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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
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.