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Margaret "Peggy" Eaton (O'Neale)

Also Known As: "Margaret", "O'Neale", "Timberlake", "Eaton", "Buchignani", "O'neill"
Birthdate: (79)
Birthplace: Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Death: November 8, 1879 (75-83)
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Place of Burial: Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of William O'Neale and Rhoda O'Neale
Wife of John Bowie Timberlake,; John Eaton, U.S. Senator and Secretary of War and Antonio Gabriele Buchignani
Mother of Virginia Timberlake

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About Peggy O'Neale

Margaret O'Neill (or O'Neale) Eaton (December 3, 1799 – November 8, 1879), better known as Peggy Eaton, was the daughter of Rhoda Howell and William O'Neale, the owner of Franklin House, a popular Washington, D.C. hotel. Peggy was noted for her beauty, wit and vivacity. Through her marriage to United States Senator John Henry Eaton, she had a central role in the Petticoat affair that disrupted the Cabinet of Andrew Jackson.


About 1816, at age 17, Margaret O'Neale married John B. Timberlake, a 39-year-old purser in the Navy. Her parents gave them a house across from the hotel, and they met many politicians who stayed there. In 1818 they met and befriended John Henry Eaton, a 28-year-old widower and newly elected senator from Tennessee. Margaret and John Timberlake had three children together, one of whom died in infancy.

John Timberlake died in 1828 while at sea in the Mediterranean, in service on a four-year voyage. When Margaret married Senator John Henry Eaton (1790–1856) shortly after the turn of the year, there were rumors that Timberlake had committed suicide because of despair at an alleged affair between the two.

Senator Eaton was a close personal friend of President Andrew Jackson, who in 1829 appointed him Secretary of War. This sudden elevation of Mrs. Eaton into the Cabinet social circle was resented by the wives of several of Jackson's appointees. They criticized Mrs. Eaton for allegedly having had an affair with Eaton prior to her marriage.

The wives of the Cabinet members snubbed Mrs. Eaton socially, which angered President Jackson. He tried unsuccessfully to coerce them. Eventually, and partly for this reason, he almost completely reorganized his Cabinet, an event referred to as the Petticoat affair.

The effect of the incident on the political fortunes of the vice president, John C. Calhoun, whose wife, Floride Calhoun, was one of those who snubbed Mrs. Eaton, was perhaps most important. Partly on this account, Jackson transferred his favor to widower Martin Van Buren, the Secretary of State, who had taken the Eatons' side in the quarrel and had shown positive social attention to Mrs. Eaton. Some attributed his subsequent elevation to the vice-presidency and presidency through Jackson's favor as related to this incident.

Three years after the death of her second husband, Margaret Eaton married an Italian music teacher and dancing master, Antonio Gabriele Buchignani, on June 7, 1859. She was 59 and he was 19. The marriage reignited much of the social stigma Margaret had carried earlier in life. In 1866, their seventh year of marriage, Buchignani ran off to Europe with the bulk of his wife's fortune and as well as her 17-year-old granddaughter Emily E. Randolph, whom he married after he and his wife divorced in 1869.

Eaton obtained a divorce from Buchignani but was unable to recover her financial standing. She died in poverty in Washington, D.C. on November 8, 1879.

The Gorgeous Hussy, a 1939 film starring Joan Crawford, was loosely based on the life of Margaret O'Neill.

Furthermore, a son of Joseph and Mary (Bowie) Timberlake was John Bowie Timberlake, who "married the now infamous Peggy O'Neil who was the victim of many speculative accounts after she was involved in scandal during the Andrew Jackson administration."

All of Jackson�s Cabinet choices were not only men he knew well and trusted, but they were acceptable to Washington society. All except John Henry Eaton, who was considered an improper choice for the job, because of his recent marriage to a woman many considered of questionable character and virtue. This woman was Margaret O�Neale Timberlake Eaton, known as Peggy.

Peggy was the charming and attractive daughter of a well-established tavern keeper in Washington, D.C. One admirer described her �well-rounded, voluptuous figure, peach-pink complexion�large, active dark eyes, �[and] full sensuous lips, ready to break into an engaging smile.� She worked as a barmaid and made friends with the congressmen and senators who stayed at her father�s tavern, The Franklin House.

Because of her liberal upbringing, Peggy was forward and open with members of the opposite sex. She did not conduct herself within the expected limits of feminine behavior of the time, but spoke her mind freely.

When Peggy was fifteen years old, she fell in love with Major Francis Smith Belton. The two decided to elope and devised a simple plan. Peggy was to climb out of her bedroom window, then step down to a water pump, and into the arms of her waiting lover. But in the course of this plan, Peggy knocked over a flower pot, which woke up her father, who prevented her escape.

Another suitor quickly followed Belton. Peggy�s new admirer was Captain Richard R. Root. Peggy�s father was afraid of another elopement, so he sent Peggy off to a boarding school. But Root followed her there and though the couple planned to run away, they constantly argued and so the relationship ended. Peggy�s days at school also ended when she wrote to her father, begging him to let her come home. She wrote �Dear Father: for the Lord�s sake come and take me home; and if you will do so I will promise to be the best girl you ever saw, and I assure you that under no circumstances shall either Root or Branch take me away from you.� Her father let her come home.

In 1816, John Bowie Timberlake, a 39-year-old former navy purser was riding with a friend outside the Franklin House When he saw 17-year-old Peggy through the window, he exclaimed: �My Lord! What a pretty girl that is!� Timberlake made an excuse to go inside and meet her. By eleven o�clock that evening he had asked for and received permission to marry her. They were married on July 18, 1816.

In 1856, John Henry Eaton followed Jackson, leaving Peggy a widow once again.

One more scandal rocked Peggy�s life, when on June 7, 1859, 59-year-old Peggy married the 19-year-old dancing master of her grandchildren, Antonio Buchignani. Once again, Peggy was ostracized, but reporters and writers still came to her for stories of her famous past and her thoughts on Jackson�s administration. They still found Peggy admirable and fascinating, still outspoken. One reporter wrote �when at all excited, her beautiful, fiery eyes gleam and sparkle with original fire.� Another said, �...she held that powerful influence over men that requires a master mind no less than a lovely face.�

Peggy�s last marriage was a bitter failure, ending when Buchignani stole all of her money and ran off with her granddaughter, Emily, with whom he had two children. Peggy later divorced him, but he never married Emily.

Peggy lived the remaining years of her life with her grandson, John. Near the end of her life, she said, �I am not afraid to die, but this is such a beautiful world to leave.� On November 9, 1789, after a long illness, Peggy died. She was buried next to John Eaton in Oak Hill Cemetery, among the graves of other leaders of Washington society. The New York Times reported, �Doubtless among the dead populating the terraces are some of her assailants and cordially as they may have hated her, they are now her neighbors.�

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Peggy O'Neale's Timeline

December 3, 1799
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
November 8, 1879
Age 79
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Age 79
Washington, District of Columbia, United States