by Samuel Chalupka
It was late night on Tuesday, October 5, 1897, in Havana – the city finally seemed to be fast asleep in a serene slumber, perhaps only perturbed by the lingering specter of the Cuban-Spanish war. The sky was clear and incandescent, lulling the ambiance and lighting up every nook and cranny of the Cuban capital. Even the southernmost O’Farrill street, a street of infamously ill repute, received its share – this much to the dismay of one Karl Decker and his cohorts. These fine American gentlemen tacitly relied on the veil of darkness as their aide (Decker and Cisneros 87) in the hope of breaking into the Casa de Recojidas prison and freeing a revolutionary damsel in distress, Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros – a mission which they at last carried out the following night.
The New York Journal-perpetrated liberation of Evangelina Cisneros is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most audacious publicity stunts in the history of journalism, but the ravages of time have deformed it beyond recognition – numerous new facts have since surfaced, embellishing and convoluting the narrative to no end. This article retells the story as originally presented by the Journal and tries to critically evaluate it by juxtaposing it to various relevant sources which have appeared over the years. In this fashion, it attempts to unearth the reason behind its unprepossessing place in the anthologies and historical surveys of US journalism.
Indeed, the prison escape of Evangelina Cisneros can be deemed a little-known segment from the turn of the 20th century, despite its unparalleled gall and grave implications on the erstwhile journalistic world of the US. Yet, it remains one of the most shrill representatives of the journalistic zeitgeist of the era: by the late 1890s, yellow journalism – a journalism of unabashed commercial spectacle – had been in full swing, with the readers’ spirits moderately high and their attention spans fugitive, as described by the former Kansan professor of sociology Carroll D. Clark (241). Because of this, every sensation was merely supplanted by another one – the older instances slowly waning as time went by. The Cisneros prison break, equally elusive though it may be, still merits attention to this day and that on a simple proviso: nothing like it has been executed by American journalists since (Campbell 84).
It all started in the office of William Randolph Hearst, the pecunious owner of the New York Journal and the man known for his willingness to transgress all ethical lines to purvey the newest sensations to the citizens of the US in as ostentatious a fashion as necessary. In the final decade of the 19th century, this penchant was particularly unfettered – the Journal was at a merciless circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, another newspaper giant vying for the Americans’ leisure time. To gain an edge, Hearst decided to take one of the Journal’s most popular series of stories and significantly up the ante.
The Journal had made the plight of Evangelina Cisneros a cause célèbre in the US before it finally acted on its derisions of the Spanish rule in Cuba – thousands of Americans had talked about and supported the 18-year-old daughter of a Cuban revolutionary who had been cast into “the foul prison for abandoned women in Havana” (Decker and Cisneros 31) due to having turned down a number of advances from the Spanish colonel Jose Berriz and having been falsely accused of a murder plot against him. This trepidation especially resonated with the women of America and several prominent ladies, such as Julia Grant and Varina Davis, the former first ladies of the US and Confederate states, respectively, voiced their disapproval of this treatment in letters to Maria Christina of Austria, the Queen Regent of Spain. Subsequently, even petitions were rolled out; bevies of American women demanded the release of Cisneros from unlawful imprisonment. All of these efforts, however, were to no avail. Even though Maria Christina eventually ordered the Spanish Governor-General of Cuba, Valeriano Weyler, to release Cisneros, “[t]he defense of Berriz weighed more with Weyler than did the request of his Queen” (54). Evangelina therefore remained in jail.
Enter Karl Decker, a lesser-known journalist working for Hearst’s Journal, who was yet to make waves – albeit rather temporary – on American journalism. Decker’s meager track record notwithstanding, Hearst decided that he was the man to realize the pleas of the people of America and extricate Cisneros from the Casa de Recojidas, perhaps because he had visited Havana on previous occasions and was “fairly familiar with the city” (65). In any event, Decker obeyed and speedily embarked on a Havana-bound ship to cement the epithet of Hearst’s yellow journalism as “the journalism that acts” (Roggenkamp 25).
What followed were days of preparation in which Decker visited Cisneros, sought and consulted his associates, and rented a house adjoining the prison building. When he first met the Cuban martyress, he could not apprise her of the nascent heist because they were under strict supervision (Decker and Cisneros 65), so Cisneros did not learn about the details of the mission until later on. Before this happened, Decker had assembled a team of trustworthy companions to help him plot the scheme and free her. The clique had been conniving for weeks on end before they finally succeeded in putting a plan together. This windfall would not have been possible without Cisneros herself: when it seemed that there was no other way for the liberators to break into the prison but to use dynamite, they managed to smuggle a note to her and she responded with a drawing of the prison projection and her, subtler idea of the proceedings:
My plan is the following: To escape to the roof with the aid of a rope, descending by the front of the house at a given hour and signal. For this I require acid to destroy the bars of the windows and opium or morphine so as to set to sleep my companions. The best way to use it is in sweets, and thus I can also set to sleep the vigilants [sic]. Three of you come and stand at the corners. A lighted cigar will be the signal of alarm for which I may have to delay, and a white handkerchief will be the agreed signal by which I can safely descend. I will only bring with me the necessary clothes tied around my waist. This is my plan; let me know if it is convenient. (73 – 74)
Even though the suggestions about the use of acid and opiates and her descent from the cell window to the ground were dismissed due to unfeasibility and peril, the rest of the steps appeared viable. All that was left was to secure access to the azotea1 of the prison, which was accomplished by getting hold of a house beside the Casa. Thus, everything was in place and the masterplan could finally be put in motion.
Cisneros, however, still needed to somehow sedate the other inmates so as not to raise the alarm. To this end, she used laudanum given to her by the prison doctor for her sore tooth, as she tainted the coffee she made for the other prisoners. She then waited for long hours before her rescuers reached the roof of the prison and started sawing through the bars of the window. Here, we return to the introductory vignette of the October 5 night; as previously mentioned, only during the following night did Decker’s team achieve the objective of setting Cisneros free. This was due to one of the other inmates waking up – purportedly because the bars “rattled and rang like a fire alarm every time the saw passed across the iron” (82) – and noticing her at the window. The operation therefore had to be discontinued and postponed to the next night.
Fortunately for the group, everything went according to plan on October 6, with the bars finally giving way and Evangelina being pulled out of the cell to freedom. No time was lost on transporting her to safety; a carriage had been prepared on the neighboring Egido Street to take the unlikely crew to another rented apartment farther from the epicenter of the heist. For the next couple of days, the group had to lay low – Havana was teeming with Spanish guards searching for the fugitive Cuban girl. But then, at last, came the time to see Cisneros off to the US, as the Ward Line steamer Seneca was about to start its journey to New York. This, too, was no easy task – Cisneros was given forged identification documents and was disguised as a young man in the hope of bypassing the steamer’s security. Holding their breaths and their holstered firearms alike, Decker and his companions were watching as she boarded the steamer, the elegant young woman turned tomboy. Once she came on board – though yet unbeknown to the petrified spectators – their mission was accomplished. Evangelina Cisneros was to sail to the Land of the Free and become one of its own.
This is how the story goes according to the accounts of Karl Decker and Evangelina Cisneros from the Journal-commissioned book The Story of Evangelina Cisneros Told by Herself: Her Rescue by Karl Decker. By no means did the newspaper forget to extol its endeavors, with the famous writer Julian Hawthorne noting in the introduction of the book: “The New Journalism has achieved many wonders; but nothing so wonderful as when its best representative, the New York Journal, conceived the idea of freeing an imprisoned maiden from a cruel tyrant, and carried the conception into successful realization through the agency of Mr. Karl Decker” (Hawthorne 17). Since its release, however, several scholars have made inroads into the background of the heist and have given life to the idea of previously unexplored agencies having been at play, helping Cisneros make her way out of incarceration. Perhaps the most resonant of these was the name of Fitzhugh Lee, the former Confederate cavalry general and the American consul general to Cuba from 1896 to 1898. He is often viewed as an ally to the Cuban insurgents, though mostly with the ulterior motive of “seeing Cuba ultimately brought under American economic and political tutelage” (Eggert 482). According to a comprehensive study conducted by professor W. Joseph Campbell of American University, he “took keen interest in the incarceration of Cisneros and once reportedly vowed: ‘If that young girl is liberated I will do anything in the world to protect her from the sharks that will await her even at the prison door.’” (72). This notion is ascertained by Lee’s correspondence with the Assistant Secretary of State, William R. Day, where he mentions negotiating the terms of Cisneros’s trial with Valeriano Weyler and discovering that “there ha[d] been no[ne] in this case and therefore no sentence and that most of the accounts in the United States [were] sensational and inaccurate” (Despatches: June 1 – August 31, 1897). Later in the conversation he also learned that “[Cisneros’s pardon] […] would have been effected if it had not been for the very intemperate and untrue statements sent from this city to the public press of the United States” (Despatches: June 1 – August 31, 1897). It therefore seems that the Journal’s efforts had all but caused needless obstructions in the natural development of Cisneros’s case just to stir controversy and improve circulation.
When it comes to the scheme itself, Campbell makes a compelling argument about Lee being more than aware of it without becoming directly involved. Here emerge the names of Donnell Rockwell and Carlos Carbonell, between which Lee is said to have been the “common link” (Campbell 72). Based on one of Lee’s unpublished manuscripts, Rockwell, the consular clerk in Lee’s office, was the person to have conceived the idea of liberating Cisneros. He then pitched this plan to Decker, who presented it to Hearst and was eventually given the green light to carry out the mission (74 – 75). In addition, Rockwell also supposedly “provided a file or similarly small instrument with which Cisneros sawed surreptitiously” (71) – a circumstance which is omitted in Decker’s and Cisneros’s accounts. Not only did the Journal borrow the idea from official American diplomatic spheres, then, but it also depended on their assistance in executing it, which drastically alters the image of the Journal’s debonair heroism as flaunted by the newspaper.
The role of another one of Lee’s acquaintances, Carlos Carbonell, in the heist further supports this narrative: after having fled the Casa, Cisneros was concealed in Carbonell’s house and was also escorted by him to the Seneca (80). His name is also repeatedly mentioned in Lee’s manuscripts, with them making it clear that the two “were well-acquainted before the jailbreak” (82). Moreover, Carbonell’s name also appeared in the investigation of the destruction of the Navy ship U.S.S Maine, as another consular clerk, Henry Drain, referred to him as a man who was well-versed in the happenings – oftentimes underhand ones – in Cuba. This, as again poignantly highlighted by Campbell, illustrates that “Carbonell was well-known to, and well-regarded by, Lee’s consular staff. And it demonstrates that Carbonell continued to engage in intrigue in Havana months after the Cisneros jailbreak” (83). What all of these information corroborate is the fact that the Journal was hardly the sole medium in the precipitation of Cisneros’s liberation and that it largely overstated its influence on the heist. It can be reasonably assumed that if it had not been for the intricate web of official and unofficial American diplomatic proxies in Cuba, Decker would not have succeeded in setting Cisneros free.
Such discrepancies abound, but it can be argued that it was not the misleading nature of the story that caused its downfall, but rather the fact that it came at a wrong time in the era of yellow journalism. As explained above, by the time of the jailbreak, yellow journalism had already built a substantial audience, but it was yet to reach its zenith. One of the key events in doing so would come with the Spanish-American War which was, according to the esteemed historian Frank Luther Mott, near-ideal for coverage due to its proximity to the US, transparency, small scale and shortness (Mott 533). It was therefore no wonder that American newspapers were saturated with war reports, sidelining the usual domestic spectacles. This, combined with the aforementioned attention-fugitiveness of the general populace, effectively divested the Cisneros story of its appeal.
What is more, a new age of journalism was on the horizon – the age of the muckraker. Even though “Joseph Pulitzer’s and William Randolph Hearst’s [yellow] journalism contributed to the rise of the muckrakers and their discovery of publicity” (Fellow 175), the star of the muckrakers was to shine brighter than the one of the yellow journalists. This was because the muckrakers and their reports “were unique, because for the first time they and a concentration of magazines hammered away at the ills of society” (176), rather than merely informed of them in a subjective manner. Perhaps that is why the likes of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair went on to become the paragons of American journalism, while the names of Karl Decker and other yellow journalists are often overlooked. Decker himself had produced a few notable pieces after the jailbreak until his death in 1941, like the one in which he claimed to know who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, but failed to make his way to the high echelon and leave his mark on history.
The same was the case for Evangelina Cisneros: “By the end of 1897, Cisneros had disappeared from the news and the case of ‘jail-breaking journalism’ was scarcely recalled, even by the journal” (Campbell 84). She later married Carbonell and lived with him until his death in 1916. She was also acknowledged as a hero of the Cuban War of Independence and was laid to rest in a full military funeral upon her death in 1970. Her and Decker’s grave, just like the story itself, stand among myriads of others, surrendering nothing but the scantest and most patent of information to onlookers. And even though dead women and men tell no tales, the stories are always there, buried in the bowels of a time long past – if one is willing to dig deep enough.
Footnote 1: “A flat roof or platform on the top of a house or other building”, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (“Azotea”).
Sam Chalupka is an undergraduate student at the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University, Brno. His areas of interest include American postmodern and contemporary literature, and American journalism.
“Azotea.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/azotea. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
Campbell, W. Joseph. “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros.” American Journalism, vol. 19, no. 4, 2002, https://doi.org/10.1080/08821127.2002.10677903.
Clark, Carroll D. “Yellow Journalism as a Mode of Urban Behavior.” Source: The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 3, 1933.
Decker, Karl, and Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros. The Story of Evangelina Cisneros Told by Herself: Her Rescue by Karl Decker. 1898.
Despatches: June 1 – August 31, 1897. National Archives Catalog, 1897, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/211379060.
Eggert, Gerald G. “Our Man in Havana: Fitzhugh Lee.” Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 1967, https://doi.org/10.1215/00182168-47.4.463.
Fellow, Anthony R. American Media History. 2nd ed., Wadsworth Publishing Co Inc, 2010.
Hawthorne, Julian. “Introduction.” The Story of Evangelina Cisneros Told by Herself: Her Rescue by Karl Decker, 1898, pp. 17–27.
Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States through 260 Years: 1690 to 1950. Revised, The Macmillan Company, 1950.
Roggenkamp, Karen. “The Evangelina Cisneros Romance, Medievalist Fiction, and the Journalism That Acts.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 23, no. 2, 2000, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734x.2000.2302_25.x.