Mary’s Charlatans: Oliver ‘Pet’ Spencer Halsted (1819-1871)

A shady lawyer-businessmen who promoted arms purchases during the Civil War, Oliver ‘Pet’ Spencer Halsted was an unsuccessful politician who was more successful behind the political scenes. He was described by the New York Tribune’s reporter as “Gifted with matchless assurance, he succeeded in making himself a familiar in the councils of men of note.” The Tribune also described Halstead as “a mere unconscionable braggart; his was a swagger which was more than magnificent. He went everywhere, knew everybody, and cut a large figure in social as well as political life.”1

Halstead’s social skills were greater than his financial ones. He wormed his way into the White House by befriending Mary Todd Lincoln on her August 1861 vacation on the New Jersey shore. The President did not discourage his attempts to peddle steamers, rifled cannon and artillery shells. Mary encouraged his presence, writing him on one occasion: “I fancy ‘the blue room’ will look dreary this evening, so if you and the Gov. are disengaged, wander up and see us.”2 On another occasion, she wrote her cousin Elizabeth Grimsley that former New Jersey Governor William A. Newell and Halsted “are frequently here as who is not?”3

Halstead tried to use his influence with the Lincoln Administration to get Navy contracts. In November 1861, Halstead wrote Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox about a purchase of steamers, Halstead wrote: “As the President is always prompt, & ‘well up,’ ‘as straight as a gun barrel,’ understands me fully, and as I have reason to know favors this project, I have no objection to your showing this to him, if you need his direct endorsement, as I am satisfied he will give it to any extent required.”4


  1. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 231.
  2. Justin G. Turner & Linda Levitt Turner, editors, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 102.
  3. Turners, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters,p. 105.
  4. Robert Means Thompson and Richard Wainwright, editors, Confidential Correspondence of Gustavus Vasa Fox: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Volume II, p. 454. (Letter from Oliver G. Halstead to Gustavus V. Fox, November 23, 1861).


Mary Todd Lincoln
Blue Room
Abraham Lincoln and New Jersey
Elizabeth Todd Grimsley
Gustavus V. Fox