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

Discussion and conclusion


The respective contributions of Rockwell, Barker, and Carbonell in the escape of Evangelina Cisneros effectively combine to dispute the notion that the jailbreak was a hoax or “magnificent farce.” It is inconceivable that U.S. diplomatic personnel and a prominent Cuban-American would have figured in the case were it a sham, deception, or a “put-up job.” They simply would have had neither reason nor motive to run the risks they did. Instead, their involvement represents powerful and telling corroboration of the Journal’s jailbreak narrative.


Moreover, the details contained in Lee’s unpublished manuscript make clear that the escape was the result of considerable planning and close attention to detail—and no small amount of good fortune. The plot was intricate and the conspirators, notably Carbonell, were forced to adapt to unanticipated complications, such as the Seneca’s belated arrival in Havana. Lee’s account, moreover, adds considerable detail to the two days Cisneros spent in hiding: It describes how Cisneros feared recapture and how she vowed to kill herself if arrest seemed imminent—certainly not the reaction characteristic of a hoax.


Lee’s manuscript, heretofore little-known, also represents persuasive testimony that the escape was not a hoax. His account is detailed and rings true. Given his interest in the case, Lee assuredly would not have described her escape as genuine had he known it to be spurious. Given the “secret service” network he established in Havana, Lee was in an exceptional position to know whether the escape was a hoax.


As this article has made clear, the Cisneros case was considerably more important to U.S. diplomatic officials in Cuba than previously understood. Lee, in particular, took a keen and abiding interest in the young woman’s plight and went beyond the scope of his duties in Havana to urge Spanish authorities in Havana to alleviate the conditions of her imprisonment. Still, the precise nature of Lee’s role in the Journal’s conspiracy to free Cisneros remains uncertain. He was on leave in the United States when the jailbreak took place, and his absence from Havana grants him a measure of plausible deniability. But it is important to recognize that when Lee left Cuba in early September 1897, he was not certain whether he would return to the post—his first and only diplomatic assignment.151 After all, Lee was a Democrat and a holdover from the administration of President Grover Cleveland.152 In June 1897, the McKinley administration had promised the Havana consul-generalship to James Franklin Aldrich,153 a Republican former congressman. Although Aldrich was preparing to take up the post, the press of events kept Lee in Havana throughout the summer. It was only after Lee, while on home leave, had conferred with McKinley and State Department officials in Washington that his return to Havana was assured154—much to Aldrich’s surprise and consternation.155


Given the uncertainty of his posting in Havana, it is not inconceivable that Lee, before taking home leave, endorsed and encouraged the conspiracy to free Cisneros. He was in Havana a week after Decker arrived to plot the jailbreak. The Journal’s bureau and the U.S. consulate were in the same building, affording Lee and Decker ready opportunity to confer. In any event, it is now clear that Decker received invaluable support from U.S. diplomatic personnel and their associates in planning and executing the jailbreak. Lee’s manuscript, moreover, explains away an important enduring question—that of how Cisneros boarded the Seneca undetected by police. Carbonell distracted them by inviting them to have a drink below deck.


Determining that the Cisneros jailbreak was not a fraud is significant for a number of reasons. It demonstrates that the escape was more than merely an example of Hearst’s madcap antics but was, instead, a remarkable episode in participatory journalism. The Journal’s notion that it could take an activist role in public affairs—that it was obliged to seize the initiative when no other agency was willing—found its most prominent, and most extreme, expression in the Cisneros jailbreak. The Journal called its exploit “epochal” and many U.S. newspapers commended the newspaper for its enterprise.156 Ironically, this brazen example of the power of the press also became a demonstration of the limits to that power. The Journal’s agency undeniably brought about Cisneros’ escape. The newspaper organized a stirring welcome for her in New York. But the prominence of the case quickly faded. Its significance was short-lived. By the end of 1897, Cisneros had disappeared from the news and the case of “jail-breaking journalism” was scarcely recalled, even by the Journal, as the United States and Spain went to war in the spring of 1898.


Even so, it can be said that the Journal’s rescue of Evangelina Cisneros effectively marked an ethical outer limit that has been respected for more than 100 years. Never since has the calculated, international lawlessness of the Cisneros jailbreak been approached, let alone exceeded, by American journalists.


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151. “Gen. Lee May Not Return to Cuba,” New York Sun (7 September 1897): 2. The Sun’s report said: “In fact, it was arranged some time ago that ex-Congressman Frank Aldrich of Chicago would be appointed Consul-General at Havana when Gen. Lee came to this country.” See also, “Gen. Lee Sails For Home,” New York Times (5 September 1897): 8.

152. Hearst’s Journal had urged the McKinley administration to keep Lee in Havana. See “Let General Lee Be Retained,” New York Journal (6 March 1897): 6. The Journal’s editorial stated: “General Lee, more than any other appointee of the [ Cleveland] Administration has typified the true American spirit.”

153. “Hitt for Minister to Spain,” New York Times (5 June 1897): 1. The Times report said: “It is understood that ex-Representative Aldrich is to be appointed Consul General at Havana, and that his appointment will be made in the near future.”

154. See “Gen. Lee in Washington,” New York Times (11 October 1897): 1. See also, “Consul-General Lee,” Richmond Dispatch (6 November 1897): 5. The Dispatch reported: “It is understood that [Lee] is to remain in Cuba until the island is ‘pacified,’ or, in other words, until the ‘cruel war is over,’ whenever that may be, and General Lee’s return to this country will thus depend entirely upon circumstances.” Lee at the time was contemplating a run for a U.S. Senate seat from Virginia in 1899. See “Lee to be a Candidate,” Washington Post (16 October 1897): 3.

155. James Franklin Aldrich to Charles G. Dawes (11 October 1897), Day papers, Container 5, Library of Congress. Aldrich wrote in the letter: “I was wholly unprepared … for the recent report that General Lee had been asked to return to Havana in an official capacity, and am quite sure that he had no expectation of it himself.” Privately, Lee was irritated that the McKinley administration contemplated replacing him in Havana, writing in a letter to his wife: “Don’t know why [they] should send a green man here in a crisis!!!” Lee to his wife (17 July 1897), Fitzhugh Lee papers, University of Virginia.

156. Not all U.S. newspapers commended the Journal’s agency. The New York Times deplored the jailbreak as “perfectly indefensible” and said the Journal’s conduct was “without the shadow of legal excuse.” See “Personal,” New York Times (12 October 1897): 6.