Not a hoax: New evidence in the New York Journal’s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros
By W.Joseph Campbell
American Journalism, 19, (4) Fall 2002
For brazen lawlessness and breathtaking audacity, few episodes in American media history rival the case of “jail-breaking journalism”1—the New York Journal’s rescue in October 1897 of Evangelina Cossío y Cisneros (photo right), an eighteen-year-old imprisoned at Havana’s Casa de Recogidas during the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule.
For the Journal, and for many other U.S. newspapers, the rescue of Cisneros represented a triumph over Spain’s ruthless attempts to quell the insurrection, which in 1898 gave rise to the Spanish-American War. It was also an unprecedented exploit of participatory journalism—an episode that has since been disparaged as “a magnificent farce”2 and “a masterpiece of manufactured news,”3 characterizations which this article challenges as mistaken.
Cisernos4 was arrested in July 1896 in what authorities said was her failed attempt to lure a senior Spanish military officer, Colonel José Bérriz, into a deadly trap on Cuba’s Isle of Pines. She was there to be with her father, a Cuban rebel figure confined to the island for his role in the insurgency. In an account published after the jailbreak, Cisneros said she resisted Bérriz’s unwelcome overtures but the officer was undeterred and visited her quarters uninvited to press his sexual entreaties. Her cries of protest alerted her friends, who seized Bérriz and tied him to a chair. Bérriz, in turn, was rescued by a passing patrol of Spanish troops, and Cisneros and her accomplices were arrested.5 She was subsequently sent to the Casa de Recogidas, Havana’s squalid jail for destitute women, and kept there without trial.
The Journal—flagship of William Randolph Hearst’s emergent newspaper chain and archetype of the genre of yellow journalism then flaring in urban America—rejected the ambiguities of the case and sided unreservedly with Cisneros. To the Journal, she was “guilty of no crime save that of having in her veins the best blood in Cuba”6 and her imprisonment and “bestial persecution”7 were telling illustrations of Spain’s harsh treatment of Cuban women—a not-infrequent theme in American newspapers in 1897.8 The Journal, moreover, reported that Cisneros faced a twenty-year sentence in a Spanish penal colony off the north African coast, and invoked prospect in mounting a petition drive in the late summer 1897, to pressure Spain to release “the Cuban girl martyr.”9 The Journal enlisted in its effort such notable American women as Julia Ward Howe; the mother of President William McKinley, and the widow of Jefferson Davis. 10
But the campaign to free Cisneros failed. In late August 1897, Hearst sent Karl Decker, a reporter at the Journal’s Washington bureau, to Cuba to plot Cisneros’ rescue. Decker—with the help of accomplices later identified as Carlos F. Carbonell,11 Francisco (Paco) De Besche,12 and William B. MacDonald13—succeeded in breaking Cisneros out of the Casa de Recogidas in the early hours of 7 October 1897. After two days in hiding, she was smuggled aboard the Seneca, a Ward Line passenger steamer that arrived in New York on 13 October 1897.14
The Journal lauded the escape as “epochal,”15 and as “the greatest journalistic coup of this age.”16 It praised Decker’s “superb audacity and dashing intrepidity.”17 Scores of U.S. newspapers likewise commended the rescue and many of their editorial tributes were reprinted in the Journal.18 The weekly trade publication Fourth Estate hailed the jailbreak as an “international triumph”19 and The Journalist said the case was evocative more “of medieval romance than of nineteenth century journalism.”20
But at the same time, suspicions arose about the circumstances of Cisneros’ escape. The Journal’s critics speculated that the rescue was a hoax, that “the whole matter was a ‘put-up job’”21 to which Spanish authorities had given at least their tacit approval.22 Consul-General Fitzhugh Lee, the senior U.S. diplomat in Havana, at first encouraged such impressions, saying that Spanish authorities “must have winked at” Cisneros’ flight from Cuba because she never could have fled the island “without their permit.”23 Lee, who was in the United States on home leave at the time of the jailbreak, soon contradicted that characterization, dismissing the notion of Spanish collusion in the escape as “absurd”24 and saying it “took brave, resolute and fearless men to plan and carry out the scheme.”25
Lee’s contrary statements escaped wide notice, however, and the suggestion the jailbreak was a hoax took hold. The New York Times referred to Lee’s “must-have-winked-at” comment in describing the jailbreak as a “remarkable case of unobstructed rescue.”26 Years later, Willis J. Abbot, a former editor of the Journal who had joined the Christian Science Monitor, pointedly dismissed the Cisneros case as “a false bit of cheap sensationalism.”27 Abbot claimed in a book of reminiscences that he was “at the office during the progress of this comedy and in daily contact with Hearst”28 and asserted that the escape was facilitated by bribes paid to Cisneros’ jailers. The Journal’s account of a dramatic rescue, Abbot wrote, was meant not only to present readers with a riveting tale but “to exonerate” complicit jailers in Havana as well.29
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1. The phrase appeared in a headline in the weekly journal Public Opinion. See “Jail-breaking Journalism: The Escape of Miss Evangelina Cossio y Cisneros,” Public Opinion, 23, 17 (21 October 1897): 520.
2. Willis J. Abbot, Watching the World Go By (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1933), 215.
3. Karen Roggenkamp, “The Evangelina Cisneros Romance, Medievalist Fiction, and the Journalism that Acts,” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 23, 2 (Summer 2000): 25–37.
4. The Journal and other newspapers referred to her, incorrectly, as “Cisneros.” The proper second reference is “Cossío y Cisneros.” However, “Cisneros” will be used here, given that the case is widely known by that name.
5. Evangelina Cisneros and Karl Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros Told by Herself, Her Rescue by Karl Decker (New York: Continental Publishing Co., 1898), 170–172.
6. Marion Kendrick, “The Cuban Girl Martyr,” New York Journal (17 August 1897): 1
7. See “De Lome’s Defense and Confession,” New York Journal (27 August 1897): 6.
8. See, for example, George Eugene Bryson, “Weyler Throws Nuns Into Prison: Butcher Wages Brutal Warfare on Helpless Women,” New York Journal (17 January 1897): 1. See also, “Persecutes Women Now: Beast Weyler, Baffled by Men, Attacks Patriots’ Wives, Sisters, Mothers,” New York World (8 February 1897): 7. In keeping with the theme that the Spanish regularly mistreated Cuban women, the Journal described Cisneros as “the beautiful, brave little woman who endured so much at the hands of Cuba’s oppressors.” See “The People’s Welcome to Evangelina Cisneros,” New York Journal (18 October 1897): 6.
9. Kendrick, “The Cuban Girl Martyr,” New York Journal.
10. Julius Chambers, “Women’s Noble Appeal for Miss Cisneros,” New York Journal (19 August 1897): 1, and James Creelman, “American Womanhood Roused,” New York Journal (20 August 1897): 3.
11. See “Miss Cisneros Will Wed After the War,” New York Journal (21 May 1898): 8.
12. See “Galeria de Mujeres: Evangelina Cossio (1878),” Mujeres 9, 3 (March 1969): 71.
13. See George Clarke Musgrave, Under Three Flags in Cuba (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1899), 105. The identities of Decker’s accomplices also were mentioned in an article published in 1947 in the Sunday supplement of the Journal’s successor title, the New York Journal-American. The occasion was the approach of the jailbreak’s 50 th anniversary. See Wm. Engle and Jos. Mulvaney, “The Rescue of Evangelina,” American Weekly supplement to the New York Journal-American (24 August 1947): 6–7.
14. See “Evangelina Cisneros Reaches the Land of Liberty,” New York Journal (14 October 1897): 1.
15. “The Journalism that Does Things,” New York Journal (13 October 1897): 8.
16. Charles Duval [Karl Decker], “Evangelina Cisneros Rescued by the Journal,” New York Journal (10 October 1897): 45.
17. “The Penalty of Heroism,” New York Journal (16 October 1897): 2.
18. See, for example, “Editors on the Journal’s Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” New York Journal (12 October 1897): 6.
19. “New York Newspaper’s International Triumph,” Fourth Estate (21 October 1897): 6.
20. “Modern Journalism and One of Its Most Remarkable Achievements,” The Journalist (13 November 1897): 1.
21. “Some Probabilities,” Richmond Dispatch (15 October 1897): 4.
22. The Chicago Times-Herald, for example, said “there are indications that the escape was effected through collusion on the part of Spanish authorities.” Cited in “Jail-breaking Journalism,” Public Opinion, 520.
23. See “Miss Cisneros’s Escape,” New York Sun (14 October 1897): 5.
24. “Lee for Senate,” Richmond Dispatch (16 October 1897): 1. The report further quoted Lee as saying: “’I have good authority for the statement that [Spanish officials] in Cuba are greatly incensed over the young woman’s escape, but I am confident that the affair will lead to no complications, so far as this country is concerned.”
25. “Lee’s Tribute to Miss Cisneros,” New York Journal (16 October 1897): 2.
26. “Rescue Made Easy,” New York Times (17 October 1897): 12.
27. Abbot, Watching the World Go By, 216.
28. Abbot, Watching the World Go By, 216.
29. Abbot, Watching the World Go By, 215.