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The Unknown Conspirator

May 2024
15min read

Did the mysterious Portuguese sea captain help plot Lincoln’s assassination, or was he an informer?

In going through Stanton Papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress while doing research for a new book, Philip Van Doren Stern found himself one day looking at something he could not believe. It was an official order listing the chief conspirator who had been arrested following Lincoln’s assassination and who were being transported into close and separate custody. What startled Mr. Stern was the appearance of a name he had never seen before. As the author of The Man Who Killed Lincoln and an outstanding authority on the Civil War period, he thought it almost inconceivable that in his years of research he should never have seen this name before. Furthermore no other specialist in the Lincoln assassination had ever heard of this name.

Further investigation showed that the last time this name appeared in print was in the New York Times in 1865. Mr. Stern tracked down this mysterious stranger in the old Army, old Navy, State Department, and Justice Department records now housed in the National Archives. What he found is told in the following pages.


On April 30, 1864, the U.S.S. Vicksburg was on the prowl, running south of Cape Fear, searching for blockade runners. The moon was in its third quarter, and the dark nights that were coming would tempt the swift, lead-colored ships from foreign ports to try to slip past the Federal fleet and run into one of the many Carolina inlets for a cargo of contraband cotton.

About half an hour before sunrise the lookout on the Vicksburg sighted a small, two-masted schooner silhouetted against the eastern sky. The gunboat suddenly came to life. Her powerful engines began churning water, and her fighting crew were roused out of their hammocks to make one of her seven guns, a twenty-pounder, ready for firing.

The sun was just edging above the horizon when the Vicksburg came close enough to the little schooner for the officers to see what she was really like. She sat heavily in the water, rolling sluggishly in the light breeze, and she showed evidences of neglect and mistreatment. She carried no name on her stern. At exactly 5 A.M., according to the log of the Vicksburg, a warning shot was fired across the schooner’s bow. Several men soon appeared on deck. The gunboat came close enough to hail the suspected ship’s master.


He had just been awakened, and as he stood there, sleepy and sullen in the red dawn, his answers, which were spoken in a foreign accent, were so surly and evasive that the master of the Vicksburg, Lieutenant Commander D. L. Braine, ordered Acting Ensign F. G. Osborn to take the first cutter and bring the reluctant captain on board for questioning.

Examination of the ship’s papers and the interrogation of the captain went on all morning. The declaration of ownership showed that the schooner was named the Indian and that she was the sole property of George Panton Bell, a British subject living in Havana. Her captain was Portuguese; the certificate of British registry gave his name as John M. Celeste. This certificate also showed that the schooner’s port of registry was Nassau, New Providence, and her papers indicated that she had recently carried a cargo of cotton and logwood from Matamoros, Mexico, to Belize, Honduras. No ship’s log had been kept because, the captain said, he had no mate to keep it, and it was not needed anyway since the ship was not insured.

In 1864 these were highly suspicious circumstances. Havana, Nassau, and Matamoros were all notorious foreign ports which blockade runners used. A blockade runner could exchange a cargo of cotton at Nassau and Havana for the scarce manufactured goods desperately needed in the Confederacy, take them to a southern port, sell them at inflated prices there, and so make a double profit from one voyage. Matamoros was an even more vexing problem. It was just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, so cotton could be brought there on wagons or barges to be loaded onto a ship of foreign registry while Federal gunboats stood by helplessly.

The combination of Havana ownership, Nassau registry, a cargo of cotton recently taken from Matamoros, and a ship with no name showing, was enough to condemn Captain Celeste in the eyes of the Federal officers who were examining him. He tried to say that the stern of his ship had been damaged, repaired, and painted while he was at sea, but his stumbling explanation in poor English did not help his cause. Nor did his behavior during the interrogation. He was surly, uncommunicative, and several times refused to answer, beyond telling the officers that the information they sought was none of their business.

Also, he was obviously a miserable sailor, who had had endless trouble just keeping his ship afloat and on her course, in 1862 he had been in command of a much larger British vessel, the Isabella Robinson, until he had piled her up on a reel off the coast of Cuba. He had managed to get her off, but the mishap had cost him his command. He had been master of the Indian for only six months, but even that short period was characterized by astoundingly bad seamanship and exceedingly questionable behavior.

According to his own admission, he had run the Indian onto rocks along the coast of Yucatan so often that the copper on her bottom was wrinkled so badly that she leaked constantly. At Belize he had signed on a completely new crew, but he refused to say what had happened to the men who had brought the ship into that port. When she left Belize, the Indian was supposedly bound for Havana, but the Captain said that he had been unable to bring her into the harbor there. Finally he had found himself near Key West, Florida, but instead of entering that well-equipped Federal port, he had gone to isolated Indian Key to repair damage to his ship and take on water and ballast. The course of his voyage after that was even more ludicrous, for he had been caught in the Gulf Stream and was unable to get out of it. For days and for hundreds of miles he had been carried northward like a derelict until the Vicksburg had sighted him.

Captain Celeste, whose real name proved to be Joao M. Celestino, said that he had been born in Lisbon, was 38 years old, unmarried, and had been at sea for seven years. The officer who brought him on board the Vicksburg reported that the Captain had been living in luxurious ease on the Indian. For his 62-foot schooner, he had a crew of six--one Mexican and five Negroes, one of whom served as his cook and personal servant. Although the ship carried no cargo except a cask of palm oil which had been picked up at sea, it was extraordinarily well supplied with wines, cigars, food, and livestock such as chickens and pigs. And the Captain had about $3,000 in gold and silver in his possession, all of which he insisted was his own money and not the proceeds of any sale for the benefit of the owner.

Aside from being caught in the Gulf Stream, the only explanation Captain Celeste could give for being so near the Carolina coast was that after missing the other ports he had decided to take his ship into Chesapeake Bay and head for Baltimore. Some of his crew lived there and could pilot the Indian up the bay.

The officers of the Vicksburg had the thankless job of policing thousands of miles of hostile coastline in wartime, and all too often they had been made monkeys of by clever blockade runners who were able to slip past them in fine, fast, modern ships that had been built abroad for the specific purpose of eluding the blockading squadron. The Indian had brought a cargo of cotton out of Matamoros, and it might very well be trying to pick up more cotton somewhere along the Carolina coast. There was enough against Captain Celeste to hold him and let an admiralty court decide the matter. If the court ruled that he was innocent it would set him free and restore the schooner to him.

Shortly before noon Captain Braine officially ordered the Indian seized as a prize of war. Her crew was brought to the Vicksburg, while Captain Celeste and his cook were sent back to the Indian with a prize crew of seven navy men who had orders to take the little schooner to Washington and bring the case belore the admiralty court there. The Vicksburg towed the slow-moving, foul-bottomed ship lor two hours; then, sighting a suspicious-looking steamer on the horizon, the gunboat dropped its tow so it could give chase.

Captain Celeste’s troubles were just beginning. The Indian arrived in Washington on May 7, when the city was tense with the news of Grant’s first encounter with Lee in the Battle of the Wilderness. It was a month of dreadful Federal losses, and there was no time to pay much attention to the obscure captain of a tiny ship suspected of blockade running. Celeste (or Celestino, as he preferred to be called) was held in the Washington Navy Yard for a day or two and then was imprisoned in the Central Guard House.

He was brought belore the prize court, where he retold the story of his hapless cruise. His cook testified in his behalf, stating that he had been offered only the ordinary rate of pay for the voyage and that no promises of a large bonus had been made to him, as was customary on a ship that intended to run the blockade. He also said that as a free Negro he would certainly never have shipped on a vessel which might take him to a Confederate port where he could be sold into slavery. But he did admit that some of the other Negroes in the crew had feared that the Captain might be planning to take them some place to sell them.

Since the Indian was registered under the British flag, Celestino wrote to Lord Lyons, the British ambassador, stating his case. Lyons sent someone from the embassy to interview him and perhaps was responsible for getting him released from the Central Guard House on May 23. When Celestino went to the Indian, he found that his stores had been broken into, his trunks forced open, and his gold and silver taken. Lord Lyons forwarded Celestino’s protest to the State Department, but no action was taken on it there.

Meanwhile, the admiralty court had already ruled that the Indian was a legitimate prize of war and had ordered her to be sold at auction, which was done on June 24. The schooner and her tackle and cargo brought $3,345.82, from which $634.24 was deducted for legal and sales expenses, leaving a balance of $2,711.58, which was much more than the government’s appraisal of $1,078.50. This money was deposited in the United States Treasury, subject to further claim.

Celestino had been free and foot-loose since May 23, he was penniless. However, it was not hard to find employment in wartime Washington, and he may have worked around the docks or on river boats. He remained in or near the city for almost a year, hoping to be compensated for the loss of the money and the vessel, which he now seemed to think belonged to him. He was bitter against the United States Government, and he may have lfallen in with some of the men who were equally bitter and who were working secretly for the Confederacy. Among them could have been such waterfront characters as David E. Herold and George A. Atzerodt, who were later to achieve lasting notoriety as fellow conspirators ol John Wilkes Booth in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.

On the night of April 14, 1865, when Washington was just beginning to quiet down after the wild celebrations over the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Celestino left the city to go to Philadelphia, just before he went he was heard to say that he wanted to murder Secretary of State William M. Seward because Seward had caused him so much trouble. Ordinarily such a remark might have been forgotten even in wartime Washington, but not on the night of April 14, for shortly after ten o’clock, Lewis Paine made a desperate attempt to stab Seward to death while he lay in his home after having been injured in a carriage accident. Since this unsuccessful attempt was co-ordinated exactly with Booth’s successful attack on Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre, Celestino’s threat was remembered and reported.

Later that night a court of inquiry was held in the Petersen house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. There, in a room next to the one in which the mortally wounded President lay dying, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Judge David K. Cartter of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia were busy taking testimony from those who had seen the shooting in the theater or who had anything pertinent to report. Judge Cartter was one of the judges in the admiralty court which had ruled that the schooner Indian was a legitimate prize of war, and the Judge may very well have recalled her disgruntled Portuguese captain. If anyone mentioned to him what Celestino had said earlier that evening about wanting to murder Seward, the Judge would certainly have informed Stanton, who was sending out orders to arrest everyone who might have had anything to do with the assassination.

At any rate, an order to arrest Celestino was issued, and he was taken into custody in Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 18, by William Millward, United States marshal for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The unlucky sea captain was immediately sent to Washington to be clapped into the Old Capitol Prison, where he was one of the first of several hundred people to be held under suspicion of having conspired against the lives of the President and the Secretary of State. The order committing Celestino to prison, which was signed by La Fayette C. Baker, head of the Secret Service, stated that the prisoner was to be held in separate and close custody and that no one was to be allowed to communicate with him without written orders from the Secretary of War.

Despite the strictness of this order, Celestino managed to obtain the services of a lawyer in Philadelphia who wrote to the War Department, asking what the charges against his client were. Apparently no one bothered to reply, even though he wrote twice. The resourceful Celestino was also able to communicate with the Portuguese ambassador, begging him to find out from the War Department why he was being held.

On April 25, a strange and unexplained move was made against the prisoner. On that day he was suddenly removed from the Old Capitol, where ordinary suspects were held, and he was placed on board one of the two heavily armored monitors anchored in the Potomac, on which were kept—for special security reasons—only the few chief conspirators who were known to have been closely associated with Booth. These two monitors, the Saugus and the Montauk, served as floating prisons for Lewis Paine, who had tried to kill Seward; George Atzerodt, to whom Booth had assigned the task of assassinating Vice President Johnson but who failed even to make the attempt; Michael O’Laughlin and Samuel Arnold, boyhood friends of Booth who had taken part in the earlier efforts to kidnap the President; Edward Spangler, who was suspected of having helped Booth at Ford’s Theatre, where Spangler worked backstage; and, after he was captured, David E. Herold, who accompanied Booth during his flight to the South. Mrs. Mary E. Surratt, whose son was one of the major conspirators but who escaped to Canada, was kept in the Old Capitol Prison.

As each prisoner was brought on board he was doubly ironed and placed in a separate part of the ship so he could not communicate with the others. Celestino was put into the bag room of the Montauk, and a guard was posted day and night in front of the door. Since Paine had desperately tried to beat his own brains out against the iron walls of his room, orders were issued to encase the heads of all the prisoners in padded canvas hoods.

To the Montauk, early in the morning of April 27, were brought the dead body of John Wilkes Booth and the prisoner David E. Herold. Shortly before noon an autopsy was made of Booth’s body as it lay on deck, and all day long a number of people visited the ship. But the prisoners held incommunicado down in the hold could not have known what was happening up on deck. Later that afternoon Booth’s body was taken to the Arsenal Penitentiary for secret burial.

The military commission appointed to try the Lincoln conspirators was getting ready to open its case, and since the trial was to be held in a building connected with the penitentiary, Stanton issued orders on April 29 for the following prisoners to be transferred to the Arsenal jail: Herold, Spangler, Paine, O'Laughlin, Atzerodt, Arnold, Celestino, and Mrs. Surratt. (Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who had dressed Booth’s broken leg a few hours after the assassination, was moved from Carroll Prison to the Arsenal by a later order.) Detailed instructions were given about taking elaborate precautions for guarding the prisoners and keeping them from communicating with anyone.

Now, this interesting question arises: why was Celestino’s name included with the names of the only conspirators to be brought to trial? There were literally dozens of other men and women actually under arrest, or at least known to the authorities, who were far more deeply implicated in the assassination than this obscure Portuguese sea captain who had publicly threatened Seward’s life. If Celestino’s being sent with the others to the Arsenal Penitentiary was a mistake, there was plenty of time to correct it during the long-drawn-out trial. But Celestino was kept in the Arsenal prison for a month before he was sent back to the Old Capitol. He asked the Portuguese ambassador to intercede for him, and this official dutifully persisted in trying to get the acting Secretary of State or the Secretary of War to let his countryman have benefit of counsel, be told the charges against him, or else be released.

By June 2 nearly all the people suspected of having had any connection with the assassination had been let go, but Celestino was among the few who continued to be held—yet no charges were made against him. On June 17, after all the testimony in the conspirators’ trial had been taken, the Portuguese ambassador wrote to the State Department that he had heard that the alleged charges of complicity in the assassination had been dropped but that Celestino was now being charged with “some other suspected or alleged crime.” However, no explanation was given, and Celestino remained in the Old Capitol Prison until the military commission made its verdicts public and ordered them to be carried out on July 7.

On that blazing hot day, in the courtyard of the Arsenal Penitentiary, three men, Paine, Atzerodt, and Herold, and one woman, Mrs. Surratt, were hanged. The other four conspirators were sent to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas to be imprisoned there at hard labor.

On the very next day Celestino was suddenly set free. The written order for his release bore upon it the condition “that he leave the District of Col. at once and depart from the U.S. within ten days and not return without permission of the President—notifying him that if he fails to comply he will be subject to arrest.”

One might think that the Portuguese sea captain who had tangled with American law would have had enough of the United States, where he was subject to arrest if he remained. But the case does not end here. In the State Department Archives is a series of three letters from James D. Stevenson, a New York attorney. The first letter, dated November 2, 1865, is addressed to President Andrew Johnson. It encloses a petition from Celestino, who obviously had not left the country, giving the details of his arrest and imprisonment in 1864 and 1865 and asking for compensation for the wrongs done to him. His attorney’s letter contains this odd remark:

“The case is a peculiar one and we only ask that you would appoint some good person to take the evidence and say what compensation Mr. Celestino is entitled to and to order the same paid out of the Secret Service fund.”

Stevenson wrote again on November 18, 1865, this time to Secretary of State Seward, saying: “I have been informed (not officially) that said petition has been referred to you, and that you have said that Capt. Celestino should be paid.” He went on to add that his client was utterly destitute and needed money so he could return to Portugal. He wrote once more to Seward offering to come to Washington to settle the matter.

Here the documents concerning the case end. But the mystery of Captain Celestino does not. Why was this man still in the United States four months after he had been told to leave the country in ten days, under threat of arrest if he remained? Why did his attorney believe that his client deserved compensation and why did he suggest that such compensation should be paid out of the Secret Service fund? Why does this admiralty and possible false-arrest case suddenly become a Secret Service matter?

The following points now take on new significance: 1. The fact that Celestino was committed to the Old Capitol Prison by an order signed by La Fayette C. Baker, head of the Secret Service. 2. The fact that no charges were ever brought against the prisoner and that the only accusation ever made is that he said he would like to murder the Secretary of State on the night an attempt was actually made to kill Seward. 3. The fact that although he was only a minor figure, of far less importance than men who were known to have helped Booth escape, Celestino was put into close confinement with the only conspirators who were brought to trial. 4. The fact that he was not set free until the day after four of the conspirators were hanged; that although he had been ordered to leave the United States in ten days under threat of arrest, he was still in New York four months later; that his attorney thought enough of the chances of getting compensation for his penniless client to bring his case to the attention of the President and the Secretary of State; and that the Secretary of State is quoted as having already said that Celestino should be paid.

For what should he be paid and why—of all places—from the Secret Service fund?

The case is a peculiar one, as his attorney said.

Obviously the claim for payment was not made for the loss of money or a ship, title to either of which Celestino would have had trouble establishing. The claim was more likely to have been for some kind of services rendered, and since it was suggested that payment should be from the Secret Service fund, the nature of such services can be surmised.

What had Celestino done as a spy or informer that led his attorney to believe that he was entitled to be paid by Secret Service money? And just when had this foreign sea captain with a well-publicized grievance against the United States Government first been persuaded to act as a secret agent?

Celestino had hung around Washington for nearly a year without visible means of support and had probably won the confidence of Confederate sympathizers by speaking openly against the Federal Government. Had he acted as a spy or an informer then? Or was it after his arrest on April 18, when La Fayette Baker had unlimited power over him? Did he become Baker’s private informer, who might have been placed in the cell of one or more of the conspirators to find out anything that could be used against them? Baker often employed informers, and he would not have hesitated to force Celestino into service.

The Secret Service files for the Civil War period were opened to the public a few years ago. A careful search of them shows no record of payments made to a man known variously as Captain Celeste, Joao M. Celestino, or “Zelestine.” But these files seldom reveal dealings with any one agent. They usually show only large sums of money given to a high official from which he could pay small amounts to unnamed individuals for services rendered but not described. Was Celestino one of the many agents who were paid but not named? Or was he used and never paid at all?


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