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?
Modern readers also will find it difficult to gauge how bad a paper the Post really was. There are times in the book when it seems like the worst newspaper on earth. As one contemporary of Fowler’s put it, the paper was “loaded with silliness posing as wisdom, broad inconsistencies that wouldn’t fool a prairie dog, and bold statements that a certified idiot wouldn’t believe.” But Fowler occasionally defends the Post. No matter why the paper’s crusades were launched, he notes, the people being targeted were generally guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.
In Timber Line it is often hard to tell what is real, what is embellished, and what is invented. The book is neither footnoted nor heavily sourced, and there are lots of quotes that seem improbable. Though I suspect that one could plumb the Post’s archives and confirm most of what Fowler cites as fact, many of the Tammen stories seem drawn from memory rather than transcripts. In Voice of Empire, William Hornby reports Fowler’s admission that he “did not let history get too much in the way of a good story.”
It doesn’t matter. The book is very funny, at times very moving, and for today’s purposes it’s probably accurate enough. Fowler writes romantically and sentimentally about the West and the news business, both of which attracted overgrown boys fond of pranks and stunts and seeing what one could get away with; he writes of newspapering as the last, best profession for those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, flourish elsewhere. He makes the Post seem more delightful than any paper devoted to hoopla and brigandry has a right to seem.