Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Murder of Pet Halsted.

Oliver "Pet" Halsted
Oliver Spencer Halsted Jr., better known as Pet, was a political gadfly in the Lincoln administration. Coming from a prominent family of New Jersey politicians, Pet Halsted was a political insider, both in Washington and back home in Newark. Like so many in his profession, Pet Halsted was also a man of unbridled lust and in 1871 he became romantically involved with one of his legal clients. His rival for her affections, a charcoal peddler, was not impressed by Pet’s credentials and was ready to fight to the death for his lady.

Date:  July 2, 1871

Location:  Newark, New Jersey

Victim:  Oliver "Pet" Halsted

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused:  George Botts


Oliver "Pet" Halsted, son of Oliver Spencer Halsted Sr., former Chancellor of New Jersey, worked in Washington as a lobbyist for arms dealers, and although he never held elected office he was a successful politician behind the scenes. Halsted gained entrance to the White House by befriending Mary Todd Lincoln while she was vacationing on the Jersey Shore, and he soon had the ear of the President. Pet Halsted became nationally known early in the Civil War for his harsh criticism of General George McClellan, general-in-chief of the Union Army.

After the war, Halsted moved back to his hometown, Newark, New Jersey, and practiced law. In 1871 he was living with his wife and six of their eight children in the heart of the city. It was common knowledge that Pet Halsted also kept a mistress, Mrs. Mary E. Wilson, in a rented apartment, just a short walk from his home.

Newark, New Jersey
Halsted met Mary Wilson in April 1871 when she hired him as her attorney in her divorce proceedings. The relationship went from professional to romantic that spring and after winning her divorce, Halsted rented Mary an apartment on the third floor above a South Street beer saloon, where he came and went at will. The problem with this arrangement was that Mrs. Wilson had sought a divorce specifically so she could marry her fiancé, George Botts—also known as “Charcoal” Botts because of his occupation as a charcoal peddler. She broke off the engagement with Botts, claiming she could not tolerate his intemperance, but Botts knew the real reason and he refused to accept it. He showed Mary Wilson a revolver and said he was going to shoot Pet Halsted. Halsted, aware of the threat, carried a revolver of his own and said he would shoot Botts first if it came to that.

Botts and Wilson had planned to spend the Fourth of July together, but Mary Wilson sent Botts a letter canceling their plans, saying that she was going to visit her sister in Philadelphia and did not wish him to be there. In fact, she was planning to spend the holiday in Newark with Pet Halsted. With his wife and children away, visiting his married daughter on Long Island, on Saturday, July 1, Halsted went stay on South Street with Mary Wilson.

Botts knew that Mary Wilson had not gone to Philadelphia, and he spent Saturday night trying to drink her off his mind. I did not work, it only fired his anger more. He was drinking in the saloon owned by John Spies, landlord of Mary Wilson’s apartment. Botts showed Spies his pistol and said, he was going to shoot that son of a bitch Halsted, and left the bar. At three a.m. he was back at Spies’s door ringing the bell, asking to see Mary, saying, “I love that woman.” Mary, hearing the bell, went downstairs and told Spies not to let him in and Botts left again.

At seven o’clock, Botts was back again and this time he was upstairs trying to break into the apartment. Halsted was on the other side of the door trying to keep him out. Botts pushed his way in and Mary Wilson could see that he was brandishing the revolver. “George, don’t shoot,” she said. Botts replied, “You son of a bitch, I’ll shoot.” Halsted grabbed Botts and a struggle ensued, then the pistol fired. Halsted collapsed on the sofa and Botts ran out the door and down the stairs.

Halsted was shot in the chest, the bullet puncturing his windpipe. Mary Wilson stood over him saying, “What a wicked woman, what a wicked woman I am.” He lived another thirty-five minutes before literally drowning in his own blood. Outside, Botts had gone just a short distance when he was arrested by Officer Cullen. Botts told him he was on his way to the police station to surrender himself, explaining, “Pet wanted to have her all to himself; he wouldn’t divide, so I fixed him; I have got satisfaction, and I don’t care if I swing for it; I suppose I shall be locked up over the Fourth, but I’ll have a better Fourth than he will.”

Trial: October 17, 1871

George Botts’s prosecution was a classic case of “Jersey Justice.” Unlike New York City, where a murder trial could last a month or more, and with appeals take years to reach a resolution, or Connecticut where an investigation could get bogged down in the inquest and never resolve at all, New Jersey trials were swift and short, and if an execution was required it was done quickly and without hesitation. The coroner’s inquest began the afternoon of the murder and ended the same day with the indictment of George Botts. The case was tried at the next session of the Essex County Court of Oyer and Terminer, and on the opening day the judge told the attorneys he wanted the trial concluded within three days.

The trial lasted five days, but it was fairly cut-and-dried, there was little disagreement as to the facts of the case. At issue was whether or not George Botts was sane when he shot Halsted. The defense claimed that “Jealousy ruined the mind of George Botts who was already on the verge of mania a potu (madness from drinking). He was in a frenzied and, therefore, irresponsible state of mind.” Mary Wilson opened another line of defense when she said in her testimony that she thought the gun went off accidentally.

The prosecutor countered both theories in a three and a half hour closing argument, saying, "It was trifling with the attention of the jury to occupy time in considering the theory of insanity. Botts had simply been drunk, and had harbored revenge for many a long month, and even had he been insane, and yet known he was doing wrong, he would have been guilty. The prisoner's gross nature afforded no excuse. He voluntarily put the Devil in his heart, and strengthened it with cups. Neither Botts nor his counsel had ever thought the shooting accidental, notwithstanding all their consultation, until Mrs. Wilson's testimony had been given."

The judge’s instructions to the jury strongly favored the prosecution. After deliberating for three hours the jury returned a verdict of guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder.


The defense moved for a new trail claiming that one of the jurors had been unduly induced to convict Botts. The motion was denied and George Botts was sentenced to hang on December 21. The hanging was delayed until January 27, 1872. In the meantime, George Botts produced a marriage certificate proving that he was actually married to Mary Wilson. They had kept it a secret to protect her from prosecution as a bigamist. Since the trial, Mary Wilson had entered a house of ill-fame in Philadelphia and Botts saw no further need to protect her.

At 11:32, the morning of January 27, 1872, George “Charcoal” Botts was launched into eternity, inside the Newark Jail.


"A Newark Tragedy." New York Tribune 3 Jul 1871.
"George Botts to be Hanged." Cincinnati Daily Enquirer 15 Nov 1871.
"'Pet Halsted,' a Well-Known Character, Murdered." Albany Evening Journal 3 Jul 1871.
"Poor Halstead." Daily Inter Ocean 4 Jul 1871.
"The Gallows." New York Times 27 Jan 1872.
"The Halstead Murder--Interesting Developments." Daily Albany Argus 11 Jan 1872.
"The Newark Tragedy." New York Herald 17 Oct 1871.
"The "Pet" Halstead Murder Trial." New York Tribune 19 Oct 1871.
"The "Pet" Halstead Murder Trial." New York Tribune 20 Oct 1871.

Library of Congress: City of Newark, N.J. / Parsons & Atwater, del. color film copy transparency. Mr. Lincoln's White House: Mary's Charlatans: Oliver 'Pet' Spencer Halsted (1819-1871).


Tessa says:
April 28, 2016 at 3:23 AM

I feel really bad for Botts! Pet was an ass for cheating on his wife, and treating Mary like his personal whore. Mary was an ass for letting him and sleeping with another woman's husband, and well, acting like a slut.

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