PRETTY IN PRISON

Today’s blog post comes to you courtesy of Sharf Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn. In the course of accessioning and cataloging some recent gifts to the library collection from Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, Ms. Pienn happened upon an incident from the Spanish-American with some interesting parallels to an episode dominating recent headlines and broadcasts. George Santayana has been famously quoted as saying: “Those who forget history are destined to repeat it.” Personally, I prefer Mark Twain’s thoughts on the subject: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”–The Chief

Obsession with beautiful young women exists as a universal aspect of humanity throughout history. Pair this phenomenon with the American indignation against injustice — particularly the deprivation of individual freedom — and this fixation catapults to the level of international incident.

Last week, sweet, hapless American student Amanda Knox finally packed her bags for home and left the Italian prison where she suffered, incarcerated, for the past four years. Originally, Knox arrived in Italy as a barely legal adult, secure in her human rights as a socially conscious young woman embarking on a journey of learning in a country known for its passion and beauty. Knox herself possesses the singular kind of unconscious,
unadorned physical allure of a fresh-faced Madonna — an aspect of her being that would likely be her downfall in Perugia, but perhaps is her saving grace in the United States.

Upon her false conviction as a murderess by a sex-and-Satan obsessed Perugian prosecutor, Americans immediately began to rally to her defense. Her blue-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights physiognomy adorned the national tabloids. Respected network news anchors and correspondents began flying to Italy and debunking the country’s shaky case against the Seattle native. Amanda was not the “Foxy Knoxy” vixen portrayed in the Italian court system, said our trusted American journalists. She was a beautiful, innocent girl. And she had to be freed.

Photo by Daniele La Monaca for Reuters

I admit that I, too, sat riveted watching The Today Show as they flashed photos of Knox finally back on our shores, smiling and buying a Hershey’s chocolate bar. At work that morning, I ventured into the rare book stacks and found something I accessioned last month for the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection. Among the comprehensive collection of books on the Spanish-American War, I came across “The Story of Evangelina Cisneros.” The Spanish-American War version of the Knox story, Evangelina’s tale strikes reverberating chords of similarity in its drama of a gorgeous, innocent young woman, foreign injustice, and American “yellow” journalism. Uncanny? Maybe. But some themes, after all, are timeless.

The still not entirely explained 1898 explosion of the American battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor provided newspaper moguls Pulitzer, Hearst, and their aficionados with copy fodder to egg on “The Splendid Little War” against Spain for control of strategic ports. Boldface headlines of “Remember the Maine,” paired with photograph-laden stories of oppressed Cubans, filled American newspapers, incensing U.S. citizens. Young men flocked to enlist in the military, and young women showed their support for the Spanish-American War.

Right before this potent surge of propaganda and patriotism, William Randolph Hearst’s yellow newspaper, The New York Journal, seized upon another sensational plot, perpetrated against one wrongly accused, devastatingly lovely Cuban girl.

Eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros, daughter of an exiled Cuban revolutionary, sat rotting in jail, with no hope of release. Her sad circumstances decorated the Journal’s columns and saturated the minds of its readers. Miss Cisneros’s crime consisted of virtuously fighting off the advances of a manipulative Spanish enforcer, her punishment for which would be instant incarceration as a traitor.

The campaign to right this insufferable affront to liberty caught on as American women of some celebrity wrote deferential notes of inquiry to Spain’s Queen Maria Cristina, attempting to appeal to the royal’s sense of female decency:

Dear Madam: In common with many of my country women I have been much moved by the  accounts of the arrest and trial of Senorita Evangelina Cisneros … she is young, defenseless and in sore straights … all the world is familiar with the shining deeds of the first lady of Spain, who has so splendidly illustrated the virtues which exalt a wife and mother, and who has added to these the wisdom of a statesman and the patience and fortitude of a saint … To you I appeal to extend your powerful protection over this poor captive girl … to save her from a fate worse than death … Your admiring and respecting petitioner, Varina Jefferson Davis [widow of the President of the Confederate States].

A somewhat circus-like atmosphere ensued:  the outraged public, the impotent legislators, the relentless reporters, and, in the middle of it all, the stunningly beautiful victim.

As neither the United States nor the Spanish government addressed the issue, the American media literally leapt into action, dispatching Journal reporter Karl Decker to Cuba.

Decker writes passionately of his daring adventure, the night of Evangelina’s assisted prison break, in “The Story of Evangelina Cisneros:”

Her Rescue. Chapter VII. The Bars Are Broken.

Then we took note of our situation. We were apparently the only people in the world.
Over the city an enchanted spell had fallen.

A strong white light fell on the roof of the jail and brought out with startling clearness the window through which the girl I was sent to rescue was to escape.

As we stood leaning across the parapet of our house looking toward the azotea of the jail, we could plainly see, tied about the bars of the window, the white handkerchief which had been agreed upon as a signal. The moment we saw that we knew that everything was all right within the jail … That white patch on the darkness of the window seemed to stare out of the night like a searchlight.

Before this romantic rendition of the dark and gloomy night of Decker’s recollection, the reporter meets the detained girl to discuss a righteous plan to smuggle her out of the jaws of jail. On seeing her for the first time, Decker gushes:

I found her far more beautiful even than she had been pictured: a cultured, refined, young woman, whose thorough qualities were demonstrated fully in the evidence. She had not been tainted or contaminated in any fashion by her loathsome imprisonment.

After breaking Miss Cisneros free via the roof of the jail and squirreling her away on a boat headed back to America, Decker turns the story over to Evangelina herself.

As Knox did in her sensational “prison diaries,” Cisneros confusedly struggles to tell her version of events that led to her fate of scrubbing floors on her hands and knees in a stone cell:

What happened three days later I do not like to write about … I must try and make you understand … Then I did not clearly understand … But I forget, I have not told you what happened before. I am trying to write this history as well as I can, but at times I forget and cannot make the facts come in the order they should.

Eventually Cisneros explains, in titillating detail, how the Spanish enforcer cornered her while she was alone at home. In the case of Amanda Knox, the sexual harassment allegedly took place once she landed behind bars: it has been recently revealed, once again in the daily dose of American news, how prison wardens illegally entered Knox’s cell with ill intent, and a particular high-ranking jail official would even compel her presence to his office and intimidate her.

In Evangelina’s story, the scurrilous cad in question makes an aggressive pass and demands romantic acquiescence in exchange for her father’s protection from further prosecution:

“Do you know I can make your father a free man—with that,” and he waved his hand, “do you know that if I send him to Ceuta or to the Chaferinas, it is your fault—yours alone.”

Then he shook me by the shoulders and all the time kept crying out my name, over and over again, and saying he loved me—but all the time I was afraid he would kill me.

In the end, journalist Decker acts as the long arm of American justice for freedom. Evangelina’s rescue and subsequent sneaking-out of Cuba ensues, complete with evasion tactics and clever disguises, allowing all to slip away by sea.

In the book, Cisneros describes her first breath of freedom in her reaction to being summoned from hiding below the berth of her rescue ship:

“Miss Cisneros, where are you? I am –“ (he called out his name, which for his own sake must still be kept secret). “Where are you, Evangelina?” he repeated.

I knew it was a friend, and I crawled out from under the berth, and when I looked into the laughing face of my friend I began to cry.

“We are from Havana one hour out,” he said gently, “and nobody can harm you now. Come up on deck and see how you like liberty.”

I tried to think of something to say, but how could I? It seemed too good to be true. I simply cried and cried.

Later cheering crowds gathered at Madison Square in New York to see the liberated young woman. The media clamored for what we now call sound bites.

At the height of her notoriety, Cisneros is escorted to a reception at the nation’s capital to meet the President.

Evangelina’s last words to the public echo Amanda Knox’s only brief speech of gratitude at her release:

Over me is the protection of the American flag. I may thank all my friends—the faithful women of America and the brave men they sent to rescue me. I thank them from my heart.

It is with some chagrin that Amanda Knox stated in her prison diary, “Jeez, I’m not even that good-looking! People are acting like I’m the prettiest thing since Helen of Troy.” The words are quoted by CNN news journalist Candace Dempsey, perhaps the Karl Decker of today, in her book, Murder in Italy: the Shocking Slaying of a British Student, the Accused American Girl, and an International Scandal.

Yet the reality of both Amanda Knox’s and Evangelina Cisneros’s parallel lives shows the true nature of America’s focus on these crimes against beauties. Had the media not splashed their images and played up the prurient aspects of their overseas cases to a riveted public, would mass sentiment free these particular girls? Would the salacious prosecutors even imprison them to begin with? We can only wait for the next century’s Amanda or Evangelina to find out.

~ by "The Chief" on October 14, 2011.

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