Hercules Mulligan -- Washington’s Man in New York

By Liam Murphy

The last day of the American War for Independence was 25th November 1783, when, after an occupation of over seven years, the British evacuated New York City, and Washington, leading elements of the American Continental Army, entered the city in triumph.  To celebrate the event, New York Governor George Clinton (of Irish descent, and himself one of Washington’s general officers earlier in the war) hosted a celebration dinner at Fraunces Tavern, with Washington as the guest of honor.  Thirteen toasts were drunk that night, including to the King of Sweden – the first non-belligerent sovereign to recognize the Independence of the United States — General Washington recommended that the Evacuation Day date be commemorated every year thereafter.

"There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain." – George Washington

Although Washington had a spymaster, Benjamin Talmadge (Yale roommate of Nathan Hale - very upset at his friend’s demise, and determined that a professional approach to espionage  might prevent such tragedies in the future - the TV series “TURN” is loosely based of some of Talmadge’s “Culper”exploits), Washington was his own Chief of Intelligence (America’s first “DCI” - Director of Central Intelligence).  On the morning after the Evacuation Day dinner celebration, George Washington made a special point of very publicly having breakfast with his most valuable secret agent in New York City, Hercules Mulligan — usually operating as a “lone wolf”, but also a sometime tangental associate of the Culper spy ring - Mulligan had previously been recruited by Washington, himself.  Mulligan, an Irish immigrant, was a fashionable cloth merchant and tailor, who spent most of the war as tailor to British and Hessian officers and wealthy Tories, all of whom regarded him   as a true Loyalist (in part because of his marriage to the daughter of a senior officer of the Royal Navy), and consequently were at their ease in discussing sensitive material in his presence.  Mulligan also had a winning personality and a way with words to the point that he could interrogate his customers during a fitting in such a way that they hadn’t a clue that they were being pumped for information – information which was then passed to Washington.

Hercules Mulligan (1740-1825), born in Coleraine, County Antrim, 25th September 1740 -- in the 1760s became what we would call today a physical force republican.  He early became involved in armed militia companies, including a “Sons of Liberty” club and the New York Committee of Correspondence and Observation.  Mulligan’s wife and his brother Hugh (a banker and merchant, who handled British accounts) were his partners in patriotism - and, under later British occupation, in clandestine patriotism.  During the early 1770s, before the actual outbreak of the American Revolution, Mulligan nourished the patriotism of his young friend Alexander Hamilton, who was then residing in Mulligan's home. [In a complete failure of intelligence, these facts were never discovered by the later British occupation forces.]  Hamilton (below on the $10 bill) eventually left King's College (now Columbia University) to join the American Continental Army.

On one occasion Mulligan sent his servant Cato (also a Patriot, and, in Mulligan’s own words, “a willing accomplice”) to warn Washington of an impending raid, which could have resulted in the capture of Washington and his staff.  Cato’s personal relationship with Washington’s Aide de Camp, Alexander Hamilton, assured that the message would get through in a timely manner – and with an unbroken chain of custody.  Similarly, Washington mentioned, in a letter to Lafayette in 1780, the escape of Rochambeau’s French army from a planned British attack, consequent to such a warning.  On another occasion, Mulligan was the first to warn Washington of a planned British incursion into Pennsylvania.  [Mulligan later freed Cato, and, through the New York Manumission Society, urged others to free their slaves as well.  Cato then joined Mulligan in the Manumission Society.  No portraits of Cato are known to have survived,]

Mulligan also had a third very secret co-conspirator, a multi-lingual Polish immigrant Jew, named Haym Salomon (left).  It seems that Salomon, a Son of Liberty and a fluent German speaker, was arrested by the Brits in 1776, and, forced to serve as an interpreter for the Hessians – in that he was also equally fluent in English, and knew his way around New York.  After swearing a loyalty oath, he became the innocuous, but trusted, interpreter for the senior Hessians, including to handling their sartorial needs and requests at the very up-scale tailor shop of one Hercules Mulligan, or in dealing with Mulligan’s servant, Cato.  He is also credited with  assisting in the escape of a number of American prisoners, and in covertly persuading several Hessians to desert.  By 1781, he had made his way to Philadelphia, and would be second only to Commodore John Barry’s friend, and pre-war employer, Robert Morris as a financier of the American War for Independence.   

The bravery of Nathan Hale ("I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.") who was hanged, without trial, as a spy on 22nd September 1776, has made him an icon, but his skills as an intelligence officer have long been seen as lacking (indeed, he was given virtually no training for his perilous mission).  However, Ronald Reagan's Director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, later pointed to Hercules Mulligan as a better role model than Hale for American intelligence officers.  Mulligan was a "stay-behind" agent who reported successfully on the British from their capture of New York City in 1776 until they left New York at the end of the American War for Independence over seven years later, on the 25th of November 1783.

[Hercules Mulligan, like William J. ("Wild Bill") Donovan (Medal of Honor recipient, Commander of the "Fighting 69th" - 165th US Infantry - in the First World War, and originator and commander of the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS) in the Second World War), is regarded as a progenitor of the American Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA).]

After the war and Washington’s return to New York City as President of the United States (New York was the first capitol city under the Constitution of the United States), Washington patronized Mulligan’s tailor shop for tailoring, as well as to reminisce.  In fact, correspondence from Washington – in Philadelphia since August of 1790, exists to demonstrate that Hercules Mulligan was Washington’s personal tailor, at least as late as 1792.  Hercules Mulligan died at the age of 85 in 1825, and was laid to rest in Trinity Church yard on Wall Street, just steps away from his friend Hamilton – both of whom are still seen on Broadway in “Hamilton.”

(Right: Okieriete Onaodowan (center) as Mulligan in the play "Hamilton.) 

After the war, Hercules Mulligan remained active in New York (beyond his day-time job of high-end tailoring - this time not specializing in wealthy Tories and Brits).  In addition to his work trying to persuade other slave-owners to free their slaves, as he had done with Cato (once Cato no longer needed the cover of being a “servant” in Mulligan’s household and business), he was also a co-founder, with his good friend William Mooney (the first Grand sachem), of the Society of Saint Tammany (named for a 17th century Leni-Lenape chief in the Delaware Valley, known for arranging peaceful relations between the Native Americans and William Penn’s settlers), better known in later years as “Tammany Hall” (a vehicle for upward mobility for (mostly Irish) immigrants, from the 1790s through the 1960s).  The headquarters of “Tammany Hall” (below) was known as the “Wigwam” (another Lenape word among the many adopted/adapted).  It was the dominant faction of the New York County Democratic Party organization throughout most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century.  Some 99 years after the death of the brilliant Hercules Mulligan, Mayor Jimmy (“Beau James”) Walker, in 1924, would say of the late Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall, Charles F. Murphy, “the brains of Tammany Hall are buried in Calvary Cemetery.” [But, that’s another story, for another time…]

Hercules Mulligan’s successful, though quiet, contributions to the creation of his adopted homeland serve as his true lasting monument.


The above was adapted from Liam Murphy’s “Spy Night” dinner address to the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, held in Fraunces Tavern in New York City, on 25th September 2017.  Liam Murphy is a former Editor of the National HIBERNIAN DIGEST, and the current Ancient Order of Hibernians Historian for the Westchester (New York) County Board of the AOH; he was an early contributor, and Historical Editor, of the original “The Wild Geese.” 

In keeping with the recommendation of General George Washington, this is submitted to “The Wild Geese” with the suggestion that it be used on, or in anticipation of, “Evacuation Day,” the 25th day of November.  While not yet having sampled the “suds”, it has come to my attention that there is an “Irish” pub in Providence, Rhode Island, called Hercules Mulligan’s. (Below: Hercules Mulligan’s taken from the Minutes of the New York Manumission Society, 1786).

[See: "Hercules Mulligan: Confidential Correspondent of General Washington" by Michael O' Brien (1870-1960); and, "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring" by Alexander Rose; see also: Ashcraft, Major Allan C., "General George Washington and the Evolution of a Military Intelligence Service During the American Revolution" Section One, A History of Military Intelligence in the United States Army. Research project. (837th M.I.D., 1969); and, https://www.cia.gov/; and, Foundation Forum: Hercules Mulligan.]


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Tags: Alexander Hamilton, American Revolution, Hercules Mulligan, United States

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on November 20, 2017 at 10:56am

With no disrespect to the author, it seems we are again showing a picture of Charles Carroll (only non-Protestant signer of the Declaration of Independence, last surviving signer, descendent of Immigrants from Kings County (now Offaly) Ireland as Hercules Mulligan.  In fairness this image is all over the Internet mis-ascribed as Mulligan.

Comment by The Wild Geese on November 20, 2017 at 11:23am

Thank you, Neil. I'll bring this to the attention of the producer (Joe Gannon) and author.

Comment by Joe Gannon on November 20, 2017 at 6:04pm

Thanks, Neil. Replaced it.


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