The Perils Of Evangelina

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On August 21, 1897, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published an item that, for the astute reader, pertained not to one war but to two. The article ostensibly concerned the late of a prisoner of war in Cuba, but it was also printed to escalate the intensity of quite another conflict—in New York. Headlined GENERAL WEYLER TO THE WORLD , it read, in part, “In a Personal Cable Message to The World , the Captain-General of Cuba Says that Evangelina Cisneros, the Beautiful Cuban Girl, Has Not Been Condemned or Even Tried as Yet.” The newspaper went on to quote the cable, which was datelined Havana, August 20: “For judicial reasons there is on trial in the preliminary stages a person named Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, who, deceitfully luring to her house the military commander of the Isle of Pines, had men posted secretly, who … attempted to assassinate him. This case is in the preliminary stages and has not as yet been tried by a competent tribunal, and consequently no sentence has been passed nor approved by me.

“ I answer the World with the frankness and truth that characterixes all my acts. WEYLER

The story of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, whom some called the most beautiful girl on the island of Cuba, comprised such a curious mixture of romance, intrigue, mystery, and controversy that it was to attract, in New York City, more fervent attention than the military and political events of the entire Cuban revolution.

The revolution itself had started in February of 1895, when a brilliant Cuban writer, poet, and orator, José Julian Martí, rallied his Cuban Revolutionary party to overthrow Spanish rule on the island. Although Marti was killed in the early fighting, the rebel cause was vigorously prosecuted by General Máximo Gómez Báez and his poorly equipped and widely scattered army of about 30,000. By the summer of 1897, when the name of Evangelina Cisneros first began appearing in American newspapers, the revolutionary cause had not advanced appreciably. The fortunes of Evangelina and lier family were at the lowest possible ebb. Her lather, one of the rebel leaders, had been imprisoned two years before; she and her sister, dangerous persons in the eyes of the Spanish authorities, had already spent the better part of a year in confinement of one sort or another.

Evangelina Cisneros might have been as anonymous as the thousands upon thousands of other Cubans who languished in prisons and concentration camps during those revolutionary years from 1895 until 1898, had it not been for the other war more than 1,300 miles away. This was the battle of the press, waged by New York newspapers with a viciousness never before seen in the publishing world.

The two principal opponents were the New York World and the New York Morning Journal (later the New York Journal ). Pulitzer’s World had been stampeding into prominence and was considered almost unbeatable from a circulation standpoint when, in November of 1895. William Randolph Hearst acquired the Journal . Although a great admirer of the World, Hearst had devoted several years to studying what Frank Luther Molt called “the formula for the successful sensational newspaper”; he was convinced lie could put together a winning combination of talent to overcome all rivals. After all, he had already made a spectacular success of The San Francisco Examiner , which his father had bought and turned over to him.

One of the factors in the Hearst formula for the “new journalism” was to hire the best talent available. With the acquisition of the Journal , he immediately signed on some of the most brilliant newspapermen of the day, including Samuel S. Chamberlain as managing editor, noted cartoonist Homer Davenport, ace reporter Arthur Mcliwen, Stephen (Jane, and Winifred Klack, a famous “sob sister.”

An even more important ingredient for success, however, was the development of sensational feature material that lured readers to the front page like flies to syrup. “Yellow journalism” was evolving: it was considered sound practice to exploit the ghastliest events imaginable in order to build circulation. Typical stories that were blown up of all proportion to their news significance included the pathetic account of a child who bit into a stick of dynamite, thinking it was candy, to meet “an awful death”; the description of a “maniac” enginer who went mad while operating a passeger-train locomotive: and the clinical tale of a girl running down the street with her “head all ablaze.” Murder, rape, arson, suicide—violence of all sorts—were characteristic front-page folder.

As the two newspapers maneuvered closer and closer to a pitched battle for circulation, the formula for success became somewhat modified. The isolated tale of brutality or sex was no longer sufficient. Editors began plotting ways of developing continuing stories as vehicles to accumulate and maintain larger readerships. Into this curious pattern of yellow journalism the name and misfortunes of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros were to fit with resounding and unexpected impact.