The paper itself became a tribute to excess. It ran the biggest headlines, hired the loudest newsboys. It bought every comic strip and syndicated feature available, in order to keep them out of the hands of its rivals. Bonfils and Tammen staffed the paper with big names (Frederick W. White, the essayist and drama critic), fancy names (Lord Ogilvy, youngest son of the Earl of Airlie, who became their farm reporter), and funny names (sports editor Otto Floto, who was hired because Tammen found his name delightfully musical). They brought in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son for a month, paid him $1,000, and published none of his stories, instead selling his best work elsewhere for a $2,500 fee.
All this sound and fury helped the Post court the emerging readers whom Denver’s other newspapers had theretofore ignored. Populist when it was expedient, provincial by default, the Post promoted itself as “The Best Friend the People Ever Had.” “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.” When a Post copyeditor balked at an ungrammatical headline reading JEALOUS GUN-GAL PLUGS HER LOVER LOW, Tammen refused to budge. “That’s the trouble with this paper—too God damned much grammar,” he said. It was less a retort than a statement of purpose.
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 and undercut their competitors’ prices, printing stories all the while that bashed the piratical “coal trusts.” When local retailers banded together to withhold their advertising, the paper retaliated with a series on how Denver’s department stores routinely violated child labor laws. (The retailers soon reconsidered their boycott.)
Crime was a popular topic. “When attacked in pulpits or women’s clubs on the ground of sensationalism, of catering to the mass moronic mind by playing up crime and criminals, the Post owners said they did this to show that ‘Crime doesn’t pay,’” writes Fowler. “They sprinkled little black-face lines of type throughout the paper, usually closing a tale of morbidity with the grace note: ‘Crime never pays.’” (The Post’s use of typography was consistently creative, deploying huge headlines, numerous fonts, and blood-red ink whenever something required extra emphasis. John Gunther, a latter-day observer, once compared its front page to “a confused and bloody railway accident.”)
The two men behaved like no publishers the city—any city—had ever seen. While Tammen spent his time “blowing gigantic tubas and belaboring gargantuan kettle drums up and down the streets to impress the public, and thinking up such eight-column headlines as: DOES IT HURT TO BE BORN?,” Bonfils kept his eye on the budget and rigged Post contests so that he would win them. Tammen and Bonfils shared an office, a large upstairs room called the Bucket of Blood, both for its garish, plum-red walls, and because Bonfils was once shot through the throat there by an aggrieved attorney. “On Bonfils’ desk was a globe of the world, at which he often gazed with a proprietary stare,” notes Fowler. “Within his reach was a sawed-off shotgun.”
As Denver grew, so did the Post’s circulation. Unable to compete on newsstands, finding no justice in court, the Post’s competitors could do little but complain in their editorial sections. In the words of the Boulder Camera: “The truth is that the Post is daily a disgrace to journalism. Its policy is for the corruption of the morals of the state. It has raised the black flag of the buccaneer concealed beneath the folds of the American flag.”
Modern readers, accustomed to even the most vulgar publications maintaining a certain level of decorum, may find it hard to imagine that a newspaper like the Post ever existed. Did Bonfils and Tammen really hire a vaudeville performer to hold a fork in his teeth and use it to spear a turnip that had been thrown from the 12th floor of a building? Did they really strap a giant electric crucifix to the belly of an airplane and have it flown over Denver each Christmas eve? Were they really so brazen about threatening those who didn’t advertise with them? Did Tammen really respond to a contempt-of-court charge by storming into the courtroom and angrily informing the judge that, though it might take 20 years, he’d have his revenge?