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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
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.