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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
The senorita had first come to the Journal’s attention when one of its top correspondents, George E. Bryson, sent a dispatch to New York from Havana in June of 1897. He had actually made contact with Evangelina at that time, visiting her at the Casa de Recojidas. His apparent ease in arranging to see her would indicate that prison life was not as severe as had been suggested. Rumor had it that Hearst had sent instructions to his man to rescue Evangelina from Recojidas no matter what the cost. Apparently the Spanish military authorities accepted the rumor as true, for they ordered Bryson to leave Cuba. By the end of July he was back in New York, but he had enough information to promote the next episode.
Even as Bryson’s story about the horrors of Recojidas and the plight of Evangelina was breaking that August 17, Hearst was sending another adventurous correspondent into action on the Cuban scene. He was twenty-nine-year-old Karl Decker (pen name, Charles Duval), described as a “brash and fearless young reporter”—just the man to rescue Evangelina and provide the Journal with the biggest scoop of the entire Cuban Revolution.
Decker arrived in Cuba during the last week of August, and he was obliged to check in immediately with the American consul general, Fitzhugh Lee, whose cumbersome obligation it was to prevent any kind of incident that would worsen the already badly strained relations between the United States and Spain. Decker’s reaction was not what the consulate might have hoped for: one of his first moves was to enlist the assistance of one of the consular clerks, Don Rockwell, along with another American, William B. McDonald, and an able and enthusiastic Cuban, Carlos F. Carbonnell.
By early September the battle was progressing as heatedly in Manhattan as it was in Cuba. Although other New York newspapers chose to ignore the case as a teapot tempest, the World continued to harass its rival by painting Evangelina as a temptress. It quoted Fitzhugh Lee in direct rebuttal to the Journal’s statement that Evangelina was imprisoned “among the most depraved Negresses of Havana” and that she was “to be sent in mockery to spend twenty years in a penal servitude that will kill her in a year.”
Lee himself, said the World , had returned to New York and declared that the Cisneros girl was well fed and clothed, scrubbed no floors, and was subjected to no indignities or cruelties. In fact, said the Consul General, “she would have been pardoned long ago if it had not been for the hubbub created by American newspapers.” Furthermore, crowed the World , Lee stated emphatically that Evangelina “was implicated in the insurrection on the Isle of Pines” and that “she herself in a note to me acknowledged that fact and stated she was betrayed by an accomplice.”
The Journal ignored these allegations. It could afford to, for by the second week in September it had stirred up an incredible following, and was holding its vast readership like a puppet on strings of suspense. The question of Evangelina’s fate seemed more important than whether the Cuban patriots won or lost their fight for liberty. It was far more vital than any of the routine problems on the home front.
The Journal did not rely on its front page alone to attract a mass audience. It cabled Weyler, demanding the prisoner’s release. It publicized the fact that it was sending letters, telegrams, and cables to prominent people in the United States and Europe, urging them to use whatever tactics they thought most effective in forcing the Spanish government to free the pretty captive. Interestingly, some of the most prominent recipients of these pleas responded immediately. Americans, especially women, took up the cause. When those of the stature of Julia Ward Howe, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Clara Barton, and President McKinley’s mother responded to the Journal’s campaign, Hearst trumpeted, “The women of America will save her yet, in spite of Weyler and the World .”
While Hearst and his able band of conspirators were thoroughly confusing the enemy—all the way from Weyler to the Queen Regent, the Pope, and Pulitzer’s journalists—Karl Decker was playing a dangerous game of intrigue in Havana. He had made the costly mistake of trying to bribe several Spanish officials, who all but brought about a banishment similar to that which Brvson had undergone a few weeks earlier. He was thereby in the unenviable position of having to try to plot an escape alone. As he studied the situation, he came upon a surprising fact: there was a vacant house for rent at No. 1 O’Farrill Street, right next to Recojidas and so close that persons leaning out of the top windows of the two buildings could touch hands. Decker immediately instructed two of his colleagues to rent the house for two months. (They were “highly respectable,” said landlord Mariano Fernandez later; furthermore, “they paid in advance.”)