The Perils Of Evangelina

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Then, on the afternoon of Saturday, October 9, a young marinero might have been seen walking with self-consciously long strides toward the waterfront of Havana. This was Evangelina, outfitted in trousers, a blue shirt with a butterfly tie, and a large slouch hat; she was puffing on a huge dark cigar. Some thirty paces behind her, trying to look unconcerned, walked Karl Decker and one of his accomplices, each concealing a fully loaded Smith & Wesson revolver.

In her pocket, Evangelina carried forged papers identifying her as Juan Sola, and the necessary ticket and documents for embarking on the liner Seneca , anchored offshore. At the dock, she calmly boarded the launch that would take her to the ship. Decker and his companion settled themselves nervously at the Café Luz and ordered a round of drinks. The dock area was crowded with Spanish soldiers and officers; Decker was particularly concerned about two military inspectors at dockside. At the very last minute, the engine of the launch refused to start. While the bosun swore and fumed, the inspectors walked over to see what was the matter. Decker’s right hand reached for the pistol under his jacket. But Juan Sola, perched by the forward rail, did not seem upset.

An hour or so later, as the lights were beginning to go on around the harbor, the launch chugged out to the Seneca . Decker watched the girl as she disappeared onto the deck of the steamer, then returned to his hotel, all but unnerved by the suspense. When he finally heard the ship’s departure whistle, he was once again able to relax and begin making plans for his own escape. Eventually he got out of Cuba safely—and aboard a Spanish ship at that•

•There was talk that supposedly loyal guards had been bribed by the Americans. At the moment of Evangelina’s sailing, warden José Fernandez and four other prison employees, including Mme. Ana Milan de Bendou, wardress of New Hall, were being held incommunicado for questioning. Karl Decker maintained that although he had tried to bribe the guards originally, he had failed. However, Willis J. Abbot, editor-in-chief of the Journal at the time, wrote in an account some thirty-five years later that money bought Evangelina’s way out of prison and that much of the elaborateness of the plan was an attempt to cover up and exonerate the guards. It seems unlikely that the world will ever know the full story.

The Journal saw to it that the arrival of Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros in New York was a great event. The docks were jammed with the curious, as well as with important people who had backed the Cisneros cause. Evangelina was hustled to a large suite in the Waldorf-Astoria, where she was kept in seclusion by the Journal just long enough to build up the suspense and prepare for the great climax: a parade to Madison Square, where even the conservative New York Times estimated the swarming crowd at 75,000. Mayoral candidate Henry George spoke eloquently about the Cuban cause. Afterward, Senorita Cisneros was acclaimed at a dinner at Delmonico’s and later at a ball in the Waldorf’s Red Room.

The Journal’s final coup was to have its heroine escorted to Washington by her savior, Karl Decker, for an audience with President McKinley.

Throughout the affair, the exasperated editors of the World tried vainly to treat the matter as a promotional stunt on the part of its rival, wildly exaggerated and partially fictionalized. But few people paid any attention to the World . Why should they, when the escaped prisoner was so beautiful, the cause so worthy, and the rescue so daring?

Trying to maintain some degree of rationality, the Times commented, “We do not intend to express any horror or indignation over the lawless act of our contemporary, the Journal , in taking Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros from a Cuban prison,” thus making its point that Hearst and his men had acted rashly and in a manner not altogether in keeping with international protocol. Nevertheless, it was forced to add, “everybody not entirely destitute of human sympathy is glad, and properly glad, that the girl is free.”

For Evangelina Cisneros, overwhelmingly confused by the strange workings of American journalism, the affair ended happily. On June 9, 1898, she was married in Baltimore to Carlos Carbonnell, the Cuban who had played such a vital part in her rescue. After a reception at the Hotel Rennert, “the happy couple left for Washington an hour later.”

By then, however, Evangelina was little more than an entry in the closed files of the Journal’s past successes. For on February 15, 1898, an event of more than journalistic importance had taken place in the harbor of Havana. With the explosion of the battleship Maine and the loss of 260 American lives, even the most ardent practitioners of yellow journalism no longer had to fabricate events to compete for the fancy of New Yorkers.