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

Significantly, Lee 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.”61 His wife and daughter visited Cisneros in prison in early 1897, and by doing so sought to “relieve the tedium and distress of her imprisonment.”62


Lee’s unpublished manuscript also makes clear that he went beyond the duties of an American diplomat and urged Spanish authorities to ease the harsh conditions of Cisneros’ detention at Casa de Recogidas.63 “Words fail me,” he wrote, “in describing the horrors of this place, and the appearance of the dissolute gang of women confined therein.”64 Lee said he had noticed Cisneros while visiting several American women who were briefly jailed there. “I succeeded in having the Americans finally released,” he wrote in the manuscript, “but the picture of this pretty young girl being left behind continued to haunt me.” He took up her case with senior Spanish authorities and soon less-punishing accommodations were built for what Lee called “the better class of prisoners”—Cisneros among them.65


In mid-August 1897, Lee went to the extraordinary length of writing a personal letter to the Spanish governor-general in Cuba, invoking his wife and daughter in asking for Cisneros’ release.66 The governor-general, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, rejected Lee’s overture, referring indirectly to the Journal’s campaign to press Spain for Cisneros’ release. “I cannot conceal that the propaganda which is going on in the United States [would make] my action rather difficult,” Weyler wrote, “but I trust that this will disappear and that when the time comes I may be able to see if I can find a way of acceding to Mrs. and Miss Lee’s request.”67 Weyler’s letter—which ruled out a timely release—was written 28 August 1897, the day, coincidentally, when Decker arrived in Havana to begin plotting the jailbreak.68A week later, 69 Lee left Cuba on home leave.70 While in Havana, Decker acted as the Journal’s Cuba correspondent and worked from the newspaper’s bureau in Casa Nueva—a building in the heart of Havana that also housed the U.S. consulate71 and offices of Hidalgo & Co., Havana agents of the Ward steamship line, which operated the Seneca.72


A few hints and passing references about the roles of U.S. diplomatic personnel in the Cisneros escape have appeared elsewhere, in works by James L. Nichols, George Clarke Musgrave, and Cora Older. Nichols’ biography of Lee drew on the papers at the University of Virginia and includes a passing reference to the Cisneros case. Nichols noted that Lee was in the United States at the time of the jailbreak and mentioned in an endnote73 that Carbonell and Rockwell had helped “in rigging the hair-raising ‘rescue.’”74


Musgrave, who was a correspondent for the Journal in Cuba, mentioned in his book, Under Three Flags in Cuba, that Rockwell, the consular clerk, had obtained a pass that allowed Musgrave and Decker to visit Cisneros in jail.75 Older’s hagiographic treatment of Hearst mentions that Decker, in recruiting co-conspirators in Havana, had “obtained the assistance of Lee” who made available the services of Rockwell.76 Older’s account must be treated with caution, however, as it is riddled with error. Among other lapses is Older’s mistaken reference to the jailbreak as having occurred in November 1897.77 And neither Nichols’ nor Musgrave’s nor Older’s account explores the extent to which Rockwell, Barker, and Carbonell figured in the rescue or considers the implications of their contributions.


There was, to be sure, obvious reason for U.S. diplomatic personnel and their associates to have concealed or deflected attention from their roles, given the lawlessness inherent in the jailbreak. Likewise, there was ample reason for Hearst and Decker to have minimized or ignored the contributions of others. The Journal—ever inclined to self-promotion78—said the jailbreak as due almost entirely to the shrewdness and skill of its correspondent, Decker. That he had accomplices was, for the Journal , a minor, subordinate detail.


Moreover, the rescue of Cisneros was emblematic of the Journal’s emergent activist ethos—a manifestation of what it termed the “journalism that acts”79 or the “journalism that does things.”80 A newspaper’s duty must not be “confined to exhortation,” the Journal declared after Cisneros arrived in New York City. When “things are going wrong it should set them right, if possible.” The Cisneros case, it declared, represented a “brilliant exemplification of this theory.“81


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61. Quoted in “Cuban Maid is Still Spared,” New York Herald (19 August 1897): 3.

62. “Journal Will Take Care of Her,” New York Evening Journal (11 August 1897).

63. Fitzhugh Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” unpublished manuscript [1898], Fitzhugh Lee papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

64. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

65. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

66. Lee to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (18 August 1897), Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

67. Weyler to Lee (28 August 1897), translation to English, Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

68. See Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 69.

69. See Lee to Day (15 November 1897), Havana consular dispatches, National Archives, College Park. In the letter, Lee formally notified Day that he had resumed his post in Havana on 15 November 1897.

70. Further evidence of Lee’s attachment to the Cisneros case came during his home leave, when he lost his billfold to a pickpocket in Richmond, while on his way to attend Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show.” The billfold was soon recovered. But missing were $20 cash and a letter from Cisneros that Lee had tucked inside his wallet. See “General Lee Robbed on a Car,” Richmond Dispatch (17 October 1897): 13, and “General Lee Gets His Purse,” Richmond Dispatch (19 October 1897): 7. The letter’s contents are not known. See also, “Consul-General Lee Robbed,” New York World (18 October 1897): 1.

71. See Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 68.

72. An article in the Journal in November 1897 described the occupants of Casa Nueva, stating: “On the ground floor of the house is the Journal bureau and the inspecting rooms of the Marine Hospital Service of the United States, Lloyd’s Shipping Agency and some brokers’ offices. The second floor is occupied by Hidalgo & Co., agents of the Ward Steamship Line, and the top floor is the United States consulate.” See George Clarke Musgrave, “Tried To Wreck Our Consulate in Havana,” New York Journal (25 November 1897): 5. The article said an explosive device had been found by a watchman at the doorway of Casa Nueva.

73. James L. Nichols, General Fitzhugh Lee: A Biography (Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, 1989), 209.

74. Nichols, General Fitzhugh Lee, 154.

75. Musgrave, Under Three Flags in Cuba, 103. Musgrave wrote: “Luckily, Mr. Rockwell of the United States consular service, a friend of the Marquis de Palmerola, had obtained a permit to visit the Recogidas. That permit proved the only means of communicating with the prisoner.” The Marquis de Palmerola was a ranking Spanish official in Havana.

76. Cora Older, William Randolph Hearst, American (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, reprint 1972), 172. Older’s account identifies Rockwell as “one of the consular clerks.” It also says another conspirator, William B. MacDonald, was one of Lee’s aides. MacDonald in fact was an official of a shipping company and was based in Cuba.

77. Older, William Randolph Hearst, 175. Older also wrote, 180, that Cisneros lived in the United States “a little more than a year when she married” Carbonell at Lee’s home in Virginia. She married Carbonell in Baltimore, MD, less than eight months after her arrival in the United States. See among other accounts, “Miss Cisneros Weds,” Washington Post (10 June 1898): 7; “ Cuba’s Heroine Now a Bride,” Richmond Times (10 June 1898): 6, and “Miss Cisneros Now A Bride,” New York World (10 June 1898): 12.

78. Self-promotion was one of the defining characteristics of yellow journalism of the late nineteenth century. See Campbell, Yellow Journalism, 8.

79. See “The Journalism that Acts Meet with the Nation’s Approval,” New York Journal (14 February 1898): 4.

80. “The Journalism that Does Things,” New York Journal.

81. “The Journalism that Does Things,” New York Journal.