Margaret (Montcrieffe) Coghlan: The Making of Her Memoirs (Part Two of Two)

Autobiography and Biography

September 21, 2023
by Jane Strachan Also by this Author


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Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan was many things—the privileged daughter of a highly-regarded British Army officer who served in North America, an alleged British spy, hapless wife, high society courtesan, scandalous and political memoirist—and last, a woman hounded by creditors in London and Paris who ensured that she served time in debtors prison. (Read Part One.)

No sooner had Margaret left prison in Paris and set foot back in London, that creditors, like hungry wolves going in for the kill, surrounded her. There seemed to be no way out from her financial woes, which, she claimed, ranged from five pounds owed to some creditors and enormous sums to others. She passionately and convincingly wrote of the tangled web of designing merchants, a corrupt prison system in need of reform, and unprincipled attorneys expecting their emoluments—noting that the “whole augean stable must be cleansed.” Nonetheless, with no viable alternatives, she enlisted the support of an attorney, identified by her only as Mr. P., who she claimed took advantage of her situation for his own financial gain. And under the pretense of taking her to a bailiff, he arranged for her arrest, “dragged to a spunging-house” for seven weeks until Easter 1790 when she was moved to the King’s Bench prison for the next two years.[1]

Margaret had come to believe that she had no way out of her insurmountable problems. And she was right. The patriarchal norms of the time could never work in her favor. Nor could the legal system. Combined, the social mores and legal environment resulted in women’s forced dependence on men, a long entrenched system that gave married women little way out of predicaments like Margaret’s.

Coverture, a little known word today, is a legal doctrine from English common law that determined a married woman’s legal existence. The concept of coverture is best described by the influential jurist of the time, William Blackstone, in his seminal work, Commentaries on the Laws of England published in the mid to late 1760s. Blackstone wrote:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated in to that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore . . . under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.[2]

From birth, a young girl was “covered” by her father and upon marriage her legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband. A wife was not a full judicial being in the eyes of the common law and possessed few legal rights. She could not sue or be sued, form contracts or buy or sell property apart from her husband. Even her personal property, including clothing and jewelry, were not her own. In essence, coverture limited the rights of the wife and broadened those of the husband. Legal separation and divorce were rare and frowned upon by all classes of society. As Margaret aptly noted, the “horrid chains of matrimony” could never be “dissolved but by his death or mine.”[3]

Dealing with the British legal system did little to help Margaret’s situation. And little wonder. According to well-respected social historian Lawrence Stone, the system was a “dense, complex and bewildering jungle.” To step into the “machinery of the law” was to “penetrate the heart of darkness.” Aware of the perils of coverture, Margaret would, nonetheless, enter into its dark abyss.[4]

While in prison, Margaret was advised to sue her husband, then living in London with another woman he called his wife. In early 1790, she filed for “Divorce or Separation from bed and board and mutual Cohabitation by reason of Cruelty and Adultery” by her husband in the Consistory Court of London. Judge Sir William Scott sentenced John Coghlan to a temporary court-ordered alimony of 170 pounds a year for necessities while the case was pending. Coghlan failed to comply with the order and was publically excommunicated from his parish church, St. George’s at Hanover-Square.[5]

On further advice, in March 1791, Margaret appealed to the Court of Delegates, which, she believed, may have caused some “tender feelings” on her husband’s part as he promised an adequate settlement—provided that she withdraw her petition. She readily consented and they executed articles of separation that applied “only during our mutual pleasure . . . compelling me to return home to this . . . kind, affectionate husband  . . .whenever his caprice should induce him to require it.” On December 26, 1791, Margaret was thus separated from John Coghlan with an annuity of 100 pounds for life, subject to this impossible condition. Immediately after, a milliner, like a “tygress darting upon the wretched victim of her savage appetite,” insisted on payment of 300 pounds which Margaret vehemently denied owing, having already paid her 1,400 pounds. Yet, she agreed to assign fifty pounds from the annuity to the plundering extortionist for the next four years.[6]

Shortly after her father’s death in late 1791, creditors dreamed of easy money, assuming Margaret was entitled to a fortune. However, her brother Edward and step-brother Thomas Barclay Moncrieffe were the inheritors of her father’s estate.[7] Her brother was sympathetic to her misfortunes and provided an amount sufficient for her to hold her head up high, at least for the moment. She hired another plundering pettyfogger who lived upon the “distresses of the unfortunate” and willingly took sixty pounds from her brother’s gift, using it to pay off a debt she believed was in his interest, not hers.

Her brother reminded her to secure a copy of their grandfather Heron’s will, as they believed (and perhaps erroneously) that his property in Scotland belonged to them as the sole heirs, not the descendants of his first family. She obtained leave from the prison court and in early July 1792, she began a visit to her mother’s relatives near Portsmouth to see the estate.[8]

Margaret’s cousin, a lawyer, who, she wrote, “so honourably possessed himself of the said estates,” immediately raised her suspicions. He showed her pictures of their ancestors and encouraged her to sue for her grandfather’s Scotland estate which, he informed her, was “seized by a distant relation” under the assumption that Patrick Heron’s deed and will were destroyed at sea when his first wife and their children drowned offshore not far from Cork. The “honest lawyer seemed alarmed” when she told him that she possessed a copy of the proven will and that her brother would initiate a suit in chancery to establish his claim. Her female cousins were likewise alarmed, so much so that they called her an imposter, which Margaret easily disproved.[9]

Margaret next visited her mother’s two sisters outside Portsmouth who, she believed, would help her “guard against the snares” she had faced which, they readily asserted, were caused by her husband. Her wise aunts clearly reinforced her own views of marriage. She soon left for London, perhaps hoping that her brother would try to secure what they believed to be their rightful ownership in their grandfather’s property. But her hopes were dashed. As soon as she set foot back in the big city, she was reacquainted with the sheriff’s officers and returned to prison.[10]

Although Margaret was immediately released due to the generosity of an unknown benefactor, “arrest after arrest” followed. She acknowledged that her “whole debts,” arose “from folly and extravagance, and far exceeded my means.” But in the same breath, she calculated her “real debts” to be 400 pounds, which she could not raise.[11]

In a desperate move to make money, Margaret turned to writing her Memoirs, which were published in London in 1794 and the following year in New York. She humbly submitted what she called her “simple narrative to the public,” especially her “circle of society” in which she claimed to have played a part with “some degree of eclat,” and to whom she now hoped to sell her story. Despite some limited mentions in the London press, this avenue to financial support never materialized. After the publication of Margaret’s Memoirs, she gradually disappears from the historical record.[12]

Margaret continued to spend more time in debtors prison. On December 28, 1803, she prevailed upon her first stepmother’s family to save her from the “Abbeyss of Woe.” She begged the wealthy, well-connected Robert L. Livingston, then in London, for a mere three pounds, with no known response. In her last known writing of January 11, 1805, she wrote a rambling, yet “Humble Memorial” to King George III. She recited her father’s extraordinary military service, explaining that his estate was confiscated by the Americans and, thus, she lost her inheritance. Now, she was “languishing out my Days in this Country destitute of every necessary of life,” praying that his “Royal Clemency” might “relieve my distress.” Margaret’s plea of desperation marks the end of her paper trail.[13] It is likely that she died in prison, penniless, friendless and stripped of her will to live.

In addition to Margaret’s life as a high society courtesan and her sorrowful ending, one might ask: Who was she, really? A British spy? A woman of privilege? A promoter of independence? Or perhaps, a little of each? It is clear that she was full of contradictions. In some ways, she was naive to the ways of the world, and yet she knew how to follow the money until it went dry. In other ways, she was determined to chart her own course despite the ingrained patriarchal system. And similar to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792, Margaret wanted to tell women that having money of their own was critical to their survival, a thought ahead of its time.

Margaret can be viewed as a pioneer as well as an actress playing a part by assuming a difficult role during a difficult time for women, especially in a marriage gone wrong. Not long after coming to London, she expressed a desire to act. And although nothing seemed to come of it, acting was in her DNA. During her father’s childhood in Scotland, he received positive reviews for his acting. After the Revolution, he lived a social life in New York with his American in-laws and maintained his interest in acting. His best performance was as Shakespeare’s Othello at the Royal Theatre. Interestingly, The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds, a silent screen film of 1918, portrays the beautiful actress Evelyn Greeley as Margaret Moncrieffe—the love interest of both Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.[14]

All that said, one can readily conclude that Margaret’s most important role was as a writer of her life and times. It is here that she tossed aside her mask and weaved together her personal story in which she is chained to a tyrannical husband and looking for a path to freedom with her views on social and political issues—and with her underlying focus on “liberty, sacred, immortal liberty!”[15]

Despite the significance of Margaret’s book,including what we can glean from it, there has been considerable controversy about whether or not she actually wrote her Memoirs. Philip Young, a Ernest Hemingway scholar, was the first to take this view in Revolutionary Ladies (1977), claiming that Margaret could not have authored her Memoirs because her obituary appeared in several London newspapers in 1787, which predates the publication by seven years. Young, using a florid writing style, suggested there was a literary imposter with Margaret providing accurate information to a “ghost” who filled in the blanks to create a women’s scandal memoir that was a popular formula at the time. Although Young’s theory is loosely documented (there are no footnotes), he offered a convoluted explanation—what he called a “hunch”—that Charles Pigott, a less well-known radical writer and “masculine hand of some flunked Tom Paine,” was the author or editor—despite Pigott’s statement that he had no acquaintance with Margaret. Subsequent writers have unquestioningly perpetuated Young’s view, adding that Pigott appropriated Margaret’s scandalous voice as the “anonymous but pungent second author,” although finding no direct evidence that Margaret knew Pigott. Adding further to the uncertainty are Pigott’s complimentary comments about the Memoirs which appear in The Female Jockey Club  (1794), suggesting that he might have read her writing. Other literary critics, however, have countered all such claims with more straightforward logic, concluding there is little reason to question Margaret’s authorship.[16]

Despite the earlier obituaries upon which Young based his thesis, there are no known official records of Margaret’s passing around that time. When her Memoirs were first published, the press did not question its authorship. The British Critic wrote that Margaret was then in prison and reinforced her view (as did an eminent barrister)—that her misfortunes stemmed from a forced marriage. Even more compelling are the records of Margaret in King’s Bench prison in mid 1797. And even more significant is Margaret’s letter writing effort after the Memoirs were published. In 1795 she wrote to Thomas Pinckney, then United States Minister to Great Britain, inquiring about a missing relative of her husband who neither Margaret nor the young women’s father could locate, believing her to be a prisoner in France. In 1803 she wrote a letter to the Livingston family. And last was Margaret’s desperate 1805 letter to King George III. All of these letters survive today.[17]

Adding to this controversy, it must be noted that there is a change in writing style in various parts of the Memoirs, especially in the Preface and the last pages of the work. These abrupt changes are noteworthy for the fact that Margaret’s voice changes from her own (using the first person) to the third person (using “she,” “her” and “the author”), suggesting she had an editor, leaving the controversy of authenticity without a simple ending.[18]

As for the New York edition of the Memoirs, published in 1795 (today, a rare book), there is no question there was an editor. John Fellows, a New York City publisher and importer of radical writings from Europe with close ties to Thomas Paine, had a hand in the reproduction of the Memoirs by the printers T. & J. Swords. The Preface for this edition echoes Margaret’s sentiments that her misfortunes originated from the “absurd practice of obliging children to sacrifice affection . . . and happiness . . . to what is of infinite less value, a titled name.” The editor also reflected on the “inhuman sufferings of unfortunate debtors in prison” and the “iniquitous” practice of law in England” (and copied in America), which made the Memoirsworth reprinting for an American audience. The Preface was followed by an encomium, taken directly from Pigott’s The Female Jockey Club, praising her and hoping for a “speedy period to all her affliction.”[19]

Clearly, the making of Margaret Coghlan’s Memoirs  was just as complex as her life and the times she lived in. Although Margaret was not willing to—or because of the overwhelming odds, simply could not—give up the lure of a moneyed lifestyle as a courtesan, she left behind a treasure of words and advice, especially for two granddaughters whom she never knew, the offspring of her two sons, Henry and Andrew, with Lord Barnard. The wealthy Lady Anne Barnard, who Margaret favorably commented on in her Memoirs, had assumed responsibility for her husband’s two illegitimate children with Margaret and bequeathed 4,000 pounds in trust to Henry’s daughter Margaret and 2,000 pounds in trust to Andrew’s daughter Anne, generous amounts for young girls expected to marry. Margaret had hoped her Memoirs would serve as a shining light for other women.[20] She would have been pleased to know that Lady Anne, a forward-thinking, worldly woman, “remembered the ladies” by providing a secure future for Margaret’s granddaughters.


[1]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), 88-97, 95 and 103. A sponging-house was a place of temporary confinement in England.

[2]William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I: The Rights of Persons (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016), 284-285.

[3]Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 14-15; Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce. England 1530-1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2-5; Coghlan, Memoirs, 41-42 and 98.

[4]Stone, Road to Divorce, 27; Coghlan, Memoirs, 113.

[5]Coghlan, Memoirs, 97-98; Coghlan against Coghlan, “Matrimonial Cause: Coghlan, February 27, 1790,” Ref Code: DL/C/0562/011, Consistory Court of London, Diocese of London Collection, London Metropolitan Archives: City of London; Stone, Road to Divorce, 43-44, 183-184 and 192-194. The Consistory Court, an ecclesiastical court, handled the majority of matrimonial cases in England at the time. This type of case, called separation from bed and board, was granted on grounds of adultery, life-threatening cruelty, or both and usually established a maintenance allowance for the wife.

[6]Coghlan, Memoirs, 108-110, 109 and 110.

[7]Thomas Moncrief [sic] will, vol. 1, p. 341, in Wills, 1787-1822, New York Probate Records, DGS 8200762 image 172,

[8]Coghlan, Memoirs, 119-120, 119; Will of Patrick Heron, October 20, 1748 and proved August 28, 1752 in Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858, online database,, citing The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England: Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series and Class PROB 11,Piece:799.

[9]Coghlan, Memoirs, 120-122, 120 and 121.

[10]Ibid.,123-125, 123.

[11]Ibid.,125-126, 126.

[12]Ibid.,Memoirs,127. The New York edition was printed by T. & J Swords, for J. Fellows in 1795, with a different Preface and an extract about Margaret from The Female Jockey Club(1794) by the radical British author Charles Pigott.

[13]Prisoners in the King’s Bench Prison in the County of Surrey, First Notice,” The London Gazette, July 25, 1797, Issue: 14031, 713; Ibid., Issues: 14032 and 14033, pages 727 and 742, respectively; Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan to Robert Livingston, December 28, 1803, New York Historical Library, for the “Abbeyss of Woe;” “Petition from Margaret Coghlan, daughter of Major Thomas Moncrieffe, (January 20, 1805),” U840/096, Kent History and Library Center, Madestone, England.

[14]Richard C. Cole, “A British Military Family (New York, 117-1791),” Genealogists Magazine, vol. 24, no. 9 (March 1994), 385-386; William Dunlap, History of the American Theatre (New York: Burt Franklin, 1963), 100. Background about the movie can be found at An affair between Mrs. Reynolds and Alexander Hamilton surfaced when he was threatened with blackmail by Mr. Reynolds. Italics by the author.

[15]Coghlan, Memoirs 105.

[16]Philip Young, Revolutionary Ladies(New York: Knopf, 1977), 168-170 and 211, 167 (“ghost”), 178 (“flunked Thomas Paine”) and 211 (“hunch”); Sarah Knott, “Female Liberty? Sentimental Gallantry, Republican Womanhood, and Rights Feminism in the Age of Revolutions,” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 3 (July 2014), 431, including n.12, 437-438, 437 (“pungent author”); see also Jon Mee, Print, Publicity and Radicalism in the 1790s (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 143-144. Charles Pigott, The Female Jockey Club, or a Sketch of the Manners of the Age (London: D. L. Eaton, 1794), 148. Pigott is reported to have died in mid 1794. For a step by step contrary view see Caroline Breashers, “My Country is the World!,” Margaret Coghlan’s Revolutionary Memoirs,” in Eighteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir’ (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2017), 86-90.

[17]The author has unsuccessfully searched official records in London for Margaret’s passing in 1787. The British Critic, a New Review, (January – June 1794), 3:346; “M. Coghlan to His Excellency, Thomas Pinkney, April 15, 1795,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1879), 3:476; Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan to Robert Livingston, December 28, 1803, New York Historical Library; “Petition from Margaret Coghlan, daughter of Major Thomas Moncrieffe, (January 20, 1805),” U840/096, Kent History and Library Center, Maidstone, England. See also Breashers, The Scandalous Memoir,claiming there is little doubt of Margaret’s authorship, 88-89.

[18]Coghlan, Memoirs, Preface and 127-133.

[19]Coghlan, Memoirs (1797 New York edition), Preface for the quotations; Pigott, Female Jockey Club, 148-149.

[20]Coghlan, Memoirs, xiii and 64; The Right Honourable Anne Barnard will, 1825, no. 213, 2-4, from England & Wales Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858 online database,, citing the National Archives, Kew, Surrey, England; Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series and Class PROB 11, Piece:1698. Stephen Taylor, Defiance, The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard (Faber & Faber: London, 2015), 333.

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