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The Perils Of Evangelina

July 2024
18min read

Being the thrilling account ot the capture, imprisonment, and rescue of one of history’s loveliest P.O.W.’s, and of how her plight kept the New York presses—and their editors—humming

On August 21, 1897, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published an item that, for the astute reader, pertained not to one war but to two. The article ostensibly concerned the late of a prisoner of war in Cuba, but it was also printed to escalate the intensity of quite another conflict—in New York. Headlined GENERAL WEYLER TO THE WORLD , it read, in part, “In a Personal Cable Message to The World , the Captain-General of Cuba Says that Evangelina Cisneros, the Beautiful Cuban Girl, Has Not Been Condemned or Even Tried as Yet.” The newspaper went on to quote the cable, which was datelined Havana, August 20: “For judicial reasons there is on trial in the preliminary stages a person named Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, who, deceitfully luring to her house the military commander of the Isle of Pines, had men posted secretly, who … attempted to assassinate him. This case is in the preliminary stages and has not as yet been tried by a competent tribunal, and consequently no sentence has been passed nor approved by me.

“ I answer the World with the frankness and truth that characterixes all my acts. WEYLER

The story of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, whom some called the most beautiful girl on the island of Cuba, comprised such a curious mixture of romance, intrigue, mystery, and controversy that it was to attract, in New York City, more fervent attention than the military and political events of the entire Cuban revolution.

The revolution itself had started in February of 1895, when a brilliant Cuban writer, poet, and orator, José Julian Martí, rallied his Cuban Revolutionary party to overthrow Spanish rule on the island. Although Marti was killed in the early fighting, the rebel cause was vigorously prosecuted by General Máximo Gómez Báez and his poorly equipped and widely scattered army of about 30,000. By the summer of 1897, when the name of Evangelina Cisneros first began appearing in American newspapers, the revolutionary cause had not advanced appreciably. The fortunes of Evangelina and lier family were at the lowest possible ebb. Her lather, one of the rebel leaders, had been imprisoned two years before; she and her sister, dangerous persons in the eyes of the Spanish authorities, had already spent the better part of a year in confinement of one sort or another.

Evangelina Cisneros might have been as anonymous as the thousands upon thousands of other Cubans who languished in prisons and concentration camps during those revolutionary years from 1895 until 1898, had it not been for the other war more than 1,300 miles away. This was the battle of the press, waged by New York newspapers with a viciousness never before seen in the publishing world.

The two principal opponents were the New York World and the New York Morning Journal (later the New York Journal ). Pulitzer’s World had been stampeding into prominence and was considered almost unbeatable from a circulation standpoint when, in November of 1895. William Randolph Hearst acquired the Journal . Although a great admirer of the World, Hearst had devoted several years to studying what Frank Luther Molt called “the formula for the successful sensational newspaper”; he was convinced lie could put together a winning combination of talent to overcome all rivals. After all, he had already made a spectacular success of The San Francisco Examiner , which his father had bought and turned over to him.

One of the factors in the Hearst formula for the “new journalism” was to hire the best talent available. With the acquisition of the Journal , he immediately signed on some of the most brilliant newspapermen of the day, including Samuel S. Chamberlain as managing editor, noted cartoonist Homer Davenport, ace reporter Arthur Mcliwen, Stephen (Jane, and Winifred Klack, a famous “sob sister.”

An even more important ingredient for success, however, was the development of sensational feature material that lured readers to the front page like flies to syrup. “Yellow journalism” was evolving: it was considered sound practice to exploit the ghastliest events imaginable in order to build circulation. Typical stories that were blown up of all proportion to their news significance included the pathetic account of a child who bit into a stick of dynamite, thinking it was candy, to meet “an awful death”; the description of a “maniac” enginer who went mad while operating a passeger-train locomotive: and the clinical tale of a girl running down the street with her “head all ablaze.” Murder, rape, arson, suicide—violence of all sorts—were characteristic front-page folder.

As the two newspapers maneuvered closer and closer to a pitched battle for circulation, the formula for success became somewhat modified. The isolated tale of brutality or sex was no longer sufficient. Editors began plotting ways of developing continuing stories as vehicles to accumulate and maintain larger readerships. Into this curious pattern of yellow journalism the name and misfortunes of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros were to fit with resounding and unexpected impact.

When the World published the cable from General Weyler (Valeriano Weyler y Nicolan), the Spanish commander charged with the task of putting down the rebellion in Cuba, Evangelina’s name was not entirely new to the front pages. Four days earlier, the Journal had told a melodramatic tale about a rebel leader’s beautiful young daughter who, though only eighteen, was being held prisoner by the Spaniards and exposed to the lascivious eye of one of her captors. The story had many ingredients that fit the circulation-building formula—if some means could be found for running it in installments and developing a series of actions that would sustain reader interest while building to some sort of climax.

The Journal had introduced the story with a theme of “injustice”—the account of the innocent victim of Spanish misrule and cruelty. From the beginning, American sympathy had been with the rebels, the underdogs fighting (as America herself had once done) to win liberty from a Great Oppressor. Evangelina, therefore, symbolized all the little people, the patriots, who were being crushed underfoot. The World , rising to the challenge, took the stand that its rival was indulging in pure fiction—that Evangelina was not being oppressed in any way. It was for this reason thai it published General Weyler’s denial that there was any lack ol justice in the Cisneros case.

The journalistic climate in which subsequent events developed can probably best be explained through an anecdote about William Randolph Hearst and the Journal . By early 1897, Hearst had sent a number of journalists to eover the Cuban revolution, among them the famous correspondent Richard Harding Davis and the noted illustrator Frederic Remington. It is said that Remington quickly became bored and cabled Hearst: “ EVERYTHING QUITE. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE. THERE THERE WILL BE NO WAR. WISH TO RETURN. ” Hearst replied: “ PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR .” The Story illustrates an important rationale of the journalism of the 1890’s: if a story isn’t good enough, embellish it. In this kind of reportorial atmosphere, it was not surprising that the Journal’s staff found great appeal and attraction in the Cisneros aihur—a beautiful girl, mystery, a tropical setting, and the endangerment of feminine virtue.

By mid-August of 1897 a number of events had already occurred that made (he story a natural. The whole thing had begun with an act of betrayal. On the night of June 21, 1895, Evangelina had been lying in bed in the darkness of her family’s small farmhouse, when she was startled by a tapping on the door. She was expecting the return of her father, who had left that night with a small patrol to harass the Spanish forces. Instead, she found a neighbor, who told her that her father had been captured.

“But how?” asked Evangelina, incredulous that a man with her father’s knowledge of the local terrain could have fallen into enemy hands. “Is he wounded?”

“No,” came the pained reply. “He was captured without a struggle. One of his squad is a traitor. The patrol walked straight into an ambush.”

Another ingredient that made the story appealing was the determination of the young girl in her prolonged efforts to save lier father from the death sentence or from imprisonment so harsh that it would result in his death. Every morning she walked to the prison, Cienfuegos, to beg for an appointment with General Martinez de Campos, the commanding officer. Her efforts were futile until one clay she learned the tragic news thai her father was to be executed. She tainted immediately, slumping to the pavement just outside the prison enclosure. By chance a young Spanish lieutenant saw her and ordered his men to place her in the shade. Naturally, since she was nol al all unattractive, the Spaniard saw to it that his unexpected charge was properly revived.

“What are you doing here?” he asked Evangelina when she had regained consciousness. He listened with growing sympathy as she told how her father, “a brave patriot, simply doing what he felt was his duty,” had been thrown into prison and condemned to death, and how she had futilely attempted to get an audience with General de Campos to plead for mercy. The lieutenant, easily won by her large dark eyes and patrician manner, readily agreed to help her. (It so happened that he was the General’s son, which made it somewhat easier for him to make a plea for leniency.) He was only partly successful, however; the General agreed only to commute the death sentence to imprisonment in Ceuta, a penal colony in Africa.

“My father would never survive the fevers and heat,” said Evangelina.

“Then your only hope,” replied the General, “is to plead with Captain-General Valeriano Weyler.”

Naïvely, Evangelina made her way to Havana to talk to Weyler, nicknamed the Butcher for his harshness in dealing with rebel sympathi/ers. Predictably, the tough old soldier at first rejected any pleas for demency, although he was enough of a Spanish gentleman to grant an immediate audience to the darkeyed beauty. Finally he was swayed by Evangelina’s display of sell-sacrifice. “If you will send my lather to the penal colony on the Isle of Pines, instead of to Ceuta,” she said, “my sister Carmen and I will accompany him as political prisoners. In that way, you will be assured that he cannot become involved in further rebellion.” The Butcher granted her request.

Banishment to the small island oft Cuba’s southwest shore apparently was not as grim as sympathetic Americans made it out to be. One source even described life as “a moderately pleasant existence” during the months in 1896 when Cisneros and his two daughters lived there. They occupied one section of a red-tiled adobe building that had been divided into six sets of living quarters, with a large communal patio. Rather than existing in virtual “slavery,” as some newspapers later suggested, the prisoners seem to have been assigned relatively light duties, with adequate food, clothing, and other supplies. In fact, Evangelina Cisneros would have gone unnoticed in the American press had it not been for a routine change of command on the Isle of Pines.

In July of 1896, the commander of the island’s penal colony was transferred and replaced by Colonel José Berriz, a short, dark man with coal-black hair and whiskers, and green eyes—some considered him handsome. One reason he received the assignment was that the island was considered a plnsh post, a suitable command for a man who was a favorite of Weyler’s and a nephew of Spanish Premier Marcelo de Azcarraga.

Life for the prisoners now began to change, Berriz wanted to emulate Weyler and thus imposed harsh restrictions on the rebels under his charge. At the same lime, he began to look on Evangelina with considerable warmth. Unfortunately for all concerned, it was not reciprocal. Not only was she repulsed by this little, bewhiskered man, but she was romantically involved with another prisoner, Emilio Betancourt, a handsome young Cuban who had been courting her for some months.

Late one night, Colonel Berriz quietly went to Evangelina’s room. The circumstances of this clandestine visit have never been clearly established, although the incident was repeatedly used by both pro- and anti-Cuban interests to generate propaganda. The Spanish version of the matter is that Evangelina encouraged the Colonel’s advances and lured him to her quarters, where other prisoners were waiting to assassinate him. The rebels maintained that Evangelina’s only enticement was lier own natural beauty, which she could hardly conceal. No matter which story is true, it seems clear that Colonel Berriz, had threatened to punish her lather severely for minor infractions, and the rebel assumption was that he intended to take advantage of Evangelina’s filial loyalty by promising to be lenient if the girl would become his mistress.

Whether by prearrangement or not, Evangelina screamed as the Colonel approached. The screams brought a number of other prisoners who, in the darkness, seized the Colonel and threw him to the floor. Then, in a sudden panic, the prisoners scattered, knowing there would be immediate reprisals. Berriz yelled for the guard, bellowed accusations of “assassination,” and in every other way possible took steps to cover up his own actions.

The result of the incident was that Evangelina Cisneros was transferred from the Isle of Pines to a prison for women in Havana known as Casa de Recojidas, which had the reputation of being one of the foulest jails in all of Cuba. The inmates, mostly prostitutes, were said to be housed in squalor and subjected to the vilest indignities. But again the facts are thin, the evidence discolored by propaganda.

Thus, with a wide range of controversial material to choose from—and the basic ingredients of melodrama at hand—the subject was a natural for New York’s yellow journalists. When the story finally broke in the Journal on August 17, it could not help but boost circulation. The Journal promised further reports, and for a while the story worked out well. Although nothing further happened to Evangelina, the Journal was able to hold its audience spellbound by starting a campaign to enlist supporters for her cause. It urged Americans to send letters and cables to Weyler, to Pope Leo XIII, to the Spanish minister in Washington, and even to Spain’s queen regent, María Cristina.

From the opening round, it was evident that the World was not going to take this threat to its circulation sitting down. Starting with the printing of Weyler’s cable, Pulitzer’s staff made every effort to discredit the story, to show that its rival was guilty of gross exaggeration and outright misrepresentation of the facts. The attempt might have succeeded had not the Journal , well aware of the value of the case, determined to inject some action into the situation.

The senorita had first come to the Journal’s attention when one of its top correspondents, George E. Bryson, sent a dispatch to New York from Havana in June of 1897. He had actually made contact with Evangelina at that time, visiting her at the Casa de Recojidas. His apparent ease in arranging to see her would indicate that prison life was not as severe as had been suggested. Rumor had it that Hearst had sent instructions to his man to rescue Evangelina from Recojidas no matter what the cost. Apparently the Spanish military authorities accepted the rumor as true, for they ordered Bryson to leave Cuba. By the end of July he was back in New York, but he had enough information to promote the next episode.

Even as Bryson’s story about the horrors of Recojidas and the plight of Evangelina was breaking that August 17, Hearst was sending another adventurous correspondent into action on the Cuban scene. He was twenty-nine-year-old Karl Decker (pen name, Charles Duval), described as a “brash and fearless young reporter”—just the man to rescue Evangelina and provide the Journal with the biggest scoop of the entire Cuban Revolution.

Decker arrived in Cuba during the last week of August, and he was obliged to check in immediately with the American consul general, Fitzhugh Lee, whose cumbersome obligation it was to prevent any kind of incident that would worsen the already badly strained relations between the United States and Spain. Decker’s reaction was not what the consulate might have hoped for: one of his first moves was to enlist the assistance of one of the consular clerks, Don Rockwell, along with another American, William B. McDonald, and an able and enthusiastic Cuban, Carlos F. Carbonnell.

By early September the battle was progressing as heatedly in Manhattan as it was in Cuba. Although other New York newspapers chose to ignore the case as a teapot tempest, the World continued to harass its rival by painting Evangelina as a temptress. It quoted Fitzhugh Lee in direct rebuttal to the Journal’s statement that Evangelina was imprisoned “among the most depraved Negresses of Havana” and that she was “to be sent in mockery to spend twenty years in a penal servitude that will kill her in a year.”

Lee himself, said the World , had returned to New York and declared that the Cisneros girl was well fed and clothed, scrubbed no floors, and was subjected to no indignities or cruelties. In fact, said the Consul General, “she would have been pardoned long ago if it had not been for the hubbub created by American newspapers.” Furthermore, crowed the World , Lee stated emphatically that Evangelina “was implicated in the insurrection on the Isle of Pines” and that “she herself in a note to me acknowledged that fact and stated she was betrayed by an accomplice.”

The Journal ignored these allegations. It could afford to, for by the second week in September it had stirred up an incredible following, and was holding its vast readership like a puppet on strings of suspense. The question of Evangelina’s fate seemed more important than whether the Cuban patriots won or lost their fight for liberty. It was far more vital than any of the routine problems on the home front.

The Journal did not rely on its front page alone to attract a mass audience. It cabled Weyler, demanding the prisoner’s release. It publicized the fact that it was sending letters, telegrams, and cables to prominent people in the United States and Europe, urging them to use whatever tactics they thought most effective in forcing the Spanish government to free the pretty captive. Interestingly, some of the most prominent recipients of these pleas responded immediately. Americans, especially women, took up the cause. When those of the stature of Julia Ward Howe, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Clara Barton, and President McKinley’s mother responded to the Journal’s campaign, Hearst trumpeted, “The women of America will save her yet, in spite of Weyler and the World .”

While Hearst and his able band of conspirators were thoroughly confusing the enemy—all the way from Weyler to the Queen Regent, the Pope, and Pulitzer’s journalists—Karl Decker was playing a dangerous game of intrigue in Havana. He had made the costly mistake of trying to bribe several Spanish officials, who all but brought about a banishment similar to that which Brvson had undergone a few weeks earlier. He was thereby in the unenviable position of having to try to plot an escape alone. As he studied the situation, he came upon a surprising fact: there was a vacant house for rent at No. 1 O’Farrill Street, right next to Recojidas and so close that persons leaning out of the top windows of the two buildings could touch hands. Decker immediately instructed two of his colleagues to rent the house for two months. (They were “highly respectable,” said landlord Mariano Fernandez later; furthermore, “they paid in advance.”)

Decker was already armed with certain valuable facts. He had a plan of the prison, which Bryson had obtained in June; he also had a list of guards and a schedule of their rounds, data on various forms of available transportation, and the name of a man who could obtain a forged passport at a reasonable price. It had also been learned that Evangelina was imprisoned with eleven other females in a section called “New Hall,” supposedly reserved for political prisoners, in the upper story—accessible from the prison roof by use of a short ladder or a length of knotted rope. Although it was exceedingly difficult, Decker finally managed to slip a message through, and to obtain an answer. It said, in part:
Can go down from roof with rope. Need opium or morphine to put companions to sleep. Need acid to cut bars of windows. Stand at corner of building, in street. A lighted cigar will tell me to delay. A handkerchief will tell you it is safe. …

Decker now studied the plans of the prison and the rooftop of the house he had rented. Although it would be tricky at night, he decided that he and an accomplice could climb onto the roof and bridge the short span across to the roof of Casa de Recojidas. Accordingly, he had Carbonnell procure a short ladder and an eighteen-inch-wide plank, which he then sawed into three sections, each approximately three feet long. These were hinged so that they could be folded, but when opened out they would serve as a solid unit. He also had a short, knotted section of new rope.

On Tuesday, October 5, a friend of Carbonnell managed to obtain permission for a brief visit with Evangelina. He told her that this was the night the escape would be attempted, and gave her one of the key implements in the plot. A guard was watching closely, but it appeared to be nothing more alarming than a package of candy. This was the narcotic for drugging the inmates in New Hall. (As it turned out, Evangelina had also managed to obtain a drug, laudanum, by feigning an acute toothache.)

Shortly after midnight, when everything was quiet, Decker and two accomplices he later identified only as Hernandon and Mallory completed a major step in the plan. Using the makeshift bridge and the knotted rope, Decker reached the window ledge behind which the Cuban girl was waiting. He had decided against acid for attacking the bars, and began filing away furiously with a small hacksaw. After two hours of perspiring work, he was still only a little more than halfway through, and Evangelina was becoming frantic. Several times they had been forced to stop when the girl’s cellmates stirred restlessly and showed signs that the drug was wearing off. Finally, Decker decided that they had pushed their luck to the limit. He told Evangelina that he would return at about the same time the following night.

Wednesday evening, the sixth, was hot, oppressive, and still. For a while the night looked promising, as heavy clouds rolled across the sky. Then, around midnight, as the three men were making final preparations, the clouds vanished and a white moon bathed the rooftops in a chalky glow. That of No. 1 O’Farrill Street seemed especially bright.

About 1:30 A.M. , the three men placed the ladder in position. Across the rooftop, at Evangelina’s window, they could see a small white handkerchief tied to the bars, the signal that everything was in order. The Cuban girl had managed to put laudanum in the coffee of her fellow prisoners, and it had produced the hoped-for effect. Hernandon crept across the boards first, followed by Mallory and Decker.

Down on the street, about half a block away, was the shadowy figure of Carlos Carbonnell, casually lounging alongside a carriage. He was to keep an eye on the guard at the entrance gate to Recojidas and later, if the efforts were successful, to whisk Evangelina away in the carriage. Just as the three men reached the roof of the prison, Decker froze. Glancing down, as he did every few seconds, he saw Carbonnell hurriedly lighting a cigar—the signal that there was danger. Up on the roof the reporter and his two accomplices flattened themselves against the roof tiles and could feel their hearts pulsing. A chunk of loose cornice had been dislodged and had clattered to the courtyard below, instantly alerting the drowsy guard. But the man had merely walked back and forth a few paces and then slouched back to his post. Carbonnell ground out the cigar, and the work continued.

This time, after only fifteen or twenty minutes of sawing, Decker was able to swing his weight against the bar, snap it “like cheese,” and bend it up far enough to permit a body to pass through. He had hardly finished the job when Evangelina pushed her head out. Decker and the others grasped her arms and pulled her quickly through and into the moonlight. Within seconds, they were back across the boards to the relative safety of No. 1 O’Farrill Street. Although they purposely left the boards on the roof, they inadvertently left behind one of their revolvers.

The next step proceeded without incident. Evangelina was draped in a cloak and escorted casually to the carriage. By 3 A.M. she was in hiding in a private home on the outskirts of the city. Despite a house-tohouse search by the Spanish military administration, she remained undetected for two and a half days.

Then, on the afternoon of Saturday, October 9, a young marinero might have been seen walking with self-consciously long strides toward the waterfront of Havana. This was Evangelina, outfitted in trousers, a blue shirt with a butterfly tie, and a large slouch hat; she was puffing on a huge dark cigar. Some thirty paces behind her, trying to look unconcerned, walked Karl Decker and one of his accomplices, each concealing a fully loaded Smith & Wesson revolver.

In her pocket, Evangelina carried forged papers identifying her as Juan Sola, and the necessary ticket and documents for embarking on the liner Seneca , anchored offshore. At the dock, she calmly boarded the launch that would take her to the ship. Decker and his companion settled themselves nervously at the Café Luz and ordered a round of drinks. The dock area was crowded with Spanish soldiers and officers; Decker was particularly concerned about two military inspectors at dockside. At the very last minute, the engine of the launch refused to start. While the bosun swore and fumed, the inspectors walked over to see what was the matter. Decker’s right hand reached for the pistol under his jacket. But Juan Sola, perched by the forward rail, did not seem upset.

An hour or so later, as the lights were beginning to go on around the harbor, the launch chugged out to the Seneca . Decker watched the girl as she disappeared onto the deck of the steamer, then returned to his hotel, all but unnerved by the suspense. When he finally heard the ship’s departure whistle, he was once again able to relax and begin making plans for his own escape. Eventually he got out of Cuba safely—and aboard a Spanish ship at that•

•There was talk that supposedly loyal guards had been bribed by the Americans. At the moment of Evangelina’s sailing, warden José Fernandez and four other prison employees, including Mme. Ana Milan de Bendou, wardress of New Hall, were being held incommunicado for questioning. Karl Decker maintained that although he had tried to bribe the guards originally, he had failed. However, Willis J. Abbot, editor-in-chief of the Journal at the time, wrote in an account some thirty-five years later that money bought Evangelina’s way out of prison and that much of the elaborateness of the plan was an attempt to cover up and exonerate the guards. It seems unlikely that the world will ever know the full story.

The Journal saw to it that the arrival of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros in New York was a great event. The docks were jammed with the curious, as well as with important people who had backed the Cisneros cause. Evangelina was hustled to a large suite in the Waldorf-Astoria, where she was kept in seclusion by the Journal just long enough to build up the suspense and prepare for the great climax: a parade to Madison Square, where even the conservative New York Times estimated the swarming crowd at 75,000. Mayoral candidate Henry George spoke eloquently about the Cuban cause. Afterward, Senorita Cisneros was acclaimed at a dinner at Delmonico’s and later at a ball in the Waldorf’s Red Room.

The Journal’s final coup was to have its heroine escorted to Washington by her savior, Karl Decker, for an audience with President McKinley.

Throughout the affair, the exasperated editors of the World tried vainly to treat the matter as a promotional stunt on the part of its rival, wildly exaggerated and partially fictionalized. But few people paid any attention to the World . Why should they, when the escaped prisoner was so beautiful, the cause so worthy, and the rescue so daring?

Trying to maintain some degree of rationality, the Times commented, “We do not intend to express any horror or indignation over the lawless act of our contemporary, the Journal , in taking Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros from a Cuban prison,” thus making its point that Hearst and his men had acted rashly and in a manner not altogether in keeping with international protocol. Nevertheless, it was forced to add, “everybody not entirely destitute of human sympathy is glad, and properly glad, that the girl is free.”

For Evangelina Cisneros, overwhelmingly confused by the strange workings of American journalism, the affair ended happily. On June 9, 1898, she was married in Baltimore to Carlos Carbonnell, the Cuban who had played such a vital part in her rescue. After a reception at the Hotel Rennert, “the happy couple left for Washington an hour later.”

By then, however, Evangelina was little more than an entry in the closed files of the Journal’s past successes. For on February 15, 1898, an event of more than journalistic importance had taken place in the harbor of Havana. With the explosion of the battleship Maine and the loss of 260 American lives, even the most ardent practitioners of yellow journalism no longer had to fabricate events to compete for the fancy of New Yorkers.

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