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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
Naïvely, Evangelina made her way to Havana to talk to Weyler, nicknamed the Butcher for his harshness in dealing with rebel sympathi/ers. Predictably, the tough old soldier at first rejected any pleas for demency, although he was enough of a Spanish gentleman to grant an immediate audience to the darkeyed beauty. Finally he was swayed by Evangelina’s display of sell-sacrifice. “If you will send my lather to the penal colony on the Isle of Pines, instead of to Ceuta,” she said, “my sister Carmen and I will accompany him as political prisoners. In that way, you will be assured that he cannot become involved in further rebellion.” The Butcher granted her request.
Banishment to the small island oft Cuba’s southwest shore apparently was not as grim as sympathetic Americans made it out to be. One source even described life as “a moderately pleasant existence” during the months in 1896 when Cisneros and his two daughters lived there. They occupied one section of a red-tiled adobe building that had been divided into six sets of living quarters, with a large communal patio. Rather than existing in virtual “slavery,” as some newspapers later suggested, the prisoners seem to have been assigned relatively light duties, with adequate food, clothing, and other supplies. In fact, Evangelina Cisneros would have gone unnoticed in the American press had it not been for a routine change of command on the Isle of Pines.
In July of 1896, the commander of the island’s penal colony was transferred and replaced by Colonel José Berriz, a short, dark man with coal-black hair and whiskers, and green eyes—some considered him handsome. One reason he received the assignment was that the island was considered a plnsh post, a suitable command for a man who was a favorite of Weyler’s and a nephew of Spanish Premier Marcelo de Azcarraga.
Life for the prisoners now began to change, Berriz wanted to emulate Weyler and thus imposed harsh restrictions on the rebels under his charge. At the same lime, he began to look on Evangelina with considerable warmth. Unfortunately for all concerned, it was not reciprocal. Not only was she repulsed by this little, bewhiskered man, but she was romantically involved with another prisoner, Emilio Betancourt, a handsome young Cuban who had been courting her for some months.
Late one night, Colonel Berriz quietly went to Evangelina’s room. The circumstances of this clandestine visit have never been clearly established, although the incident was repeatedly used by both pro- and anti-Cuban interests to generate propaganda. The Spanish version of the matter is that Evangelina encouraged the Colonel’s advances and lured him to her quarters, where other prisoners were waiting to assassinate him. The rebels maintained that Evangelina’s only enticement was lier own natural beauty, which she could hardly conceal. No matter which story is true, it seems clear that Colonel Berriz, had threatened to punish her lather severely for minor infractions, and the rebel assumption was that he intended to take advantage of Evangelina’s filial loyalty by promising to be lenient if the girl would become his mistress.
Whether by prearrangement or not, Evangelina screamed as the Colonel approached. The screams brought a number of other prisoners who, in the darkness, seized the Colonel and threw him to the floor. Then, in a sudden panic, the prisoners scattered, knowing there would be immediate reprisals. Berriz yelled for the guard, bellowed accusations of “assassination,” and in every other way possible took steps to cover up his own actions.
The result of the incident was that Evangelina Cisneros was transferred from the Isle of Pines to a prison for women in Havana known as Casa de Recojidas, which had the reputation of being one of the foulest jails in all of Cuba. The inmates, mostly prostitutes, were said to be housed in squalor and subjected to the vilest indignities. But again the facts are thin, the evidence discolored by propaganda.
Thus, with a wide range of controversial material to choose from—and the basic ingredients of melodrama at hand—the subject was a natural for New York’s yellow journalists. When the story finally broke in the Journal on August 17, it could not help but boost circulation. The Journal promised further reports, and for a while the story worked out well. Although nothing further happened to Evangelina, the Journal was able to hold its audience spellbound by starting a campaign to enlist supporters for her cause. It urged Americans to send letters and cables to Weyler, to Pope Leo XIII, to the Spanish minister in Washington, and even to Spain’s queen regent, María Cristina.
From the opening round, it was evident that the World was not going to take this threat to its circulation sitting down. Starting with the printing of Weyler’s cable, Pulitzer’s staff made every effort to discredit the story, to show that its rival was guilty of gross exaggeration and outright misrepresentation of the facts. The attempt might have succeeded had not the Journal , well aware of the value of the case, determined to inject some action into the situation.