Front Door to Cuba

Dr. Ricardo Ruiz de Ugarrio y Salvador

By Joseph B. Kelley, John T. Kelley & Kieran Kelley

Dr. Ruiz from The New York World

Dr. Ricardo Ruiz, from The New York Journal, March 6, 1897

Ricardo Ruiz de Ugarrio was perhaps the first and only Cuban-born, naturalized American citizen, held incommunicado, denied a hearing or trial, and found dead in a filthy Guanabocoa jail cell by the Spanish authorities on 17 February 1897.

Born on 15 January 1851 in Guanabacoa, Province of Havana, Cuba, Ruiz was the son of Spanish immigrants from the northern part of Spain. The family lived a very comfortable life, enabling them to educate their five children. Ricardo Ruiz de Ugarrio came to the United States in 1874 to continue his education as a dental student at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, which merged, with the University of Pennsylvania early in 1878. (5) In the spring of 1878, he graduated with a doctorate in dentistry. During his third year, December 1877, he "declared his intention to become a citizen of the United States, and in January 1880, received his final papers as a naturalized citizen from the court of common pleas, county of Philadelphia."(1)

Soon thereafter, in 1880, Dr. Ruiz de Ugarrio returned to Guanabacoa, Cuba to practice dentistry. He eventually married and raised a family. He was quiet man with domestic tastes enjoying his leisure hours with his family and cultivating their garden of fruits and flowers. He enjoyed his profession as well as his association with a small circle of friends. He was in excellent health with a fine physique developed through gymnastics and exercise. (1)

On 4 February 1897 Dr. Ruiz was arrested in his home by the Spanish military commandant in Guanabacoa, Lt. Col. Eulate Fondesveila. (1 & 2) Following his arrest, he was imprisoned and charged with the participation in the derailment, capture and robbery of a passenger train between Guanabacoa and Regla on the evening of 16 January 1897. (1)

While being escorted to the Guanabocoa jail, Dr. Ruiz de Ugarrio "handed to the keeper or warden a certificate showing he was registered as an American citizen at the office of the American Consul General in Havana." (1) This certificate of registration should have transferred the jurisdiction of the case from Military to Civil authority where his rights as an American citizen would have been protected under the legal agreement with Spain. Instead, he was held incommunicado for thirteen days without an opportunity for a trial or hearing. A telegram was cabled from the United States Consul General Fitzhugh Lee in Havana, Cuba, informing the Secretary of State Richard Olney in Washington D.C. of the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Ruiz. (4)

On the morning of 17 February 1897 Dr. Ruiz was found dead in his cell under suspicious circumstances. The cell was described by Consul General Lee as "a small, closed, and most filthy cell, 3 feet by 5 feet, having a rough stone floor, with no window, and only a 6-inch square opening in the door for the admission of food."(1) Several hours later, his wife, Rita, was informed of the tragedy through a family friend, Rafael Galindo, a clerk of the Civil Court at Guanabacoa. (1) He enabled Mrs. Ruiz to view the remains of the deceased in his cell. She made two requests from the jailers; 1) to cut a lock of his hair and 2) to keep the lone chair from the cell. Her requests were granted. The underside of the chair revealed a message scratched in blood by the doctor. "Adios, I will be killed. Yes, they will kill me if they take me to Havana! Adios, Rita, wife of my soul and my children; adios, my sons; adios, my daughters! Be good and obedient to your mother."(7) He, then, named the children in birth order. Mrs. Ruiz later sent the chair to the Consul General Lee as proof of the murder.

The day after the doctor's death, an autopsy was performed. The results showed that death was caused by cerebral congestion, and a contusion on the top of his head. Two Spanish doctors and Doctor H. M. Burgess, the United States Sanitary inspector of Havana, conducted the autopsy. Dr. Burgess described the wound as "a severe contusion of about an inch and a half long, by an inch wide."(1) In his opinion, the contusion "was produced by a blow or blows, which, while not fracturing the cranium, were of sufficient strength to cause the congestion."(1) On the other hand, the two Spanish doctors described the contusion "as being a small abrasion which only involved the first surfaces of the skin and about a centimeter long."(1) They concluded that the contusion on the head "could have been self-inflicted by butting the head against the door or walls of his cell."(1) However, they did agree that the injury "might have been caused by a blow with a round club or other instrument."(1)

During Dr. Ruiz's incarceration, three other American citizens were arrested and imprisoned. Initially, these three civilians, Sylvester Scovel, Charles Scott, and F.J. Cazanas, were held incommunicado along with the doctor. After the physician's death, however, the Consul General was very concerned with the fate of the other prisoners. He sent a telegram to the U.S. State Department stating that Charles Scott had been arrested with no charge given. The cable read "we cannot stand another Ruiz murder and have demanded his release."(4) Within days, all three men were released from an incommunicado status because of the established legal agreement between the United States and Spain relating to prisoners who are American citizens.

Mrs. Ruiz

Mrs. Ruiz and her children received by Secretary Sherman at the State Department, The New York Journal, March 14, 1897

Shortly after the death of Dr. Ruiz, the leading editorials of two major U.S. newspapers threatened war. "If it is true that the Spaniards murdered Ruiz in his Cuban prison, national self-respect, as well as national honor, demands that the States declare war against Spain.... War is a dreadful thing, but there are things more dreadful even than war, and one of them is dishonor. There seems to be no reason to doubt that the facts in regard to Ruiz's death are as they have been stated... If they should be verified public sentiment will call for vengeance. And this time public sentiment will prevail." (New York World, 21 February 1897 and New York Journal, 22 February 1897). These news stories along with others played a tremendous role in strengthening the anti-Spanish sentiment in the United States of America and it's involvement in Cuba. Two publishers, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, were opportunists who perceived the ongoing political difficulties with Spain and the possible threat of military intervention in Cuba as their chance to increase circulation and make considerable sums of money. Through their "yellow journalism" press, they were able to capitalize and profit from this sensational reporting by employing accomplished artists and journalists. The end result was a product filled with graphic illustrations of brutality, murders and executions that had a lasting affect on the reading public and the growing spirit of American patriotism, i.e., the call for revenge and war. One year after the death of Dr. Ruiz, the Spanish-American War begun.

On 2 March 1897, in response to a Senate resolution, a report was prepared and presented by the Secretary of State to President Cleveland relating to the arrest, imprisonment and death of Dr. Ricardo Ruiz de Ugarrio. (3) The President ordered that an immediate and full investigation be conducted in Cuba. He stated, "though it seems to be clear that the Consul General should have professional aid in such investigation, that matter, together with the selection of the particular persons to act with him, properly rests upon my successor in office."(3) Two days later, on 4 March 1897, the 25th President of the United States, William McKinley was inaugurated and the Ruiz de Ugarrio family (Rita and the five children) fled from Guanabacoa, Province of Havana, Cuba for the United States, settling in Washington, D.C. They were stripped of all worldly possessions including the ownership of five properties in Guanabacoa, never to set foot in Cuba again. (8)

At the request of President McKinley, William J. Calhoun, was appointed the special commissioner to Cuba and assigned to investigate the death of Dr. Ruiz. In Washington, on 10 June 1897 he submitted the investigation report. In it he stated, "the people are dumb - they dare not talk. The moment anyone was approached on the subject of the Ruiz case, he either declined to talk or asserted he knew nothing about it. It was apparent to me that we could not secure any affirmative testimony bearing upon the case, beyond the fact of his arrest, imprisonment and death. I secured the names of certain prisoners who are still in the prison, and who were there when Ruiz died. We were assured that they knew a great deal about the case if they could only talk. These same persons were afterwards brought before the Commission at the instance of the Spanish authorities and their testimony was directly contrary to what I had been told they would or could show if they felt free to talk."(1) In other words, it was very clear that "every person with whom we talked was afraid to express any opinion or give us information on the subject of our inquiry."(1) He reluctantly concluded "there is no positive or direct proof of any violence offered Dr. Ruiz by any guard or officer of the jail. If Dr. Ruiz was struck upon the head by a guard or any officer of the jail, that fact belongs to the secret history of that prison,"(1) and the bloody message scratched on the chair.

Several years passed before American citizens were allowed to make claims against the Spanish Government. On 31 July 1901, before the Spanish Treaty Claims Commission, Mrs. Ruiz filed a $75,000 wrongful death claim on behalf of her family. Five years later, on 17 February 1906, the ninth anniversary of the doctor's death, she received an award of $40,000. (6) This settlement, of course, never addressed the Guanabocoa land and possessions that the family owned.

From the ashes of despair, Rita Lesca Ugarrio de Ruiz, a remarkable woman, emerged to raise her five children in a new country. A mother and a widow, who said, "I will struggle bravely to keep the sacred charge my husband left me in my children. I will live and work for them."(7) Her determination and perseverance is an inspiration to all of us.Mrs. Ruiz

Mrs. Ruiz and her five children in the gallery of the House of Representatives, The New York Journal, March 16, 1897



2. Noel, Dazie. A SPANIARD'S REVENGE, OR, THE DEATH OF RICARDO RUIZ, U.S.: Stock-Farm and Irrigation Print, 1898.

3. Message from the President of the United States, DR. RICARDO RUIZ, 54th Congress/ 2d Session/ Senate/Document #179, 2 March 1897.

4. Message from the President of the United States, AMERCIAN CITIZENS IN PRISON IN CUBA, 54th Congress/ 2d Session/ Senate/ Document #172, 1 March 1897.

5. University of Pennsylvania Alumni Archives.

6. National Archives, Spanish Treaty Claims Commission, General Docket/Entry 146, Volumes A & B, 1901-1910.

7. New York Journal, MRS RUIZ, MY LIFE IN CUBA, 21 March 1897.

8. Kelley, Joseph B. and John T., NOTES AND REFERENCES ON THE RUIZ CASE.

Note: Special thanks to my Uncle and my Father for all their work and tenacity. I also want to acknowledge the members of the Kelley family for not forgetting our grandfather and great grandfather, Dr. Ricardo Ruiz de Ugarrio y Salvador.

Return to Timetable - 1897 |

Introduction to the Struggle for Independence
Ten Year War | Little War | War for Independence
José Martí | Antonio Maceo

Front Door | Contents | Galleries | Site Index | Timetables