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The Perils Of Evangelina
Being the thrilling account ot the capture, imprisonment, and rescue of one of history’s loveliest P.O.W.’s, and of how her plight kept the New York presses—and their editors—humming
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
When the World published the cable from General Weyler (Valeriano Weyler y Nicolan), the Spanish commander charged with the task of putting down the rebellion in Cuba, Evangelina’s name was not entirely new to the front pages. Four days earlier, the Journal had told a melodramatic tale about a rebel leader’s beautiful young daughter who, though only eighteen, was being held prisoner by the Spaniards and exposed to the lascivious eye of one of her captors. The story had many ingredients that fit the circulation-building formula—if some means could be found for running it in installments and developing a series of actions that would sustain reader interest while building to some sort of climax.
The Journal had introduced the story with a theme of “injustice”—the account of the innocent victim of Spanish misrule and cruelty. From the beginning, American sympathy had been with the rebels, the underdogs fighting (as America herself had once done) to win liberty from a Great Oppressor. Evangelina, therefore, symbolized all the little people, the patriots, who were being crushed underfoot. The World , rising to the challenge, took the stand that its rival was indulging in pure fiction—that Evangelina was not being oppressed in any way. It was for this reason thai it published General Weyler’s denial that there was any lack ol justice in the Cisneros case.
The journalistic climate in which subsequent events developed can probably best be explained through an anecdote about William Randolph Hearst and the Journal . By early 1897, Hearst had sent a number of journalists to eover the Cuban revolution, among them the famous correspondent Richard Harding Davis and the noted illustrator Frederic Remington. It is said that Remington quickly became bored and cabled Hearst: “ EVERYTHING QUITE. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE. THERE THERE WILL BE NO WAR. WISH TO RETURN. ” Hearst replied: “ PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND I’LL FURNISH THE WAR .” The Story illustrates an important rationale of the journalism of the 1890’s: if a story isn’t good enough, embellish it. In this kind of reportorial atmosphere, it was not surprising that the Journal’s staff found great appeal and attraction in the Cisneros aihur—a beautiful girl, mystery, a tropical setting, and the endangerment of feminine virtue.
By mid-August of 1897 a number of events had already occurred that made (he story a natural. The whole thing had begun with an act of betrayal. On the night of June 21, 1895, Evangelina had been lying in bed in the darkness of her family’s small farmhouse, when she was startled by a tapping on the door. She was expecting the return of her father, who had left that night with a small patrol to harass the Spanish forces. Instead, she found a neighbor, who told her that her father had been captured.
“But how?” asked Evangelina, incredulous that a man with her father’s knowledge of the local terrain could have fallen into enemy hands. “Is he wounded?”
“No,” came the pained reply. “He was captured without a struggle. One of his squad is a traitor. The patrol walked straight into an ambush.”
Another ingredient that made the story appealing was the determination of the young girl in her prolonged efforts to save lier father from the death sentence or from imprisonment so harsh that it would result in his death. Every morning she walked to the prison, Cienfuegos, to beg for an appointment with General Martinez de Campos, the commanding officer. Her efforts were futile until one clay she learned the tragic news thai her father was to be executed. She tainted immediately, slumping to the pavement just outside the prison enclosure. By chance a young Spanish lieutenant saw her and ordered his men to place her in the shade. Naturally, since she was nol al all unattractive, the Spaniard saw to it that his unexpected charge was properly revived.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Evangelina when she had regained consciousness. He listened with growing sympathy as she told how her father, “a brave patriot, simply doing what he felt was his duty,” had been thrown into prison and condemned to death, and how she had futilely attempted to get an audience with General de Campos to plead for mercy. The lieutenant, easily won by her large dark eyes and patrician manner, readily agreed to help her. (It so happened that he was the General’s son, which made it somewhat easier for him to make a plea for leniency.) He was only partly successful, however; the General agreed only to commute the death sentence to imprisonment in Ceuta, a penal colony in Africa.
“My father would never survive the fevers and heat,” said Evangelina.
“Then your only hope,” replied the General, “is to plead with Captain-General Valeriano Weyler.”