Not a hoax: New evidence in the New York Journal’s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros American Journalism, 19, (4) Fall 2002


Abbot’s challenge to the Journal’s jailbreak narrative was, however, thin on documentation and short on logic: It notably failed to explain why the Journal would have gone to such lengths to protect jailers in Havana—and neglected to mention that they had been arrested soon after the escape.30 Abbot also overlooked the official notice, published in Havana and widely reported31 in the United States, in which the Spanish prosecutor ordered civil and military authorities to search for and arrest Cisneros and return her to Havana.32 In addition, authorities searched the offices of Hidalgo & Co., the agents for Ward Line, and maintained a watch on the Journal’s bureau.33 Such response suggests that authorities in Havana regarded the Cisneros escape as a serious breach.


Moreover, Abbot’s claim that he was in close contact with Hearst at the time of the jailbreak—an assertion key to his version of the case—almost certainly is exaggerated and probably inaccurate. By early October 1897, Abbot had begun a leave of absence from the Journal to lead the campaign committee of Henry George, one of four candidates running that fall to become New York City mayor.34 The George campaign began in earnest 5 October 1897—two days before the Cisneros jailbreak—with a rally at Cooper Union, at which Abbot participated as chairman of the resolutions committee.35 News accounts in early October describe Abbot as working earnestly to reconcile the fractious elements of George’s ill-fated candidacy.36 Given his commitments to the George campaign, Abbot’s dismissive claims about the Cisneros escape must be treated with caution.37


In any event, Abbot’s critique has informed many subsequent accounts of the Cisneros escape —including those appearing in John Stevens’ Sensationalism and the New York Press,38 Joyce Milton’s The Yellow Kids,39 W. A. Swanberg’s Citizen Hearst,40 and Ben Procter’s William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years.41 A popular account published in 1968, “The Perils of Evangelina,” also cited Abbot’s version and despaired, “It seems unlikely that the world will ever know the full story.”42 Even the historian of the City of Havana, Eusebio Leal Spengler, said in an interview in March 2002 that he suspects the Cisneros episode is more legend than fact.43


This article argues otherwise in presenting detailed evidence that the Journal’s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros was neither fraud nor “magnificent farce.” It concludes that the escape was not a “put-up job” but was, rather, the result of an intricate plan in which Cuba-based U.S. diplomatic personnel and associates took direct and indirect roles—roles that have remained obscure, or have been ignored, for more than 100 years. No research until now has attempted to examine the identities and contributions of Decker’s accomplices, men to whom he referred only by pseudonyms in published reports about the jailbreak. Scholarly and popular accounts of the Cisneros escape have considered the case narrowly, typically as an example of Hearst’s “sense of entitlement”44 or of his purported capacity to manufacture news and celebrity during the era of yellow journalism.45 This article reaches beyond such a constricted focus.


In thus presenting the first detailed account of the participation of U.S. diplomatic personnel and associates in the Cisneros escape, the article concludes it is implausible that they would have taken such risks had the rescue been a farce or sham. This article’s conclusions also make clear that the Cisneros case was far more complex, and far more important to U.S. diplomatic officials in Cuba, than previously understood. Illuminating the heretofore obscure details of the jailbreak also underscores the importance of recalibrating scholarly and popular understanding of the yellow press period in the United States. The genre of yellow journalism, as practiced in New York City and elsewhere in urban America at the end of the nineteenth century, has long been susceptible to the distorting effects of myth and misinterpretation. Notable among the enduring myths of yellow journalism is Hearst’s purported vow to “furnish the war”46 with Spain—an anecdote often cited to support the broader yet dubious notion that the yellow press fomented47 the Spanish-American War.48

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30. See, among other accounts, “Miss Cisneros’s Escape,” New York Sun (13 October 1897): 5.

31. See, for example, “Miss Cisneros Happy in Freedom; Laughs Heartily on Reading Weyler’s Official of Her Escape; It Calls Upon Spanish Officials to Capture the Refugee and Convey Her to Havana,” New York Evening Journal (14 October 1897): 1. See also, “Evangelina Ordered Back,” New York World (14 October 1897): 14, and “Called on to Give Herself Up,” Florida Times-Union and Citizen (14 October 1897): 1.

32. “Administracion de justicia: Juzgados militaires: Habana,” Gaceta de la Habana [ Cuba] (13 October 1897): 721. The official notice indicates that Spanish authorities in Havana regarded the jailbreak as a serious matter. A contrary interpretation is that the official notice “was simply playing for the galleries.” See Gonzalo de Quesada and Henry Davenport Northrop, Cuba’s Great Struggle for Freedom ( n.p., 1898), 608. The contrary argument is implausible, however. Accepting that version means accepting that numerous Spanish authorities participated in a broad-based conspiracy of silence—and that they maintained their silence during a time of instability and upheaval in the military leadership in Cuba. The Spanish captain-general in Cuba, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, was recalled around the time of the jailbreak and was formally replaced in Cuba at the end of October 1897. It is inconceivable that Weyler and his officers would have engaged in a ploy which effectively handed the Journal a publicity bonanza—and at their expense. Officers loyal to Weyler’s successor, Captain-General Ramón Blanco, certainly would have had no reason to maintain a conspiracy of silence about the circumstances of the Cisneros escape.

33. “Tries to Bribe Her Father,” Chicago Tribune (17 October 1897): 2. The Tribune article was reprinted from the New York Journal.

34. Abbot, Watching the World Go By, 195–196. Abbot wrote: “It is perhaps illustrative of Hearst’s methods with his employes, and his invariable willingness to concede personal liberty of political action to them, that he gave me a leave of absence, with full salary, to conduct this campaign, although the paper was supporting the regular Democratic ticket.”

35. See ”George Begins His Fight,” New York Tribune (6 October 1897): 1.

36. “George Factions Mixed,” New York Times (7 October 1897): 1. George died of a stroke five days before the election.

37. Abbot’s account was marred by other inaccuracies. Among them is his mistakenly reference to Hearst’s Journal as the American. The name change took place in 1902, five years after the jailbreak. In addition, Abbot identifies Carlos Carbonell, one of the participants in the plot to rescue Cisneros, as a dentist. Carbonell was a banker. Abbot also repeats without attribution Hearst’s famous vow to “furnish the war” with Spain. See Watching the World Go By, 213, 216–217. The evidence is overwhelming that Hearst never made such a statement. See W. Joseph Campbell, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies ( Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001): 71–95.

38. John D. Stevens, Sensationalism and the New York Press (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 96. Stevens wrote, dismissively, that freeing Cisneros required “more bribery than bravery.” He cited no supporting evidence for the bribery claim, however.

39. Joyce Milton, The Yellow Kids: Foreign Correspondents in the Heyday of Yellow Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 199–200.

40. W. A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1961), 125. Swanberg wrote that the “thrilling artifices” in the Journal’s account of the Cisneros escape “were necessary only for the purpose of making a good story and protecting the guards at the prison. The guards had been bribed in advance with Hearst’s money and were conscientiously looking the other way.”

41. Ben Procter, William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863–1910 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 108–109. The index to Procter’s book includes an entry titled “Cisneros hoax.” David Nasaw, in his biography of Hearst, includes a passing reference to “well-placed bribes” as having facilitated the jailbreak. He offers no supporting evidence, however. See Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 129.

42. Wilbur Cross, “The Perils of Evangelina,” American Heritage 19 (1968): 107, fn.

43. Eusebio Leal Spengler, interview with author, Havana, Cuba, March 2002.

44. Nasaw, The Chief, 129.

45. See, for example, Milton, The Yellow Kids, 201. Milton described the Cisneros case “a shameful early example of the manufactured celebrity.”

46. The purported vow was first reported in James Creelman’s On the Great Highway: The Wanderings and Adventures of a Special Correspondent (Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1901), 177–178.

47. See, among others, Swanberg, Citizen Hearst , 144, and Joseph E. Wisan, The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895–1898), (New York: Octagon Books reprint edition, 1965), 458.

48. For a discussion of those and other prominent myths of the yellow press period, see Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 51–147