The Dramatic Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros
Charles Pulitzer owned The New York World and The New York Journal belonged to William Randolph Hearst. The two men went head to head in the search for readers. No murder was so gruesome that its grisly details could not be embellished a bit in the papers. Scandals were meat and drink to Pulitzer and Hearst and if their reporters had to bend a few rules – bribery, theft, and the like - to get the story, so be it. Journalists didn’t just report the news; they manufactured it and one of the most sensational examples was lifting Evangelina Cossío y Cisneros from a Cuban prison.
Cuban War of Independence
Evangelina Cossío was the daughter of Augustin Cossío, a man who was prominent in Cuban attempts to gain independence from Spain.
A war of independence broke out in 1895 and the following summer Augustin Cossío was captured and set to a penal colony. Evangelina and her sister went with their father where they lived in an adobe house on the Isle of Pines. It was far from being the dreadful incarceration the newspapers were beginning to describe. It was an open prison where rebel inmates mingled with each other and were adequately fed.
One night the governor of the colony, Colonel José Bérriz, made unwanted advances towards Evangelina. Other prisoners intervened and captured the colonel who was soon rescued by his own soldiers.
The full details about the affair are opaque and the real truth may never be known. The Spanish story was that Evangelina lured the colonel into a trap. The rebel version is that Col. Bérriz promised harsh treatment for Evangelina's father if she refused to become his mistress.
Whatever the truth, Evangelina was removed from the Isle of Pines and sent to a prison in Havana. The female inmates of the Casa de Recojidas were mostly prostitutes and the conditions were atrocious.
A Hellish Prison
George Clarke Musgrave, described as a British adventurer, visited the Casa de Recojidas. He wrote about the appalling conditions under which Evangelina was living:
“Penned within was the most frightful horde of women I have ever seen. Repulsive black viragos raved, swore, and scolded; gorgons, scantily clad, who had lost all sense of shame, clamoured at the bars of their den, begging for money, cigars, or drink, and using filthy language when the jailer threw aside the claw-like arms they extended through the grating … There were perhaps a hundred of these repulsive creatures in all, and the filth, the foetid stench, and loathsome surroundings turned me sick and faint. The place resembled rather a huge cage of gorillas; for in the degradation of these outcasts the evolutionistic theory was strongly borne out: they resembled beasts rather than human beings.”
“There suddenly appeared in their midst a white face, young, pure, and beautiful, a maiden of perhaps seventeen was crossing the yard. With her pale features surmounted by masses of dark hair, her simple white dress and dignified bearing, all accentuated by the horrible surroundings, she resembled the Madonna of an old master, inspired with life but plunged into Hades.”
This was the kind of purple prose that was bound to inflame the passions of Hearst’s readers.
Campaign for Evangelina’s Release
Eighteen-year-old Evangelina was beautiful and in peril; a damsel in distress made for compelling copy in Hearst’s Journal. So the publisher embarked on a drive to free the woman.
The paper took up her case saying she was “guilty of no crime save that of having in her veins the best blood in Cuba.” This “Cuban girl martyr” was suffering a “bestial persecution.”
Laying it on even thicker The Journal, without the benefit of solid evidence, said she faced the prospect of being sent to a Spanish penal colony off the North African coast for 20 years.
The general public flocked to sign petitions calling for Evangelina’s release. Prominent Americans including President William McKinley’s mother, joined the cause. But to no avail, the Spanish government wasn’t listening.
Time for More Robust Action
Hearst reporter Karl Decker, described as a “man of action,” was despatched to Havana to see what he could do. He enlisted the help of officials in the American consulate as well as that of some revolutionaries.
Together, they hatched a plan to spring Evangelina from incarceration. They obtained a plan of the prison and a schedule of the guard’s rounds. They even got messages to Evangelina. A few Yankee dollars could pry loose a lot of valuable information.
Pastries laced with opium were smuggled into the prison to knock out Evangelina’s cellmates so they wouldn’t raise the alarm. Decker rented a room in a building next to the prison. For two nights he and his helpers climbed a ladder to saw through the bars to Evangelina’s third-floor cell.
On the night of October 7, 1897, the bars were pulled apart and the prisoner escaped. She was hidden in a safe house for a couple of days and then, disguised as a man and carrying an unlit cigar, she was smuggled onto a New York-bound steamer.
The Heroine Feted
Hearst was beside himself with joy at his paper’s swashbuckling act of derring-do. The New York Journal gave massive coverage to its jail-break story.
It was, the paper announced with more than a hint of hyperbole, “the greatest journalistic coup of this age.”
Karl Decker was praised for his “superb audacity and dashing intrepidity.”
Huge crowds greeted Evangelina’s arrival in New York City; it was the type of welcome normally reserved for major celebrities. A reception in her honour was held in Madison Square Garden and she was invited to the White House to meet President William McKinley.
In South Florida, throngs feted her and clubs calling for Cuban independence were named after her.
In June 1898, she married Carlos Carbonnell in Baltimore. He was a Cuban rebel that Decker had recruited to play a vital role in springing Evangelina from prison.
Newspaper Sour Grapes
The boost in circulation that the Evangelina Cisneros story gave to The New York Journal caused resentment and jealousy among its rivals.
The Richmond Dispatch claimed “the whole matter was a put-up job.”
The Christian Science Monitor described the story as “a false bit of cheap sensationalism.”
The New York Times suggested the release of Evangelina could not have been achieved without bribing the prison authorities to look the other way.
Some suggested the whole event was pure fiction from start to finish.
Recent research confirms the account of Evangelina Cisneros was mostly real; however, given the source of the original yarn some ornamentation of the facts can’t be ruled out.
The news cycle, of course, moved on and left the heroine behind. She returned to Cuba after its independence where she died at 92 in 1970. She was given a full military funeral.
The journalism of the 1890s was a blend of fact and fiction. Stories were routinely goosed up to make them more salacious, titillating, or horrifying depending on their genre. A story about William Randolph Hearst that routinely makes the rounds concerns the Cuban revolution. In 1897, he sent Richard Harding Davis and the noted illustrator Frederic Remington to cover the war. Remington cabled back that all was quiet and he wished to return to New York. Hearst is alleged to have replied by telegram “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”
The American Consul General in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, was dragged into the newspaper war unwittingly. Pulitzer’s World was trying to counter Hearst’s Journal by alleging the latter’s paper was grossly exaggerating the mistreatment of Evangelina Cisneros. They quoted the diplomat as saying that Evangelina “… would have been pardoned long ago if it had not been for the hubbub created by American newspapers.”
- “Yellow Journalism.” PBS, 1999.
- “Under Three Flags in Cuba.” George Clarke Musgrave, Little, Brown, and Company, 1899, pages 92-108.
- “Latinas in the United States.” Edited by Vicki L. Ruiz, Virginia Sánchez Korrol, Indiana University Press, May 3, 2006, page 176.
- “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros.” W. Joseph Campbell, American Journalism, Fall 2002.