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.
The Dramatic Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros
In the 1890s newspapers in New York City were locked in a circulation war that drove them to print ever more sensational stories
Cuban War of Independence
Insurgents imprisoned on island
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.
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.
Whatever the truth, Evangelina was locked up without charge in a women’s prison in Havana.
A visitor to the place 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
William Randolph Hearst (below) leads drive to free woman
Eighteen-year-old Evangelina was beautiful and in peril; a damsel in distress made for compelling copy in Hearst’s Journal.
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 sends help
Hearst reporter Karl Decker (left), 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.
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 pried 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
Evangelina Cossío y Cisneros welcomed to the White House
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.
Hearst Trumpeting his Triumph
Newspaper Sour Grapes
Hearst’s competitors pour scorn on the story
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.”
New York Times suggested the release of Evangelina could not have been achieved without bribing the prison authorities to look the other way.
Others said 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.
“Yellow Journalism.” PBS, 1999.
“Under Three Flags in Cuba.” George Clarke Musgrave, Little, Brown, and Company, 1899, pages 92-108.
“Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros.” W. Joseph Campbell, American Journalism, Fall 2002.