W. Joseph Campbell

Was ‘jailbreaking journalism’ a hoax? Evidence points the other way

In 1897, Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on October 15, 2010 at 6:42 am

The sensational case of “jail-breaking journalism” reached a conclusion 113 years ago this week, when the passenger steamer Seneca reached in New York harbor, en route from Havana.

Among the passengers was 19-year-old Evangelina Cisneros, a petite Cuban woman who, a few days before, had been the world’s most famous political prisoner.

She had been broken out of jail in Havana in the early hours of October 7, 1897. Her rescuers included Karl Decker, a reporter for William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal who had been assigned to Havana to secure her freedom.

Once out of jail, Cisneros was hidden at the home of a bachelor Cuban banker for nearly three days. She was smuggled aboard the Seneca just before it left Havana.

The steamer reached New York on October 13, 1897, and the Journal lodged Cisneros in a palatial room at the Waldorf Hotel. Four days later, she and Decker were feted at Madison Square, at a thunderous outdoor reception organized by Hearst.

More than 75,000 people turned out at what was reported to have been the largest public gathering in New York since the Civil War.

I wrote about the case of “jail-breaking journalism” in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, noting:

“Cisneros was rapturously received [in New York] 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.”

At the time, Cuba was in open rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, and Evangelina had been swept up in the tumult on the island. She was accused of plotting to kill a senior Spanish military officer; she said she was defending herself from the officer’s sexual advances.

To the Journal, her jailing stood as irrefutable evidence of Spain’s routine mistreatment of Cuban women. Cisneros, the Journal said, was guilty only of “having in her veins the best blood in Cuba.”

As that claim suggests, the Journal devoted impassioned and intensive coverage to Cisneros’ plight, turning her jailing into an international cause célèbre.

By the time of her escape, Cisneros had been in Spanish custody nearly 15 months without trial.

The jailbreak was breathtakingly illegal–and one of the most astonishing episodes in American journalism. The Journal declared it “epochal,” a stunning success of its activist brand of yellow journalism.

But the case long has been dogged by suspicions that the whole thing was a hoax, that Decker paid bribes to win Cisneros’ release and then concocted an elaborate tale about a jailbreak.

Such suspicions emerged almost as soon as Cisneros reached New York.  As I note in The Year That Defined American Journalism, Hearst’s leading rival newspaper, the New York World of Joseph Pulitzer, was particularly eager to denounce the Cisneros rescue as fraudulent.

“Gold did it,” the World declared. “The Spanish could not withstand its glitter. It oiled the palms of turnkeys and guards, of officers and civilians. Miss Cisneros’s friends had it a-plenty. And so she got out of her cell while her jailers looked the other way.”

But as I note in The Year That Defined American Journalism, such claims “have never been supported by any direct evidence. 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.”

Besides, a conspiracy of silence that included senior Spanish authorities in Cuba would have had to have been so improbably extensive—so many people would have known—that “concealment could not possibly have lasted for long, certainly not 100 years and more,” I wrote.

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

Decker–who denied that bribes had been paid–succeeded in the jailbreak because he tapped into a clandestine network in Havana, the operatives of which had become adept in smuggling arms, ammunition, and medicine into Cuba and, occasionally, people out.

Among those operatives was Carlos F. Carbonell, a bachelor banker in whose home Cisneros was hidden. They also included William B. MacDonald, an American national in Havana who was the agent for a steamship line. He was with Decker when the jailbreak took place.

It is simply implausible that Carbonell, MacDonald, and Decker’s other accomplices would have taken the risks they took had the Cisneros rescue been nothing more than hoax, farce, or sham.


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