William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal pulled off one of the greatest coups in participatory journalism 113 years ago this week, in what a rival newspaper called the case of “jail-breaking journalism.”
The episode centered around Karl Decker, a Journal reporter whom Hearst had sent to Cuba, and Evangelina Cisneros, a political prisoner jailed in Havana on suspicion of conspiring to kill a senior Spanish military officer.
Cisneros, who was 19, claimed the officer had made her the target of his unwelcome sexual advances.
She had been jailed more than a year, without trial, when Hearst’s Journal described her plight in a front-page article in August 1897.
The report claimed, incorrectly, that Cisneros already had been tried by a martial tribunal and was “in imminent danger” of being sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment at Spain’s penal colony on Ceuta, off the north Africa coast.
As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, the error mattered little to the Journal: “Far more important was that the prolonged imprisonment of Cisneros represented a brutish and unambiguous example of Spain’s cruel treatment of Cuban women—a topic of not infrequent attention in U.S. newspapers.”
In 1897, Spain still ruled Cuba, however tenuously. It had failed to put down an island-wide rebellion that began in 1895, despite having sent nearly 200,000 troops to Cuba. The Cuban rebellion was to give rise in 1898 to the Spanish-American War.
Following its disclosure about Cisneros’ jailing, the Journal organized a petition drive among American women, calling on the queen regent of Spain to release Cisneros. The newspaper claimed to have collected signatures from more than 10,000 women, but Spanish authorities were unmoved.
So in late summer 1897, Hearst sent Decker to Cuba, ostensibly as the Journal‘s correspondent in Havana. In reality, Decker was under orders to secure the release of Cisneros.
With the quiet help of U.S. diplomatic personnel in Cuba–and with the crucial support of a clandestine smuggling network in Havana–Decker succeeded. In the early hours of October 7, 1897, Decker and two accomplices broke the bars of Cisneros’ cell and spirited her out of jail.
She was hidden for nearly three days at the home of one of the accomplices, Carlos F. Carbonell, an affluent, American-educated Cuban banker whom Cisneros later married.
Then, dressed as a boy, the diminutive Cisneros was smuggled aboard the Seneca, a passenger steamer bound for New York City, where Hearst organized a thunderous welcome for her.
Nearly 75,000 people turned out at New York’s Madison Square to welcome Cisneros and Decker, who had separately returned to the United States aboard a Spanish-flagged passenger vessel.
Cisneros “was rapturously received” in New York, I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism, “not because she was a daring and clever prison escapee, but because she was a frail and wily embodiment of the Cuban struggle for political independence from Spain.”
Some U.S. newspapers scoffed at the Journal‘s coup. “Jail-breaking journalism,” said the Chicago Times-Herald. But many other newspapers and trade journals cheered the exploit.
The Fourth Estate, for example, congratulated Decker and the Journal on an “international triumph” and saluted them for having “smashed journalistic records.”
For the Journal–which never was shy about self-promotion–the Cisneros jailbreak and rescue were “epochal,” the apogee of its brand of activist-oriented yellow journalism.
Interestingly, the Cisneros jailbreak fell quickly from the front pages of American newspapers–including those of the Journal. And the case was rarely mentioned in the American press, or by American political figures, as war loomed with Spain in the spring of 1898.
But “jail-breaking journalism” merits being recalled this week, as an episode unique in American journalism.
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