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The Unknown Conspirator
Did the mysterious Portuguese sea captain help plot Lincoln’s assassination, or was he an informer?
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
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.