His story is not included in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, but not for lack of intrigue. João Celestino spent 82 days in jail together with the chief conspirators. In the end he sought compensation from the American Secret Service – find out why
By Pedro Jorge Castro
Pedro Jorge Castro is a senior reporter at Sábado newsmagazine.
The original text was published in the printed edition of Sábado.
Five days after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the front page of “The New York Times” published the story of the arrest of the Portuguese citizen “Jno. Celestine”, who “had already aroused suspicion.” The newspaper added that the order for his arrest had been signed by La Fayette Baker, head of the American Secret Service, and described the detainee as a “very well-known blockade runner” – a designation applied to the captains of the fast ships who tried to break through the naval blockade imposed on the Confederate States during the American Civil War, in order to resupply them with commercial goods.
Another piece, published by the “Washington Republican”, wrote that he had once been jailed for participation in the slave trade, “but after getting released, rode and drove about our streets in grand style, scattering much gold about him.” Despite this potential, he deserved no mention in the film “Lincoln”, directed by Steven Spielberg.
His name was João Maria Celestino, but when he was captured for the first time he identified himself as John M. Celeste. This took place on 30 April 1864, in the Gulf of Mexico. The captain of a patrolling gunboat sighted the 62-foot schooner, noticed she carried no name on the stern, and at five in the morning had a warning shot fired that brought several of the crew on deck and awoke Captain Celeste. The Portuguese appeared with a surly attitude and, despite speaking poor English with a foreign accent, was questioned all morning.
He arrogantly refused to answer several questions, but said he had been born in Lisbon 38 years earlier (in 1826), was unmarried and had been at sea for seven years. The schooner, which was named the Indian, was registered to an English subject who lived in Havana and had recently carried a shipment of cotton from Mexico to Belize, two circumstances which made the Portuguese sea captain a suspect of working for the Confederate States.
The navy men who detained him noticed the life of luxury he led on board, with a crew consisting of one Mexican and five Negroes, one of whom worked as his cook and personal servant. The ship was well supplied with wines, cigars and food, carried livestock such as chickens and pigs, and the captain had some $3,000 in gold and silver.
Captain Celeste was imprisoned in Washington for two weeks but when he returned to the schooner he found that the stores had been broken into and the gold and silver had vanished. As the ship was then ruled a prize of war and sold, the Portuguese was left penniless. He remained in the American capital for a year, probably working in the docks, where he might have met David E. Herold and George A. Atzerodt, two of the conspirators who had come together to start plotting an attack on Lincoln.
The first plan contemplated kidnapping the President in Baltimore, and according to the book “Dark Union”, Captain Celeste was charged with the mission of transporting the hostage on a ship. The kidnapping plan was never put into practice, but a month later, on the evening of 14 April 1865, a simultaneous attack took place against Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward.
The President had taken the opportunity that evening to attend a play, since all signs showed that he was close to winning the Civil War. But in the middle of the third act, the actor John Wilkes Booth walked into the Presidential box, shot him in the head, then jumped onto the stage and yelled in Latin: “Thus always to tyrants.” At the same time, another conspirator, Lewis Paine, had walked into Secretary of State William H. Seward‘s home, where he found him in bed and “stabbed him in the neck and face”, according to the description made soon after by the Portuguese ambassador to Washington in a letter sent to Lisbon which was only to arrive two months later.
Two hours before the attacks took place, Captain Celeste had travelled from Washington to Philadelphia, but before he set off he was heard to say that he wanted to kill William H. Seward – he was convinced the Secretary of State had been the one who had caused the troubles that had left him without his schooner and the jewels. He could not have chosen a worse night to make such a remark. He was arrested in Philadelphia on 18 April. The arrest order, signed by the head of the Secret Service Lafayette Baker, stated that the prisoner was to be held in solitary confinement.
In a report of the events made to the Portuguese Ambassador in Washington Joaquim la Figanière, consulted in the archives of Portugal’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Celeste said he had been thrown into jail where he “was put into leg irons” and was asked if he knew the other suspects, which he denied.
Captain Celeste wrote four letters from jail asking the ambassador for help, but the diplomat failed to come up with good news, which is clear from the reply he sent: “The Secretary of War tells me there is evidence that seems to implicate you in the recent terrible events. In this case, there is no remedy but to wait for the investigation.”
Dozens of other people were also arrested for alleged complicity with the criminals, but after one week in captivity, the eight chief conspirators were moved for safety reasons to two armoured ships anchored in the Potomac River. Captain Celeste was thus included in the group, although he still ignored the charges brought against him. He was kept for four days in the bag room of the USS Montauk, with a guard posted outside the door day and night.
Later, the chief conspirators were once again transferred, this time to a penitentiary that connected with the building where the trial was to be held. The Portuguese was kept there for a month, in cell 209. For 52 days he was made to wear a heavy, padded hood which was tied at the neck, to prevent him from killing himself – a decision made after one of the other conspirators had tried to bash his own head in. The padded hood covered his face and had only a small opening at the mouth which allowed him to eat. The prisoners were also made to wear heavy iron wrist shackles and had a 34-kilo iron ball chained to their ankles, which they had to drag whenever they moved.
The jail’s routine
A book published the daily reports made at the time by the General who commanded the prison, John Hartranft, which give us a clear picture of the jail’s routine. Prisoners were woken at 6.30am for inspection, and then served breakfast at 7am (coffee, bread and meat); at 12.20pm they were served bread, meat and water for lunch; at 4.50pm all prisoners would move to another cell, where their iron shackles and hoods were removed so they could wash in the presence of a guard; at 6pm they were examined by a physician and one hour later were served bread and coffee.
On 11 May, at 3.45pm, Captain Celeste was granted permission to receive a visitor. “I was present during the interview and heard everything they said,” General Hartranft wrote in his report. “The conversation concerned a property the prisoner owned in Philadelphia. At 4.25pm the hood was put back on and the cell locked.”
The captain was to remain jailed until 8 July, one day after the chief conspirators were hanged. Government sources stated that the detectives had failed to prove his complicity in the crime, but stressed that he was “perfectly capable of conspiring against the President.” Indeed, one week before, the Portuguese ambassador wrote to Lisbon saying that the authorities had decided not to charge him with involvement in the attacks, but were trying to charge him for the theft of a boat in 1855.
In 1957, the historian Philip van Doren Stern came across three intriguing letters in the State Department Archives signed by James Stevenson, a New York attorney hired to defend the Portuguese captain. One of these was addressed directly to President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, four months after Captain Celeste’s release, and contained a sentence which raised some ambiguity: “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.”
The President must have agreed, as another letter sent by the attorney two weeks later to Secretary of State William H. Seward includes this passage: “I have been informed (…) that you have said that Capt. Celestino should be paid.” These letters led the American historian to suggest that the captain had collaborated with the American Secret Service by supplying information on the conspiracy.
There is nothing to confirm this thesis in the case files consulted in the archives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Lisbon, most of them sent by Ambassador Joaquim la Figanière. But there is an alternative clue to explain the request for payment.
In a document signed by Captain Celeste himself two weeks after being released from prison, he recounted the entire episode of his arrest. He started by accusing the head of the Secret Service of having demanded $10,000 to have him released. He then went on to complain of “having been moved from prison to prison with his head covered,” which had left him in a “feeble state”, because he was “nearly blind” and could not even read a letter.
He also reported threats which he had received, according to which he “would pay dearly” for the shots fired from the Tower of Belém, in Lisbon, at an American warship a few months before – an incident which had led the Portuguese government to apologise to the United States. Besides complaining about all this harm, Celeste also demanded to receive compensation for the losses he had incurred in the previous year when his schooner was seized. In conclusion, he felt “entirely destitute and with his health ruined,” and therefore decided to seek from the American government compensation “for all the harm incurred in the said nation.”
Soon after, Captain Celeste realised he had missed an important detail and prepared a second document: “By omission, the solicitation left out the sum demanded which is of $100,000.” If he ever did receive the compensation, Captain Celeste must have become a rich man. He was seen years later living in São Paulo, in Brazil.Photos by: Alexander Gardner/George Eastman House/Getty Images; DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.