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

The “journalism that acts” was a brash even reckless, media-centric conception that maintained that newspapers had a duty to seek to correct wrongs when other agencies would not or could not. Flouting international law could even be rationalized by the “journalism that acts.” The Journal said it was “quite aware of the rank illegality” of the Cisneros jailbreak. But it declared itself “boundlessly glad” to have freed the prisoner 82 and acknowledged “a savage satisfaction in striking a smashing blow at a legal system that has become an organized crime. Spanish martial law in Cuba is not, thank God, the law of the United States.”83


The Journal, moreover, characterized the “journalism that acts” as “the final stage in the evolution of the modern newspaper,” a paradigm impatient with merely gathering and publishing the news: “It does not wait for things to turn up,” the Journal said of the policy. “It turns them up.”84 But as the Cisneros case made clear, the media-centricism of the “journalism that acts” was misleading: It required the support of sympathetic officials to be effective.85


The Journal made certain that attention remained trained on Cisneros and Decker during the days and weeks following their separate arrivals in New York. They were, notably, celebrated at a thunderous reception at Madison Square in New York City.86 Decker was feted in late October 1897 by fellow correspondents at a lavish banquet in Washington, D.C. Lee “was specially invited” to the banquet, but declined, citing unspecified “other important engagements.”87 And the respective, first-person accounts that Decker and Cisneros wrote for the Journal were published as a book.88


In his jailbreak narrative, Decker assigns pseudonyms to two of his accomplices, calling them Hernandon and Mallory. But the account does not describe how Decker recruited them beyond stating, vaguely, that “everything depended upon finding the right men, and in this I was most fortunate. I needed men who spoke Spanish as a native tongue and were familiar with Havana.”89


Lee in his manuscript draft wrote that the “idea of releasing from prison Evangelina seems first to have entered the brain of Mr. Donald[sic] Rockwell, who was then consular clerk in my office. He had met her on several occasions on visitors days at the Casa de Recogidas, and becoming interested in her case[,] first mentioned the matter to Mr. Decker who brought it to the attention of Mr Hurst,[sic] the proprietor of the New York Journal, who authorized him to make the attempt. … It was not long before Mr. Decker took into his confidence Mr. W. B. McDonald[sic] of Havana, Mr. C. F. Carbonell and a few others, who heartily endorsed a plan for her release.”90


What follows is a discussion about how Rockwell, Barker, and Carbonell figured in the jailbreak of Evangelina Cisneros. Each in his way was sympathetic to the Cuban insurgency. Each had a record of acting furtively or of defying convention. To participate in the rescue of Cisneros, therefore, would have been out of character for none of the three men.

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82. “The Journal’s Rescue of Evangelina Cisneros,” New York Journal (11 October 1897): 6.

83. “Beyond Weyler’s Reach,” New York Journal (12 October 1897): 6.

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

85. In other manifestations of the “journalism that acts,” the Journal went to court to secure injunctions to block or stall what it called the “giveaways” of municipal contracts and public utility franchises. See “The Development of a New Idea in Journalism,” New York Journal (3 October 1897): 38–39.

86. “The People Unite with the Journal to Welcome Miss Cisneros to Freedom,” New York Journal (17 October 1897): 1.

87. See “Banquet to Decker,” Richmond Dispatch (26 October 1897): 6. The Dispatch report read in part: “General Fitzhugh Lee, to whom Mr. Decker is personally and favorably known, was specially invited by wire. In reply to the telegram, which was pressingly worded, General Lee said: ‘Impossible. Am forced to decline on account of other important engagements.’ The [organizing] committee regret very much that General Lee could not attend the banquet, as his presence would greatly enhance the compliment to their guest of honor.” Lee and Decker were Virginians.

88. Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros.

89. Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 67.

90. Lee, “Rescue of Miss Cisneros,” Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia. Lee’s account is at odds with the more common version that Hearst sent Decker to Cuba with orders to free Cisneros. See Cisneros and Decker, The Story of Evangelina Cisneros, 61–62, 64. Lee’s manuscript contains several spelling lapses and mistakenly says Decker arrived in Havana in September 1897. The errors are perhaps explained by the manuscript’s being a draft.