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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
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?