Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Who Was the Real Hercules Mulligan?

The Irish Tailor Who Saved George Washington... Twice

Evacuation Day And Washington's Triumphal Entry In New York City, Nov. 25Th, 1783 Published: Phil., Pa : Pub. [E.P.] & L. Restein, [1879]
Following an Evacuation Day parade, George Washington became a customer of Mulligan's shop. Education Images/UIG / Getty Images

Born in Ireland’s County Londonderry on September 25, 1740, Hercules Mulligan immigrated to the American colonies when he was just six years old. His parents, Hugh and Sarah, left their homeland in hopes of improving life for their family in the colonies; they settled in New York City and Hugh became the eventual owner of a successful accounting firm.

Fast Facts: Hercules Mulligan

  • Born: September 25, 1740
  • Died: March 4, 1825
  • Lived in: Ireland, New York
  • Parents: Hugh Mulligan and Sarah Mulligan
  • Education: King’s College (Columbia University)
  • Spouse: Elizabeth Sanders
  • Known for: Member of Sons of Liberty, associate of Alexander Hamilton, secret agent who worked with the Culper Ring and twice saved General George Washington's life.

Hercules was a student at King’s College, now Columbia University, when another young man–one Alexander Hamilton, late of the Caribbean–came knocking on his door, and the two of them formed a friendship. This friendship would turn into political activity in just a few short years.

Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Hamilton lived with Mulligan for a period during his tenure as a student, and the two of them had many late-night political discussions. One of the earliest members of the Sons of Liberty, Mulligan is credited from swaying Hamilton away from his stance as a Tory and into a role as a patriot and one of America’s founding fathers. Hamilton, originally a supporter of British dominion over the thirteen colonies, soon came to the conclusion that the colonists should be able to rule themselves. Together, Hamilton and Mulligan joined the Sons of Liberty, a secret society of patriots that was formed to protect colonists’ rights.

Following his graduation, Mulligan worked briefly as a clerk in Hugh’s accounting business, but soon branched out on his own as a tailor. According to a , Mulligan:

“…cater[ed] to the crème de la crème of New York society. He also catered to wealthy British businessmen and high-ranking British military officers. He employed several tailors but preferred to greet his customers himself, taking the customary measurements and building rapport among his clientele. His business thrived, and he established a solid reputation with the gentleman of the upper class and with the British officers.”

Thanks to his close access to British officers, Mulligan was able to accomplish two very important things in a very short time. First, in 1773, he married Miss Elizabeth Sanders at Trinity Church in New York. This should be unremarkable, but Mulligan’s bride was the niece of , who had been a commander in the Royal Navy prior to his death; this gave Mulligan access to some high-ranking individuals. In addition to his marriage, Mulligan’s role as a tailor allowed him to be present during numerous conversations between British officers; in general, a tailor was much like a servant, and considered invisible, so his clients had no qualms about speaking freely in front of him.

Mulligan was also a smooth talker. When British officers and businessmen came to his shop, he flattered them regularly with words of admiration. He soon figured out how to gauge troop movements based upon pickup times; if multiple officers said they’d be back for a repaired uniform on the same day, Mulligan could figure out the dates of upcoming activities. Often, he sent his slave, Cato, to General George Washington’s camp in New Jersey with the information.

In 1777, Mulligan’s friend Hamilton was working as aide-de-camp to Washington, and was intimately involved in intelligence operations. Hamilton realized that Mulligan was ideally placed to gather information; Mulligan agreed almost immediately to help the patriotic cause. 

Saving General Washington 

Mulligan is credited with saving George Washington's life not once, but on two separate occasions. The first time was in 1779, when he uncovered a plot to capture the general. ,

“Late one evening, a British officer called at Mulligan's shop to purchase a watch coat. Curious about the late hour, Mulligan asked why the officer needed the coat so quickly. The man explained that he was leaving immediately on a mission, boasting that "before another day, we'll have the rebel general in our hands." As soon as the officer left, Mulligan dispatched his servant to advise General Washington. Washington had been planning to rendezvous with some of his officers, and apparently the British had learned the location of the meeting and intended to set a trap. Thanks to Mulligan's alert, Washington changed his plans and avoided capture.”

Two years later, in 1781, another plan was foiled with the help of Mulligan’s brother Hugh Jr., who ran a successful import-export company that did a significant amount of trade with the British army. When a large amount of provisions were ordered, Hugh asked a commissary officer why they were needed; the man revealed that several hundred troops were being sent to Connecticut to intercept and seize Washington. Hugh passed the information along to his brother, who then relayed it to the Continental Army, allowing Washington to change his plans and set his own trap for British forces. 

In addition to these crucial bits of information, Mulligan spent the years of the American Revolution gathering details about troop movement, supply chains, and more; all of which he passed along to Washington’s intelligence staff. He worked in tandem with the Culper Ring, a network of six spies engaged directly by . Effectively working as a subagent of the Culper Ring, Mulligan was one of several people who passed intelligence along to Tallmadge, and thus, directly into Washington’s hands.

Mulligan and his slave, Cato, were not above suspicion. At one point, Cato was captured and beaten on his way back from Washington’s camp, and Mulligan himself was arrested several times. In particular, following the defection of Benedict Arnold to the British army, Mulligan and other members of the Culper ring had to put their covert activities on hold for a while. However, the British were never able to find hard evidence that any of the men were involved in espionage.

After the Revolution

Following the end of the war, Mulligan occasionally found himself in trouble with his neighbors; his role of cozying up to British officers had been incredibly convincing, and many people suspected he was in fact a Tory sympathizer. To reduce the risk of his being tarred and feathered, Washington himself came to Mulligan’s shop as a customer following an "" parade, and ordered a complete civilian wardrobe to commemorate the end of his military service. Once Mulligan was able to hang up a sign reading “,” the danger passed, and he prospered as one of New York’s most successful tailors. He and his wife had eight children together, and Mulligan worked until the age of 80. He died five years later, in 1825.

Nothing is known of what became of Cato after the American Revolution. However, in 1785, Mulligan became one of the founding members of the . Along with Hamilton, John Jay, and several others, Mulligan worked to promote the manumission of slaves and abolition of the institution of slavery.

Thanks to the popularity of the Broadway hit , Hercules Mulligan's name has become far more recognizable than it was in the past. In the play, he was originally played by , an American actor born to Nigerian parents.

Hercules Mulligan is buried in New York's Trinity Church cemetery, in the Sanders family tomb, not far from the graves of Alexander Hamilton, his wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, and many other notable names from the American Revolution.

Sources

  • “The Legend of Hercules Mulligan.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 7 July 2016, www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2016-featured-story-archive/the-legend-of-hercules-mulligan.html.
  • Fox News, FOX News Network, www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/07/04/this-july-4-let-thank-forgotten-revolutionary-war-hero.html.