LIFE IS A CIRCUS:
FREDERICK GILMER BONFILS
One of the most colorful figures of the Old West, Frederick Gilmer Bonfils was born in Troy, Missouri. At age 18, he entered the United States Military Academy from which he resigned three years later to pursue a career in land speculation.
Bonfils reaped immense profits during the Western boom years. His investments in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas did particularly well and enabled his move to Denver in 1895 where he purchased one of the city’s newspaper (then called the “Evening Post”) with partner Harry Heye Tammen.
In many ways, Tammen and Bonfils were a perfect match. Harry Tammen was something of a local character who tended bar at the Windsor Hotel, worked in a local curio shop, and also edited another local newspaper, the Great-Divide Weekly.
The two renamed their paper the “Denver Post” and christened it to “the service of the people.” Above the door to the paper’s headquarters, they had the following quote inscribed:
“O Justice, when expelled from other habitations, make this this dwelling place.”
The Post soon set off on a lively round of crusading exposés that spotlighted local crime and corruption. Soon, however, the paper became known far and wide for its theatrical, even racy style of reporting — what most people, then as today, called “yellow journalism.”
Indeed, by the turn of the century, the Denver Post was considered one of the most sensational newspapers in the United States. But people were reading it. Revenues soared. Bonfils and Tammen became rich.
When asked, Bonfils and Tammen justified their style of sensationalistic journalism (as well as crediting their success as newspapermen) with the following quote:
“A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.”
Their penchant for printing disparagements tended to land Bonfils and Tammen in trouble. In December 1899, while in their offices, both men were shot multiple times with a pistol wielded by Mr. W.W. Anderson, an attorney who represented Alfred Packer, a local prospector accused of practicing cannibalism.
The Post had run an article claiming that Anderson had taken Packer’s entire life savings for his retainer. W.W. Anderson was tried three times but never convicted of any crime while both Bonfils and Tammen were eventually convicted of tampering with the jury at their trial.
A similar incident took place in 1900 when another attorney reacted poorly and attacked both Bonfils and Tammen with a horsewhip. Both publishers were hospitalized, but recovered.
In 1902, the partners decided to start a new venture, the “Floto Dog and Pony Show,” which enjoyed the full financial backing of the Denver Post. Eventually, the circus was renamed to “The Sells-Floto Circus” to capitalize on another, pre-established show, The Sells Brothers Circus, which was then owned by Ringling Brothers.
Ringling sued Bonfils and Tammen in 1909 to keep them from using the Sells Brothers name. But Bonfils and Tammen got off with a court order demanding that they merely refrain from using images of the original Sells Brothers Circus in their advertisements for the Sells-Floto Circus.
The show went bankrupt in 1913, but soon found a new life by spotlighting Buffalo Bill Cody and renaming itself the “Sells Floto and Buffalo Bill Circus.”
In 1909, Bonfils and Tammen bought the Kansas City Post, which they sold in 1922.
Also in the early 1920s, Bonfils was accused of accepting $250,000 in “hush-money” as part of the Teapot Dome scandal. Before the Watergate scandal that marred the presidency of Richard Nixon, Teapot Dome was considered the greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics. 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 process of competitive bidding.
Bonfils died of encephalitis at his home in Denver in 1933. He is interred here at Fairmount in a mausoleum bearing his name, and which also houses the remains of his wife, Belle Barton Bonfils, who also passed away that year.
At the time if his death, Frederick Gilmer Bonfils was pursuing a libel lawsuit against the Denver Post’s competitor, the Rocky Mountain News. By all accounts, the suit was dropped soon after Bonfils’ passing.