W. Joseph Campbell

Recalling journalism’s ‘greatest escape narrative’

In 1897, Debunking, Yellow Journalism on February 17, 2010 at 12:06 am

That Canadian newspaper column I blogged about yesterday included erroneous and exaggerated references to one of the most brazen and spectacular moments in late 19th century journalism–the jailbreak in Havana organized by a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

It was, I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the “greatest escape narrative” in U.S. media history, “an episode unique in American journalism.”

Evangelina Cisneros

The central figure in the jailbreak was a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros, who had been held for more than a year without charges. She was suspected of plotting to kill a senior Spanish military officer who, she said, had made her the target of unwelcome sexual advances.

In late summer 1897, as Cuba’s guerrilla war against Spanish colonial rule wore on, Hearst sent a reporter named Karl Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal‘s correspondent in Havana.

In reality, Decker was under orders to organize the escape of Evangelina Cisneros.

With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba, and with the vital support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana, Decker succeeded in early October 1897 in breaking Cisneros out of jail.

She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of Carlos Carbonell, an American-educated Cuban banker whom she later married. Then, dressed as a boy, Cisneros was smuggled aboard the Seneca, a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.

The column, published the other day in the Guardian newspaper of Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, offers a grubbier and error-strewn account of the Cisneros case, saying:

“Evangelina was a beautiful, teenage virgin caught in the grasp of evil, dark-haired, poorly shaven, leering captors determined to do horrible things to her. She had to be rescued. At least, that was Hearst’s version of the story.

“He milked her plight for three weeks, until, with the help of a Hearst-funded rescuer, she sawed her way through the bars of her cell, climbed out on the ladder connecting it to an adjoining building, and crawled to freedom.

“Readers loved it. None of it was true, of course.

“A bribe had been paid so she could walk out, but that was the last thing Hearst wanted to see in a story. He wanted action.”

Hearst certainly was an advocate of activist journalism. In 1897, he advanced a model called the “journalism of action,” in which he argued newspapers should do more than gather and comment on the news. Rather, he claimed, newspapers had an obligation to inject themselves routinely and conspicuously to address the ills of society.

The Cisneros jailbreak was just such a case: For Hearst’s Journal, the leading exemplar of flamboyant “yellow journalism,” her rescue was “epochal,”  a “supreme achievement of the journalism of action.” (Illicit “jail-breaking journalism” was more like it, scoffed the Chicago Times-Herald.)

Decker

As for the claim that Cisneros sawed through the bars herself: Not so. Decker and his accomplices broke the bars of her cell, using a heavy Stillson wrench.

And as for the claim the rescue was a farce, that Decker paid bribes to win Cisneros’ release: The evidentiary record to support that claim is very, very thin.

As I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism:

“No one has identified to whom bribes were paid, how much, by what method, and how the purported payoffs secured the enduring silence of the authorities.

“A conspiracy of silence that included … Spanish authorities in Cuba would have been so extensive—so many people would have known—that concealment could not possibly have lasted for long, certainly not 100 years and more.”

I further wrote:

“The allegations or suspicions of bribery rest more on assertion—and newspaper rivals’ contempt for the Journal—than on specific, persuasive documentation. They are supported more by argument than evidence.”

The Cisneros jailbreak was not a hoax. It was, rather, the successful result of an intricate plot in which Cuba-based operatives and U.S. diplomatic personnel filled vital roles—roles that remained obscure for more than 100 years.

WJC

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