Medallion Name – BONFILS
Significance – In the days before technology, television and radio, people got information from daily newspapers. Depended upon for fact and truth, newspapers were a reliable source of information…until the Denver Post came along. Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen published the first muckraking tabloid of the West. The Denver Post positioned itself as a form of entertainment in the days before radio and film. Articles sacrificed truth for sensationalism and exaggeration. But it was the Post’s disregarded of accepted journalism norms and standards that made it exceptional.
“A dog fight on Champa Street is of more interest to Denverites than a war in Europe.”
(1860 – 1933)
Founder of The Denver Post and prominent philanthropist
Location – 39°44’51.0″N 104°59’34.5″W
Details – It was said that back in it Boom Town heyday, “Denver had more sunshine and sons of bitches than any place in the country.” They were likely referring to publishers Frederick Bonfils and Harry Heye Tammen. Two white collar Western antiheroes who published the Denver Post, a newspaper that for better or for worse, defined its time. They made a fortune doing so.
Born in Baltimore, in 1856, Harry Tammen had a difficult childhood. His father passed and his mother had to let him go. Those were different times. The story goes that at the vulnerable age of seven, mom sent Harry out to face the world with the parting words, “My little son, may love and good cheer always go with you.” Harry bypassed the orphan’s home and set out to make his way in the world. Through circumstance, he grew to become a seasoned and popular bartender. A Colorado socialite recruited Tammen to bartend at the Windsor Hotel. It was the right move. They say, “Tammen took to the West, and the West took to Tammen.”
Beyond being the five-star bartender at the Windsor Hotel, Tammen was a favorite local character who had a penchant for stories. His second business was the H.H. Tammen Curio Company. His third was the editor of another local newspaper, the Great-Divide Weekly.
Conversely, Frederick Gilmer Bonfils was proud to say that he had an aristocratic background, sometimes boasting that his great grandfather had been an aide to Napoleon. Hailing from Missouri, Bonfils entered, but did not complete West Point Military Academy.
Bonfils built his fortune one swindle at a time. He was chased from Missouri for running a rigged lottery. When land in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was at its peak, Bonfils bought up a bunch of lots in Oklahoma City, Texas. He then took the deed to Oklahoma where he sold land in Oklahoma City for 1/3rd the market value. It wasn’t until they read the fine print that they learned the lots were in Texas.
Bonfils showed up in to Denver with a pocket full of dirty money. He thought he’d print more of it in publishing. The two met in Tamman’s bar, made a handshake deal and their business partnership was formed. Tammen and Bonfils were a perfect match. Harry was the yarn spinning commoner. FG was the eloquent aristocrat. They purchased a newspaper named the Evening Post and christened it The Denver Post in 1895.
At the Post, the three “s” were the rule – essentiality, slapstick and sensationalist. It was the Post that put the “yell” in “yellow journalism.” Their audience; the citizens of Denver who spent their days laboring at jobs that were dangerous, if not deadly. Their readers spent free time was getting drunk and chasing women. Lyle W. Dorsett, author of Queen City describes late 19th century Denver as “crude, dirty, disorganized, expensive, and culturally deprived, with sooty skies and muddy, malodorous streets trod by drunkards, juvenile delinquents, and aggressive packs of wild dogs.”
The Post positioned itself as the champion of the people. Politicians and corporate interests were suspect. “Write the news for all of the people,” Bonfils once instructed his reporters, “not just the rich and important or those who think they are. If you are understood by the busy, simple folk, everybody will understand you.”
Over the next 12 years, through gimmickry, hustle, bad faith, and criminal mischief, they built the Post into the leading newspaper in Colorado, with a readership that eclipsed the combined circulation of its three closest competitors.
Bonfils and Tammen were publishers and entertainers. More a tabloid than a newspaper, they put out the newspaper version of Reality TV, employing many yellow journalism techniques, including sensationalism, exaggeration and downright fabrication. Renown far and wide for its theatrical, muckraking style of “yellow journalism,” by the turn of the century, the Denver Post was considered one of the most sensational newspapers in the United States. People loved its gossipy style and revenues soared. Bonfils and Tammen became rich.
They justified their style of sensationalistic journalism and credited their success as newspapermen by saying, “A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.”
The Post became a tribute to excess. It ran the biggest headlines, hired the loudest newsboys. It bought every comic strip and syndicated feature available and staffed the paper with big-name journalists. The Denver Post promoted itself as “The Best Friend the People Ever Had.”
The Post specialized in crusades and investigations, choosing its targets for maximum shock value and maximum financial benefit. When local coal dealers failed to advertise in the Post, Bonfils and Tammen leased their own coal mines, undercutting their competitors at $3.50 a ton and forcing the coal trust to drop their $5.00 price tag. The printed stories bashed the tyrannical coal trusts. Coal people cried socialist and yelled about unfair trade practices. The publicity gimmick worked.
When area retailers banded together and protested by not advertising in the Post, the paper retaliated with a series on how Denver’s department stores routinely violated child labor laws. Using to almighty word, they strong-armed retailers into abolishing the boycott.
The Denver Post’s penchant for printing gossip often landed editors Bonfils and Tammen in trouble. Over the years, they were sued, shot, horsewhipped and blackmailed for stories published by the newspaper. They got away with a lot of stuff, until the 1920s. Tammen passed under mysterious circumstances in 1924. Bonfils had no partner to keep him in check. Like many high-profile figures, he was subsequently accused of accepting $250,000 in “hush-money” as part of the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal bribery incident that colored the administration of President Warren G. Harding. (Private citizens and government officials as high up as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior were accused of handing over Navy petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California to private oil companies at low rates and without the required competitive bidding.)
Always battling with the competition, it’s believed Bonfils was “killed” by rival newspaper the Rocky Mountain News. Bonfils had taken the RM News to court for libel. Bonfils was called to give a deposition. He refused to answer several personal questions. The tables turned, and Bonfils was accused of being in contempt of court. The RM News filed a petition listing Bonfils’ crimes: contract fraud, political bribery, stock manipulation, unsportsmanlike behavior on fishing trips. It was extensively documented and published. The truth was too much for Bonfils to handle. He died unexpectedly in February 1933, having never answered the charges brought against him. COLORADO HAS LOST ITS GREATEST CITIZEN was the Post headline.
By all accounts, the suit was dropped soon after Bonfils’ passing.
- What is yellow journalism?
- What would be your scandalous headline about silver mining?
- Today, could you do something like what Bonfils and Tammen did? Why or why not?
- What is your source for news?
- Do you ever read a newspaper, book or magazine? If yes, when?
- If you were going to publish a story today, how would you go about doing it?