1897 American journalism’s exceptional year Journalism History 29, (4) Winter 2004

But the Journal soon shook off the embarrassment of the strip-search story. By summer 1897, its activist ethos was producing stunning results. The newspaper deployed a phalanx of reporters in late June and early July to solve the mystery of a dismembered torso that washed up in the East River. The Journal and the World locked in frenzied competition to unravel the whodunit — competition which the Journal swiftly won but which the Times found in exceeding bad taste. “Let the enterprise, the public spirit, the ingenuity, and the ‘newness’ of this latest accomplishment of The Journal’s kind of neurotic journalism be frankly admitted; and then let us hope the subject will soon be dropped,” the Times said, adding, “There has been nothing in the development of this case from the beginning that could be read without disgust.”131 To be sure, the Journal’s accounts of the case—“‘a murder, most foul, deliberate, mysterious and terrible’”132—were filled with grisly detail.133 But the wider significance lie in the Journal’s sleuthing, in its activist role in solving the East River murder mystery.


Within three days of the body’s discovery in the East River, the Journal identified the victim as William Guldensuppe, a masseur at a Turkish bath, and directed authorities to two murder suspects—the victim’s former lover, an unlicensed midwife named Augusta Nack, and her new paramour, Martin Thorn.134 Key to the Journal’s detective work was tracing the oil cloth in which the torso was wrapped to a dry goods dealer in Queens, NY.135 The Journal broke the case “in a manner so speedy and certain,” the Fourth Estate said, “that it is a question whether the press is not a more terrifying Nemesis to evil-doers than the officers of the law.”136 Nack and Thorn soon were indicted. Nack, who testified at trial against Thorn, was sentenced to nine years for manslaughter. Thorn was convicted of first degree murder and executed.137


Even more daring—and certainly more ethically dubious—was the Journal’s “forcible liberation”138 of Evangelina Cossío y Cisneros in October 1897. In one of the most extraordinary episodes in journalism history Karl Decker, a correspondent for the Journal, spirited the eighteen-year-old woman from prison in Havana, where for more than a year she had awaited trial on murky charges139 of conspiring against Spanish rule. Her imprisonment, the Journal maintained, was emblematic of Spain’s routinely harsh treatment of Cuban women.


Once out of jail, Cisneros was hidden in Havana for two days and then, dressed as a boy, smuggled aboard a steamer to New York.140 The Journal organized a rousing outdoor reception at Madison Square to welcome Cisneros and Decker, who had returned separately, aboard a Spanish-flagged vessel.141 Tens of thousands of people turned out142 for what the Journal called “the greatest gathering New York has seen since the close of the war” in 1865.143


The Journal declared the Cisneros rescue “the greatest journalistic coup of this age,”144 an episode that confirmed the logic of its activist paradigm. It further stated:


Action—that is the distinguishing mark of the new journalism. It represents the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper. The newspapers of a century ago printed essays; those of thirty years ago—the “New journals” of their day—told the news and some of them made great efforts to get it first. The new journal of to-day prints the news, too, but it does more. It does not wait for things to turn up. It turns them up. 145

A newspaper’s duty, the Journal maintained, must not be “confined to exhortation.” Rather, when “things are going wrong it should set them right, if possible.” The Cisneros case, it said, represented “brilliant exemplification of this theory.“146


The rescue was also, in effect, a case of the Journal’s pursuing its own foreign policy, a development the Times deemed utterly indefensible. The rescue, the Times said, “was without the shadow of legal excuse” and warned that “if acts like this are to be committed, international relations become impossible, and war is the only condition in which nations can exist.” 147 The Times suggested—but offered no supporting evidence—that Spanish authorities connived in the escape,148 and raised doubts about Cisneros’ disguise. “The most adroit and experienced performers on the stage rarely succeed in this effort, and usually they fail to a ludicrous degree,” the Times said. “A glance should have told the Spanish detectives [checking identities of passengers boarding the steamer] the secret of this amateur masquerader” dressed as a boy.149


Significantly, no other New York newspaper was as searching, critical, or indignant as the Times in its reaction to “jail-breaking journalism.”150 But the Journal brushed aside the criticism. For days after Cisneros’ arrival in New York, the Journal published excerpts from newspaper editorials saluting the exploit151—commendations that came from across the United States and as such suggested broad interest in the Journal’s activist paradigm.


The Journal filled the void of government inaction as 1897 closed, in organizing a New Year’s Eve celebration to mark the consolidation of the five boroughs of New York City. Officials had planned no special event to celebrate the occasion. William Strong, the outgoing mayor and an opponent of consolidation, suggested a mock funeral would be a more appropriate commemoration. Having none of that, Hearst stepped forward to organize152 what the Journal called a “great carnival,”153 and what the Fourth Estate hyperbolically described as the “most remarkable undertaking ever conceived by any American newspaper.”154


By any measure, the New Year’s Eve celebration was the extravagant close to the Journal’s triumphant year. Even the New York Sun complimented the Journal for organizing and underwriting the event.155 The Journal spent at least $25,000156 (the contemporary equivalent of about $500,000) to save “Greater New York from having come into being without a salvo of guns or a single public expression of the importance of the occasion.”157 Weather conditions made for an awful night, as rain turned to ice and snow in the waning hours of 1897. Even so, it was unquestionably the Journal’s moment: The parade and the festivities went on, with no small amount of self-promotion. As Fourth Estate reported:


The heavens were brilliant with serpentine flames and blazing stars and bursting bombs, while red and green and yellow and blue fire was burned by the barrel. Searchlights, dozens of them, played every now and then an aurora borealis act …. ‘Read the Journal’ ads danced up and down the neighboring buildings and on the clouds. Ads of the paper were everywhere and in all the popular places. There was a procession of floats and bands and militia, with their calcium lights. … Of course there was lots of advertising in this, but it was of a good sort, and we comment upon it for that reason. The Journal had pledged itself to do something and it surpassed itself. That is a good way for a newspaper to become popular. … [I]t carried off its enterprise in a manner that defied horribly adverse weather and delighted a vast multitude …. We offer our congratulations to William R. Hearst.158




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131. “The Noisy Detectives’ Work,” New York Times, July 1, 1897. The Times speculated that “the grossness and needless explicitness of this kind of news reporting must have a demoralizing influence upon the younger generation.”

132. The comment was attributed to a coroner’s physician named O’Hanlon. See “More of the Headless Body is Found,” New York Journal, June 28, 1897.

133. See, for example, “Beheaded, Cast Into the River,” New York Journal, June 27, 1897. The Journal argued: “To show crime in its … most revolting aspects is to perform a service to law. To bring a murderer to justice is to discharge a great public duty.” See “The Journal and the Nack Case,” New York Journal, Nov. 11, 1897.

134. “Discovered by the Journal,” New York Journal, June 30, 1897. See also, Gerald Gross, ed., Masterpieces of Murder (New York: Avon, 1966), 236–7.

135. For a descriptive account of the Journal’s role in solving East River murder case, see John D. Stevens, Sensationalism and the New York Press (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 92–4.

136. “ Enterprise Means Success,” Fourth Estate, July 15, 1897, 4. The Journal was characteristically self-congratulatory, declaring: “But for the Journal the arm of the law would have been palsied.” See “The Journal and the Nack Case,” Nov. 11, 1897.

137. Stevens, Sensationalism and the New York Press , 93–4, and Gross, Masterpieces of Murder, 238.

138. Evangelina Cisneros and Karl Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros Told by Herself, Her Rescue by Karl Decker (New York: Continental Publishing Co., 1898), 59.

139. The Spanish accused Cisneros of plotting to kill a senior military officer. The Journal claimed she was defending herself from the Spanish officer’s unwelcome sexual advances. The Times suggested that it was possible both versions “were quite true so far as they went,” an entirely plausible interpretation. See “Personal,” New York Times, Aug. 28, 1897. The Journal mounted a petition drive during the summer 1897 in a failed attempt to force Spain to release Cisneros.

140. The jailbreak and flight of Evangelina Cisneros was aided in no small measure by Havana-based U.S. diplomatic personnel and their associates. For an account about their previously undisclosed roles in the case, see W. Joseph Campbell, “Not a Hoax: New Evidence in the New York Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” American Journalism 19 (Fall 2002): 67–94.

141. Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 116–17.

142. The New York Times said the crowd was “nearly 75,000 people.” See “Ovation to Miss Cisneros,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1897.

143. “The People’s Welcome to Evangelina Cisneros,” New York Journal, Oct. 18, 1897.

144. Charles Duval [Karl Decker], “Evangelina Cisneros Rescued by the Journal,” New York Journal, Oct. 10, 1897.

145. “The Journalism that Does Things,” Oct. 13, 1897.

146. Ibid.

147. “Personal,” New York Times, Oct. 12, 1897.

148. “Rescue Made Easy,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1897.

149. “Personal,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 1897.

150. See “Jail-breaking Journalism,” Oct. 12, 1897. Most New York newspapers avoided editorial comment about the exploit, no doubt reluctant to give the Journal even more attention.

151. See, for example, “Editors on the Journal’s Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” New York Journal, Oct. 12, 1897.

152. See Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford, 1999), 1219.

153. “Every One Calls the Carnival Superb,” New York Journal, Jan. 2, 1898.

154. Untitled editorial comment, Fourth Estate, Dec. 30, 1897.

155. “Creditable Newspaper Enterprise,” New York Sun, Dec. 23, 1897.

156. Cited in “Pyrotechnical Journalism,” Fourth Estate, Jan. 6, 1898, 6.

157. “The Greater New York Carnival,” New York Journal, Jan. 1, 1898.

158. “Pyrotechnical Journalism,” Jan. 6, 1898, 6.