Margaret (Moncrieffe) Coghlan: The Descent from Riches to Rags (Part One of Two)

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 19, 2023
by Jane Strachan Also by this Author


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In 1805, Margaret (Moncrieffe) Coghlan’s options were running out. For more than a decade, she had been back and forth to the King’s Bench prison in London, known then as debtors prison, with a reputation for filth, overcrowding and typhus outbreaks. She had written a lengthy letter to King George III, seeking a pension for her father’s faithful service to the Crown. Her heart-wrenching, desperate request went unanswered, marking the end of Margaret’s paper trail. After that, there is silence from the once-vivacious lady about town.[1]

Ten years earlier, while on a short hiatus from debtors prison and dodging a seemingly endless line of creditors—and hoping to find her next suitable (that is, moneyed) male companion—Margaret, the high society courtesan, wrote an engaging, yet scandalous memoirin an attempt to make money. That too failed. Reading her Memoirs today is a page-turning, tell-all treasure trove of the plight faced by a woman ahead of her time, one who lived in America and London, with a stint in Paris, during a tumultuous time of global wars and revolutions based on liberty. Hers was a controversial and bold life as an early protofeminist, writing about patriarchal power, international politics, social mores that she wanted changed, and a byzantine British legal system.

Margaret Moncrieffe was destined for the good life. She was baptized on December 5, 1762 in Collessie (Fife), Scotland, the daughter of Thomas Moncrieffe, an up-and-coming British army officer with high-level military connections and close personal relationships with senior officers including Jeffery Amherst, Commander-in-Chief in North America, and Gen. Thomas Gage. Moncrieffe married the beautiful fourteen year old Margaret (Jephson) Heron, who, after having Edward Cornwallis Moncrieffe and then Margaret Maria, was in her grave before twenty. The young Margaret knew of her maternal grandfather, Capt. Patrick Heron, from the border country of Scotland, who came from a land-rich family which included the Bargaly estate in the county of Galloway, worth 5,000 pounds per year, and Vicar’s Hill in Lymington, from his first wife, AnnVining, who came from even wealthier merchants. Heron led a less than stellar military career at home and fled to Nova Scotia under questionable circumstances. He made out his will in 1748 which was probated in 1752, leaving his entire estate to his second wife, Margaret’s mother and her heirs, as sole beneficiaries.[2]

Shortly after Margaret’s mother’s passing, General Gage proposed to Moncrieffe that Margaret and Edward live with his family where they were raised until she was three. Her father, who remained mostly at British headquarters in New York City while on Gage’s staff, then sent Edward and Margaret to Dublin where she attended Miss Beard’s boarding school for the next five years. Her father married his second wife, Mary Livingston, of the Livingston dynasty in New York, and brought her to Dublin. Margaret was not fond of her stepmother, writing that her “purse” must have been “irresistible” to her father who soon returned to America, leaving his children behind until they returned to New York in 1772. Margaret came under the care of a governess for two years until her stepmother died in 1774. Six months later, Margaret had another stepmother from the wealthy Barclay family, with ties to the Jay, Roosevelt and Van Cortlandt families. Margaret liked her immensely, but in 1775 she died in childbirth, although Margaret’s stepbrother Thomas Barclay Moncrieffe survived. As Margaret’s father was now in Boston during the 1775 siege, she and her new brother were placed under the care of Frederick Jay, the younger brother of John Jay, until Margaret found herself boarding with the family of an American colonel in Elizabeth-Town, New Jersey. Soon she learned of her father’s arrival back in New York in 1776 while the British planned their attack on Long Island.[3]

While in New Jersey, Margaret was living in the midst of Patriots in the civil war against the Crown and beginning to understand the tensions between the Americans and Loyalists. Here, she experienced firsthand the divided loyalties brought about by the Revolution and the impact on families. She claimed to have heard considerable disparaging comments about her father, a staunch Loyalist, by her so-called Livingston and Jay relations and to have been treated unfavorably by them. It was her first wake-up call to the realities of war and its lasting impact on families, even on a young girl.[4] It was Margaret’s first taste of politics caused by a global war, but it would not be her last. Out of necessity, the young but self-reliant Margaret developed a strong mind of her own.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of what lay ahead for two countries about to embark on a battle for control of New York, there was some gaiety from time to time—or so it seemed. Although war was war and enemies would always be enemies in battle, Washington’s second in command in New York, Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, maintained positive personal relationships with many former British commanders from the French and Indian War when appropriate opportunities arose. Putnam remained cordial with Thomas Moncrieffe during a prisoner exchange in Boston the prior year and, as a humanitarian act, sent Moncrieffe provisions for the starving British under siege.[5]

In the summer of 1776 Major Moncrieffe was stationed on Staten Island not far from his daughter in New Jersey. Margaret was most anxious to see him, but needed a pass from the Americans to make her way to British lines. She recalled General Putnam, known for his soft touch in approving passes for Loyalists, and sent him a request. He quickly responded with an invitation to stay at his military residence with his wife and several daughters. He was willing to do a favor for a former ally and obtained Gen. George Washington’s authorization to release her to Staten Island, but only as part of an upcoming prisoner exchange granted by the Continental Congress between James Lovell, an influential Boston dissident, and Col. Philip Skene who, according to John Adams, was “contriving to debauch, seduce, and corrupt New-York.”[6]

While waiting for her pass, Putnam arranged for one of his aides de camp, Col. Samuel Webb, to bring Margaret to his headquarters at No. 1 Broadway at the southern tip of New York City. There she was treated with tenderness by Mrs. Putnam and several daughters, and introduced to General Washington and his wife, Martha. The young lady recalled that Putnam was “one of the best characters in the world; his heart being composed of those noble materials which equally command respect and admiration.” Margaret also appreciated Mrs. Putnam’s kindness, but was put to work spinning flax for shirts for the American Army, a never ending chore. Having come from a privileged background, she looked down upon their continual need to work, to which she was now subjected due to, she noted, “indolence in America being totally discouraged.” Nonetheless, Margaret managed to find time to escape to the upper floor where she found Putnam’s telescope, through which to watch British ship movements in New York Harbor near Staten Island before their mass departure for Long Island and the battle soon to take place in Brooklyn. Little did Margaret know that, as the daughter of the enemy, she was being watched.[7]

One night Margaret attended a dinner and a toast during which Washington praised the Continental Congress, turned to her and commented that she had not sipped her wine. With all eyes focused on her and unsure of what to do, she toasted Gen. William Howe, commander of the British army in America. Her comment created a stir among the Patriots, except Putnam who assured the gathering of some forty people that a fourteen year old girl could hardly have intended to offend them. Washington was not pleased with Margaret’s “temerity” or Putnam’s so-called apology for her military faux pas. Nonetheless, Washington, in his typically cool manner, offered a face-saving response and overlooked her “indiscretion” provided that she drink to his or Putnam’s health when dining at Sir William Howe’s table on Staten Island.[8]

Washington and Putnam began running out of patience with Margaret Moncrieffe when her father sent Washington a flag of truce demanding that his daughter—who he now considered to be an American prisoner—be permitted to join him on Staten Island. Washington refused his demand. Margaret saw herself as a pawn “to remain a hostage” in exchange for her father’s “good behavior.” Given the suspicious environment between Loyalists and Patriots in New York City, she was considered a British spy who lived and dined with senior American officers, all with information invaluable to the British. To prevent her escape, she was ordered to Kings Bridge, a less developed post at the north end of Manhattan. She stayed under the supervision of Gen. Thomas Mifflin and his wife, who both treated her with “tenderness” despite her status. Washington’s and Putnam’s suspicions about this daughter of a British officer may have been prescient, as mythic stories abound about Margaret’s treachery.[9]

No sooner had Margaret set foot in Kings Bridge, than her heart “received its first impression,” so powerful a jolt that it remained with her forever. She fell in love with a highly esteemed American colonel who she never named in her Memoirs, but who most believe was Aaron Burr, General Putnam’s aide de camp. Burr found reasons to visit her at Kings Bridge; she wrote to Putnam about Burr’s “proposals” and her “determination to accept them.” Putnam responded in no uncertain terms. She could not marry a man who was zealous for the cause as he would never hesitate “to drench his sword in the blood” of his closest relative should they meet in battle. After that, Putnam’s visits to King’s Bridge were never the same. He was now “reserved,” and watched her every move.[10]

Finally, Putnam received approval to release Margaret to Staten Island. Upon seeing her father she fainted in his arms, likely overcome by the welcome sight of his face and from experiencing the impact of divided loyalties on her—a young girl essentially on her own. As she wrote decades later, she realized that at the very moment she embarked on the British barge, she had “TURNED HER BACK ON LIBERTY!” For Margaret, not only was this a political observation based on Burr’s commitment to liberty, it was a heartfelt one as well.[11]

Several months later, Moncrieffe arranged for his daughter’s marriage to John Coghlan on February 24, 1777 at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, with Rev. Samuel Auchtumy, a Loyalist pastor, presiding. The marriage occurred despite her protestations and her father locking her in her room unless she acquiesced. Coghlan was a hot-tempered lieutenant in the 23rd Regiment of Foot, and had once been a midshipman to Capt. James Cook on his exploratory Pacific Ocean voyages between 1773 and 1775. Cook’s logs show Coghlan quarreling with the captain’s servant and later “confined in irons having threatened the ship’s cook with a knife,” among other lifelong behaviors of “every fashionable vice and folly . . . and attachment to the fair sex, [which] gradually involved him in poverty and ruin.” Margaret wrote that the marriage was nothing more than “honourable prostitution . . . from which Heaven alone holds forth a prospect of relief.”[12]

After their marriage, Coghlan was ordered on the British campaign that occupied Philadelphia; but soon “sold out of the army,” returned to New York and prepared to sail immediately for England. In February 1778, he took his bride to England, stopping first in Ireland with the intention of secluding her in an old mansion in Wales to, as she wrote, “break my spirit.” In an act of domestic rebellion, she escaped from this “brutish unfeeling tyrant’s” clutches, making her solitary way on foot to London.[13]

It is here that Margaret connected with Lord Thomas Pelham-Clinton (later, the Duke of Newcastle) who was known to her family and sent her twenty pounds. And just as he intended, she quickly fell within his power. He had swooped down on a helpless prey, alone in England without a pound to her name. Meanwhile, her hot-headed husband was in pursuit of Clinton and looking for a duel. She began to see the ways of Lord Clinton, a self-proclaimed nobleman who suggested she “surrender” to one of his “libertine companions” likely to deflect his errant behavior away from himself and onto a colleague to avoid her husband. Margaret was not pleased, writing decades later that people like Lord Clinton derived their status by breaching their moral boundaries which, in higher circles, were “regarded as mere fashionable levity, as the elegant nonchalance of polite life.” She added that “class distinction keeps pace with vice, and a strict observance of morality is deemed dull and insipid.” Margaret’s observations were appropriate for the time, as published criticisms about the British elite were in vogue[14]

Thomas Gage and his wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, were living in London and soon intervened. They arranged for the wayward Margaret to spend three years in a Dominican convent in Calais, France. Not long after her arrival, she received a surprise visit from Lord Clinton who assured her that he was genuinely concerned for her happiness while simultaneously greasing the skids with the convent’s superior to pave the way for Margaret’s return to London. Once again, her surrogate family intervened, setting her up with a respectable family where she lived for two years.[15]

Meanwhile, Margaret’s father, feeling pangs of fatherly guilt for abandoning his daughter at a young age, arranged for twenty-four pounds per year to be provided for her room, board and necessities by his London attorney, the distinguished solicitor and Judge-Advocate General of the British Army, Sir Charles Gould. The money was provided for seven years, including during the early years of her marriage, until 1784. She continued to follow the lure of elegance and refinement obtained from influential men. Mrs. Gage told Margaret that her father wanted her to pursue becoming a mantua maker, a high end dress maker. Margaret’s thinking was quite different. She was supposed to live a privileged life and also believed she was entitled to maintenance, essentially alimony, from her husband. Why should shework? She approached her father’s mentor, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who had known Margaret since infancy. He, too, was surprised by her father’s suggestion, believing such a path would hardly lead to a virtuous life. That was all Margaret needed. She continued to seek out Clinton, who was then embroiled in an election battle to represent the City of Westminster in Parliament against Charles James Fox, the prominent British Whig statesman, also with a notoriously colorful private life.[16]

Now the designing seventeen year old, Margaret met Charles Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish satirist, playwright, Whig politician, and owner of the London Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London’s leading theater dating back to the early 1660s. Sheridan opened the door to Margaret, who fashioned herself a stage actress, and Fox schooled her in the ways of high society and the political dialogue of the day. But, despite her view of Fox as a “zealous, enthusiastic patriot” and “ardent lover,” she, a mere giddy youth, could not secure a lasting relationship with him. Undeterred, she turned to Mr. Fazakerley, a rich and generous man who, she wrote, was“adapted to my purpose,” including supporting her and her soon-to-be born daughter, and suggesting that the father was Fox. After Fazakerley took Margaret on a four-year grand tour of Europe, she believed the association with him upgraded her “superficial knowledge” to that of a well-traveled lady. Yet, she characterized him as an unsympathetic bore who failed to deliver on his promise—a lifetime annuity of 200 pounds.[17]

Margaret entered into a short-lived relationship with Lord John Augustus Hervey, a rising star in the British Navy and later the Minister Plenipotentiary of Florence, who left her with a stillborn daughter, Augusta Maria Hervey, in October 1785. She was devastated and immediately turned to Capt. Andrew Barnard in Ireland to soothe the sorrow from her heavy loss. Although he was called away for military matters and a diplomatic life in Cape Town, South Africa, he never “omitted an occasion” to seek her out. She had two sons by him—Henry, born in 1786, and Andrew, circa 1792, both of whom he took from her (with Andrew just three months old) when he formed an “honourable connection” with the wealthy socialite and inveterate writer and artist, Lady Anne Lindsay. Margaret hoped Barnard would “never utterly  neglect his former friend, the mother of his children,” believing the worldly, forward-thinking Lady Anne would understand. Margaret bravely acknowledged her true admiration for the man she referred to as Capt. B. and rationalized that the chasm in their relationship was due to his inability to keep up with her extravagance, as most of his funds and connections came from Lady A.[18]

Margaret continued with a parade of lovers. Mr. Giffard, a gentleman of “refined sentiment,” was continually duped out of his money and business due to his naiveté when it came to “nefarious gamblers and intriguers” of every sort,” as well as the aristocracy who were not lacking in wretched “schemes of plunder and robbery against him.” He nonetheless provided Margaret with “pecuniary favours” and a lavish lifestyle including visits from royal princes and high ranking nobles, until his finances took a turn for the worse. He paid off 1,000 pounds in debt which she incurred while under his protection, leaving her with 2,000 pounds of prior debts hanging in the balance. His family replenished his bank account; she, on the other hand, was advised to leave for the continent. But first, in 1787, she did much more than that—she faked her own death to elude her creditors.[19]

Margaret reappeared in Paris and promptly picked up where she left off. It was, she wrote, her good fortune to meet at her hotel the “second Agamemnon,” Gen. William Dalrymple, a British officer and member of Parliament, a “favourite of the fair sex” and “renowned warrior, equal to both, and armed for either field.” Her “cicisbeo,” as she called him, introduced her to the “gay and brilliant circles” of Paris. And through him she met a younger “illustrious rival,” Sir Robert Harland, 2nd Baronet. An enraged Dalrymple spied on the lovers in flagrante delicto, while “dedicating to the deity of their adoration.” The next day Margaret moved to another hotel, but immediately left upon discovering her husband living there.[20]

Clearly, Margaret was addicted to the life of a courtesan. In July 1788 she met a Mr. Beckett, who had just arrived from England, at Madame Lafar’s Hotel on the fashionable Rue Caumartin (today near the Palais Garnier and La Madeleine). As Margaret described it, Beckett lived in the “greatest splendour,” entertaining those of the highest rank with Margaret center stage, much to the consternation of Beckett’s long line of “Parisian beauties.” Margaret was in her element, boasting that she was his “Sultana to preside at his table.”[21]

After four months of living in adulation and luxury, Margaret’s world came crashing down around her. Madame Lafar demanded Margaret’s overdue rent of 500 pounds. The landlady also pursued Beckett, whose father provided enough money for his son’s debts but not Margaret’s. Becket, who sought advice from a nobleman, learned that Madame Lafar was about to arrest him. And just as Giffard had done not long ago, Beckett left Margaret high and dry. He convinced her of his grave concern for her safety, while she insisted that he flee—which he did, just moments ahead of his creditors and the police. Now she too was the focus of the police.[22]

While visiting a friend with her two year old son—and seven months pregnant—one hundred men, including the police, arrived with an arrest warrant, ordering Margaret to close confinement at the Hotel de la Force, the so-called “mansion of slavery,” her crying child torn from her arms. But French law prohibited the imprisonment of pregnant women for debt; with help from highly-placed friends and through word of mouth, her situation was eventually brought to the youngest son of King Louis XVI, the Comte d’Artois, later King Charles X, who put her under his watchful eye at the Temple at Paris, the royal prison, where, unlike other prisons, she was treated with the “greatest humanity,” “delicacy” and financial relief. Here she remained for six months, while her carriages, clothing and jewelry were seized by Mr. Beckett’s creditors. Through the virtuous efforts of French citizens, she received 250 louis d’orsand returned to England ten days before the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 when, as she wrote, “Frenchmen threw off for ever the YOKE OF SLAVERY.”[23]

Despite what Margaret believed to be a positive world changing event—the beginning of a Republic in France—her own life began to spiral out of control.


[1]“Petition from Margaret Coghlan, daughter of Major Thomas Moncrieffe, (January 20, 1805),” U840/096, Kent History and Library Center, Maidstone, England.

[2]Margaret Coghlan, Memoirs of Mrs. Coghlan, (Daughter of the late Major Moncrieffe.) Written by Herself and Dedicated to the British Nation; Being Interspersed with Anecdotes of the late American and Present French War, with Remarks Moral and Political(repr., London: Printed by the Author, 1794), 15-20. Margaret Moncrieff baptism record, 1762, Old Parochial Registers for Collessie, 1696-1854, Parish Church of Collessie (Fife), Scotland, DGS 7907854 Item 4, image 773, Family Other than Margaret’s baptismal record, there are no official birth records. Ann Hurley, “Conduct Unbecoming, Patrick Heron (c1690-1752) and Ann Vining (1692-1733) at (2020); Will of Patrick Heron, October 20, 1748 and proved August 28, 1752 in Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858,, citing The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England: Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series and Class PROB 11, Piece:799.

[3]Memoirs, 20-22, including 21 for the quotations; Richard C. Cole, “A British Military Family (New York, 1775-1791,” Genealogists Magazine, vol. 24, no. 9 (March 1994), 382-385 (hereinafter Cole, British Military Family).

[4]Coghlan, Memoirs, 22-25.

[5]Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1875-1876) (Boston: Published by the Society, 1876), 269; An [British] Officer in Boston writing to his father in London, September 15, 1775 in Frank Moore (ed.), Diary of the American Revolution from Newspapers and Original Documents (New York: Charles Scribner 1860), 1:136.

[6]Coghlan, Memoirs, 25; Contemporary Copy of Letter Signed General Putnam, N. York, to Miss Montcriffe, July 26, 1776, Identifier: A0210-00065, Box 1, Folder 61, Aaron Burr Papers, Missouri Historical Society Archives, St. Louis; For the concept “Putnamized,” see Robert Troup to John Jay, June 29, 1778,; John Adams to Joseph Palmer, July 5, 1775,; Resolution, July 24, 1776, in Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), 5:607.

[7]No. 1 Broadway is now the Citibank branch on the corner of Broadway and Battery Place in lower Manhattan. Coghlan, Memoirs, 26 and 27, for the quotations.

[8]Coghlan, Memoirs, Ibid.,27.

[9]Ibid.,28 and 29. For suspicion that Margaret may have been a British spy, see Elizabeth Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (repr., New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850), 3:357-365. See also John R. Chapin, “The Female Spy,” The Historical Picture Gallery, Scenes and Incidents of American History (Boston: Bigelow Co., 1856), 3:331-332.

[10]Coghlan, Memoirs, 29-32, 29, 31 and 32.

[11]Ibid.,32-36, 33; Caroline Breashers, Eighteenth CenturyWomen’s Writingand the ‘ScandalousMemoir’(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 93.

[12]Names of Persons For Whom Marriage Licenses were Issued by the Secretary of the province of New York Previous to 1784 (Albany: Week, Parsons and Company, 1860), 35; Cook’s Log, vol. 21, no.1 (1998):1485 and vol. 23, no. 1 (2000):1717. See also “John Coghlan (~1754 -1807)” in Cook’s Log, vol. 36, no. 3 (2013):40, citing the Annual Register for “ vice and folly.”Coghlan, Memoirs, 39-42, 41 and 42.

[13]Coghlan, Memoirs, 43-47, 44 and 46.

[14]Ibid.,48-55, 51; Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce. England 1530-1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 7.

[15]Coghlan, Memoirs, 53-55.

[16]“An Account Book of the financial transactions of Major Thomas Moncrieffe,” File, MSS/308, Fonds GB 0210 TREDGAR – Tredgar Estate Records from the National Library of Wales; Cole, British Military Family, 381; Coghlan, Memoirs, 55-57. Italics by the author.

[17]Coghlan, Memoirs, 57-62, 59 and 60.

[18]Ibid.,62-64, 63 and 64. Augusta Maria Hervey, October 10, 1785, St. Marylebone Parish Church, Middlesex Co., Eng., Parish Registers, Baptisms 1785-1798, vol. no. P89 MRY 1 8, DGS 8041076, image 119, Family Henry Augustus Barnard, December 1, 1786, of Margaret Maria Coghlan by Andrew Barnard Esq., St. Marylebone Parish Church, Middlesex Co., Eng., Parish Registers, Baptisms 1785-1798, vol. no P89 MRY 1 8, DGS 8041076, image 131, Andrew’s second marriage record of 1855 shows his age as sixty-three and his father as Andrew Barnard; hence, his date of birth was calculated to be circa 1792. See Andrew’s and Rose Emeline Swaine’s marriage record, October 9, 1855, Darjeeling, Bengal, India, British India Office Marriages, Archive reference N-1-88, Folio no. 400,

[19]Coghlan, Memoirs,65-69, 65 and 66. Death record for Mrs. Margaret Coghlan, late of John C. and daughter of Col. Moncrieff in “Obituaries of Considerable Persons,” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Part 1, vol. 57, issue 6, (June 1787): 548.

[20]Coghlan, Memoirs, 69-72, 69, 70 and 71.



[23]Ibid.,76-84, 77 and 84.

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