After Hamilton failed to get into Princeton on the accelerated program he sought, he enrolled in King’s College in Manhattan. Hamilton needed a place to stay, and Hugh arranged to have him board with Hercules and his family in lower Manhattan.
The association with Hamilton ultimately resulted in the most extensive known surviving piece of writing by Mulligan himself. Hamilton’s son, John, writing a biography of his father, requested written recollections from two close confidants of Hamilton: Robert Troup and Mulligan. Those accounts demonstrate some of the problems with historical recall: “elisions, distortions and downright falsehoods were slavishly copied by generations of succeeding historians.”
Mulligan’s contribution, “The Narrative of Hercules Mulligan,” runs just over 1,300 words. As Hamilton was the subject, the Narrative does not provide much detail about Mulligan’s exploits, except where Hamilton was involved. It makes no mention of Hercules having saved Washington’s life, which would have been out of context. It does not help, from a credibility standpoint, that Mulligan make numerous errors, some in dates (he is off by two years on Hamilton’s enrollment date at King’s College), but others more fundamental to the story. The narrative does establish the close relationship between Hamilton and Mulligan, and this is important as it was Hamilton, as the story goes, who recruited Mulligan into Washington’s service as an intelligence operative inside New York. The Narrative was written sometime between 1810 and 1815 and covers a period that ran from Hamilton’s beginnings in the Continental Army, well before any recruitment for spying would have occurred.
One of the few source documents I could find that hinted at Mulligan’s intelligence activities in New York on Washington’s behalf is a 1780 letter to the general from Benjamin Tallmadge (under his pseudonym John Bolton) which discusses the activities of “Mr. Mullegan” and “C—– Junr” (the name for Robert Townsend, the Culper Ring’s main operative in New York). It is an unusual example of names of intelligence operatives appearing in a letter.
Aside from the Narrative, there is little firsthand material as to Mulligan’s interactions with Hamilton, though popular histories indicate that their relationship was quite close. A letter from Mulligan to Hamilton in 1785 (a receipt for funds Hamilton paid Mulligan) and an entry in Hamilton’s cash book are the only known documents which show any association between Hamilton and Mulligan.
The “Hickey Plot”
According to the story, some members of Washington’s personal guard were compromised, most prominently a soldier named Thomas Hickey. There was allegedly a plan to capture or assassinate Washington in New York in early 1776. The plot was led by Governor William Tryon and involved a large number of persons, including New York Mayor David Mathews, who allegedly was the paymaster for their activities. Accounts differ on how the plot was broken but loose talk either in taverns or prisons appears to have led to its discovery. In neither case is there evidence that talk fell on the ears of Hercules Mulligan. By one account, Mulligan was a member of a committee of thirteen men appointed by Congress to investigate the rumored conspiracy and participated in some questioning of suspects. Beyond this, I could find no evidence of Mulligan’s involvement.
Mulligan’s role, as described by Misencik, is much more direct. Mayor Mathews, a customer of Mulligan and a heavy drinker, was in Mulligan’s shop for a fitting. Mulligan, mixing business and pleasure, drank with and chatted up the Mayor as he worked, keeping the flow of liquor going as Mathews became increasingly loose-lipped, starting to “ramble on about how the British were going to bag the rebel General Washington.” This naturally grabbed Mulligan’s attention, and the clothier carefully pumped the Mayor for more details. According to Mathews, members of “Washington’s own guard were willing to accept hard currency to betray their master . . . they preferred to kidnap Washington, but the contingency plan was to poison the meal of buttered peas, lettuce and ham that Washington was fond of.” Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Mulligan hastily shooed out Mathews and sought to inform Washington. He made about half the three-mile trip to Washington’s headquarters on horseback before running into Hamilton, who relayed the information to Washington which, combined with the prison intelligence mentioned above from the conventional story, stopped the conspiracy. Hickey was hanged, while the remaining conspirators including Mathews, were jailed in Connecticut.
What can we conclude? Perhaps invoking Occam’s Razor, the more conventional stories about how the alleged plot was uncovered are the most likely. I found no reference to Mulligan’s chat with the drunken mayor in any other secondary source, let alone in a primary source.
The First Attempt on Washington’s Life (1779):
This event is described by both O’Brien and Misencik using the text of John C. Hamilton in his biography of his father, first released in 1834. Hamilton said that a plot “was formed on the person of Washington. He had appointed to meet some officers at a designated place. Information was given by a female in the tory interest, and the necessary arrangements were made to seize him, but timely intelligence frustrated the attempt.” Hamilton’s book has a footnote describing how the intelligence was obtained:
A partisan officer, a native of New York, called at the shop of Mulligan late in the evening, to obtain a watch-coat. The late hour awakened curiosity. After some inquiries, the officer vauntingly boasted, that, before another day, they would have his rebel General in their hands. This staunch patriot, as soon as the officer left him, hastened unobserved to the wharf, and despatched a billet by a negro, giving information of the design.
This is a secondary source, written closest to the event than any other. O’Brien, writing about this story, admits that “Hamilton does not refer to any particular authority for this interesting statement, but when we bear in mind that he knew Hercules Mulligan well and that the [Mulligan] family papers show that John W. Mulligan [Hercules’ son] was an intimate friend of both Alexander Hamilton and his son, it is evident the latter had a means of obtaining the information from first hand source”
O’Brien’s assertion is long on inferences and short on verifiable information. On the other hand, Hamilton has no real motivation to glorify Mulligan’s achievements. This does not mean the story was not exaggerated over the fifty-five years between the event and when John Hamilton published his book. But in substance, if not in detail, the story carries some credibility.
What can we conclude? Mulligan’s involvement here appears more likely than in the Hickey story; it is at least being related by someone who had access to direct information, John C. Hamilton. However, we do not know enough specifics about the plot itself to know whether alternative explanations might have more credence.
The Second Attempt on Washington’s Life (1781)
According to O’Brien’s account, in early March 1781 Washington was to make a trip from his headquarters in New Windsor, New York, to Newport, Rhode Island, to confer with French General Rochambeau. The British got word of this movement and sent a force of 300 Dragoons up the East River and across Long Island Sound to intercept him along the way as he passed through Lebanon, Connecticut. Hugh Mulligan found out about the British plan because it was being provisioned through Kortright. Hugh relayed this information to Hercules, who in turn relayed the information to Washington. This narrative concludes that the capture was averted when Washington took a different and more secure route, arriving in Newport on March 6.
Misencik’s account of events is, again, somewhat more intricate, with the intelligence following a more circuitous route but still eventually arriving at Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Lafayette, on duty with Washington away in New Windsor, immediately forwarded the note to the general. The warning reached Washington in time for the appropriate security precautions to be implemented. The British plot subsequently failed.
There is much to dissect in these two accounts, and some primary source data to support it. Lafayette, stationed in Morristown, received a note indicating “There is about 300 Cavalry of the Enemie gon on Long Island, from intelligence going to the Easterd, at same time a number of Boats went up the sound, Sir Hary this day seed them off, which Vessels were to carrie them accross the sound, & supposed their Object is His Excellency Genl Washington.” Lafayette quickly dispatched a letter to Washington with this note attached, on February 25. The general, still in New Windsor, responded just a day later, saying “I do not think it very probable that three hundred Dragoons will trust themselves in the heart of Connecticut with a superior regular Corps and the force of the Country to oppose them, but I have nevertheless given the intelligence to Duke Lauzun.” Duke Lauzun was the commander of a French legion then encamped at the target site for the alleged British plot, Lebanon, Connecticut.
It is possible, through Washington’s correspondence, to map his day-by-day stops on his way to Newport. His route through Connecticut was not a coastal one as the original story stated, but inland. It traversed Lebanon on March 5. Thus, although the intelligence may have alerted Washington of a planned attempt to be made on his life, it does not appear that the threat was averted by changing his route. Indeed, in the letter quoted above, Washington sounds somewhat unconcerned about the threat, telling Lafayette he was forwarding the information to Lauzun but making it sound like an afterthought.
We must ask, what was the source of the intelligence Lafayette forwarded to Washington? Was it Mulligan? The cryptic signature on the note read “John Adam Comy Prisrs,” but according to O’Brien, it originated from Hercules Mulligan, though there is no documentary evidence to confirm this. Other secondary sources indicate the intelligence originated in New York City, but they do not identify Mulligan as the source either.
What can we conclude? It appears there was indeed a threat to Washington’s life. The correspondence did go through Morristown, where Lafayette received it. Primary sources all support this. Did the intelligence, be it from Mulligan or someone else, save Washington’s life? Possibly, but apparently not by causing him to change his route. Washington was notoriously unconcerned for his personal safety, which could explain why he seems to have taken the threat relatively lightly. He thought Lauzun’s superior force would have the situation well in hand, which apparently was the case.
Based on the primary source record:
• The Hickey story is not unsupported.
• The 1779 thwarted plot against Washington appears possible.
• The 1781 plot is likelier still, being mentioned in the letter received by Lafayette.
The details surrounding Hercules Mulligan’s involvement in any of the incidents, if he had any, are not supported by any primary sources I have been able to uncover.
What accounts for the richly detailed and heroic accounts of the deeds attributed to Hercules Mulligan? Irish national pride was a major factor in O’Brien’s book. He makes no bones about his mission to correct a perceived historical slight which robbed Mulligan of the credit he so richly deserved. At one point, he asks “why the historians of the Revolution failed to mention the part he played in those stirring times is difficult to understand. . . . There are numerous instances of historical works wherein Mulligan’s countrymen were similarly ignored.”. He later adds that “it is a sad but undeniable fact that the Irish in America have long neglected the memories of their unheralded heroes . . . certain historians, whose early training and environment, perhaps, may have been in an anti-Irish atmosphere.” O’Brien also hammers on this theme in a precursor to his book, a 1927 piece in the Journal of the Irish American Historical Society.
The Misencik book has even more detailed accounts of each event than those told by O’Brien. Most notable is the unsourced narrative of the Mulligan-Mathews drunken interaction revealing the Hickey plot. I reached out to the author through his website to attempt to clarify the sourcing of this but received no response.
Another factor is undoubtedly the inevitable enhancement of stories that are passed down through families. O’Brien may have been the link that moved the story from a family history to its inclusion in the history books (with the exception of the story of the first attempt on Washington’s life, which was already in the history books by way of John C. Hamilton). O’Brien mentions contact in the course of his research with several Mulligan descendants, including Mrs. Grace Wheeler Lawrence, “a descendant of Hercules through his son, John W. Mulligan.” Lawrence produced an “old blue dinner plate” that “has come down in her family from the wife of John Mulligan, the grandson of Hercules, and that the tradition is that it was used by Washington.” O’Brien reports that Lawrence was “unable to assure me, however, that it is the identical plate which Washington used.” O’Brien’s conclusion: “there can be very little doubt about it.”
O’Brien discusses reviewing various other family artifacts, including a chair reportedly used by Washington, with Hercules’great-granddaughter Ellen Mulligan and his great-grandson Edward Howell Mulligan. These contacts, combined with O’Brien’s zeal to right a historical wrong, make it likely that his book is the crossover point where the full family story became published history, though popular accounts include much more detail than even O’Brien’s biography supplies. A possible descendant (though she does not identify herself as one), Luciel Mulligan, cements the story with a richly detailed narrative in the March 1971 issue of Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, as does a five-page Winter 1985 release by the Central Intelligence Agency about Mulligan entitled “I Keep Me Ears Open,” which, though it gives the story imprimatur of the CIA, cites no primary sources.
Perhaps the most convincing examples failing to support Hercules Mulligan’s involvement come from books written by esteemed historian Ron Chernow. Writing both Hamilton, which was the genesis of the Mulligan reputation in modern popular history, and an equally thorough biography of Washington, Chernow was probably in the best position to integrate stories involving Mulligan and Washington and incorporate any more recent scholarship on the topic. Yet his biography of Washington makes no mention of Mulligan within its 800+ pages. Neither do his numerous references to Mulligan in Hamilton include any of the three stories analyzed above. The fact that a historian as accomplished and thorough as Chernow does not mention these stories casts significant doubts about their truth. Incidentally, Hamilton the musical, notwithstanding any poetic license it may take, makes no mention of Mulligan having thwarted any plots against Washington. I also reviewed a sampling of other Washington biographies, finding no reference to Mulligan.
The story of Hercules Mulligan becomes a cautionary tale in how history is created and evolves through the years. While many of the basic facts about him are true and can be traced to source documents, the deeds that give his story its “sizzle” and the notoriety it has attained in modern times are largely unsupported by either primary sources or even secondary sources written relatively close to the time of the events. The reality of those parts of his story remains unknown and possibly unknowable.
Mulligan and claims of his amazing feats are appealing as history. Though the historical record does not always bear him out, we can state that one line by his character in the musical is certain: He needs no introduction!
“Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone Magazine, January 16, 2016,‘Hamilton’ Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Rolling Stone Interview – Rolling Stone.
John C. Hamilton, History of the Republic of the United States of America: as traced in the writings of Alexander Hamilton and of his contemporaries, 2nd edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1864), 1: 46.
Minutes of a Conspiracy Against the Liberties of America (Philadelphia: John Campbell, 1865). Within this book is a transcript entitled Minutes of The Trial and Examination of Certain Persons, In the Province Of New York, Charged with Being Engaged in a Conspiracy Against the Authority, of the Congress, And the Liberties of America (London: Printed for J. Bew, No. 28, Pater-Noster-Row, 1776).
Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette to Washington, February 25, 1781, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-04997.This quote is from the original intelligence report attached to this letter.
 Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., The Writings of George Washington(New York: G.P. Putnam’ Sons, 1889-93), 9: 166. This information is not part of anything written by Washington, but is in a footnote by the editor.
They include, John Marshall, The Life of George Washington (Philadephia: Crissy & Markley, 1846), Jared Sparks, The Life of George Washington (Boston: Charles Tappan, 1852), G. W. Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Step Grandson, G.W. Parke Custis (Washington, CD: W. H. Moore, 1859), James Thomas Flexner, Washington (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1969-1974), Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), Joseph Ellis, His Excellency (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2010). Sparks mentions the Hickey plot.