Otto Floto: Barely could write, fought with Bat, set the town afire

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Newspapering back in the Victorian era displayed a different face, I fear… perhaps one with more character, but much rougher edges. At least the characters were in residence at the time. Take for example, Otto Floto, fight promoter, sports writer, circus owner, and who also has ties to the Cripple Creek District and is thought to be a likely candidate for helping start the 1896 Cripple Creek fire.

“In the early 1900s Floto was The Denver Post's sports editor, and a drunk, barely literate, loud-mouthed columnist who didn't believe in punctuation marks, wrote about fights he secretly promoted on the side, got into shooting matches with the legendary Wild West gunman (turned Denver sportswriter) Bat Masterson and penned such headlines as `Local Team Like a Sweater, Worsted,'” wrote the modern Post's columnist Woody Paige in 2007.

“He actually had operated a dog-and-pony show and provided rides home in his carriage for The Post's co-owner Harry Tammen, who loved the name `Otto Floto' and gave him a job - and later called the circus the newspaper bought `Sells-Floto.' Floto died at 65, in 1929,” Paige wrote.

In 1896 in Cripple Creek, the first of two terrible fires began in the Red Light section.

“The tale of Jennie LaRue has gained as much notoriety in Colorado as that of Mrs. Leary's cow in the great Chicago fire,” writes Jan MacKell in her book “Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls.” “It all began on a windy spring day -- April 25, 1896 - in Cripple Creek. A lone figure made his way down Third Street and on to Myers Avenue, turning in at the Central Dance Hall and heading up to the second floor. Upstairs was Jennie LaRue, ironing near a gasoline stove. Some sources say the two argued when the angry visitor accused Jennie of stealing his money; others say Jennie was upset because the man had missed a date with her. However it happened, the couple began to argue, then to physically fight. In the mayhem the stove overturned, quickly igniting the floor with spreading gasoline flames.”

MacKell noted that 3,600 were left homeless and the fire burned over a million dollars in buildings and belongings.

“Newspapers as far away as Denver did not hesitate to spew forth Jennie's name, but most accounts left out the name of here fightin' man. Over the years, various periodicals have narrowed the suspects down to three. One is an unnamed bartender from the Topic Theater. Another is a Mr. Jones, who ran a lunch counter at the Central. But the third suspect is most likely our man. He's that fellow with the funny name, Otto Floto,” writes MacKell in several publications.

“Perhaps the most significant clue to Jennie's mystery man lies in a marriage certificate filed at the El Paso County courthouse. Dated October 20, 1896, the document reveals the marriage of Otto C. Floto to one Jennie Ried. If the lovely Ms. LaRue was true to her profession and sported an alias, Ried could have been her legal surname.”

MacKell calls attention to the fact that, no one appears to have been held legally responsible for the devastating effects of the fire.

The 1896 Cripple Creek directory lists Floto as the manager of the Cripple Creek Bill Posting Company. Other sources have him as a bartender, and historian Marshal Sprague pegged him as the manager of the Butte Opera House. Maybe Mr. Jones, the bartender at the Topic, and Otto Floto were all rolled into one.

According to Robert K. DeArment, writer of “Bat Masterson: The Man and The Legend,” Floto was hired when he came to Tammen's attention after a bout in Carson City, Nevada, and hired him as sports editor for his Denver paper, simply because he like his name.

“Tammen always claimed his name was so beautiful.”

Floto, according to DeArment, claimed to be the grandson of Friedrich von Flotow, composer of the opera “Martha.”

“Like Masterson, he had been kicking around frontier towns most of his adult life without finding a profession. At one time or another, he had been everything from a bill poster to a saloon keeper. He shared Bat's love for the ring and had seen most of the major fights since the Sullivan -Kilrain battle of 1889, when he had been John L.'s timekeeper. He managed Bob Fitzsimmons' theatrical tour and accompanied Peter Maher on a trip to England,” wrote DeArment.

Gene Fowler, who began his famed newspaper career as an assistant to Floto at the Post, described him thusly.

“Otto Floto was a big man in every way. He was a merry man much of the time, but when offended, had the mein of an archbishop who had just heard the confession of Gyp the Blood.”

Masterson and Floto were originally friends but got crosswise over a business deal and a feud then raged for years in competitive papers in Denver.

As Fowler wrote of the rivalry, “Floto and Bat Masterson … were life-long enemies. Both were past masters at appraising pugilists, being America's foremost critics of pancratia. Let gladiator make one lack luster feint, the slightest error in leading, the least violation of rhythm in footwork, time of punches or coordination of brain and fist - and these Dr. Johnsons of sport would reprove the offender with galleys of bitter type.”

He recalled their now-famous scrap.

“Did they indulge in fancy steps, neat left hooks, graceful fiddling? Nay. They advanced like charcoal burners of the Black Forest, and began kinking each other in the groin! The event was richly symbolic of the critical poohbahs of any art, men who know every move, whether of pen, brush, violin bow or naked fist, and yet themselves can find no bridge from the academic to the practical.”

Fowler said the ineffective roundhouse rights from Floto and Masterson “stirred up more wind than the town had felt since the blizzard of 1883.”

An account in the Denver Times about the fight: “There was a mix, Bat using his cane he carried to good advantage.” Floto took flight according to the story, with Masterson in chase.

“I used to think I was a pretty good runner,” Masterson was quoted in the Times. “But that fellow started to pull away from me on the jump, and before we had gone ten feet I saw that it was all up with me and that I could never catch him, so I just stopped and stamped my foot like you do when you scare a dog, and you might not think it possible, but that fellow let out another link and was knocking big chunks out the time for a city block. He is the best runner I ever saw.”

When asked about his use of cane in the fracas:

“You see there are some fellows you can reason with and talk them into being decent, and there are others you have to beat to death to teach them that they have to be decent. These fellows have got to be decent or someone is going to beat them to death. I understand that my friend Floto is carrying a derringer. The next time I see him I am going to ask him to give it to me and I will pawn it. The darn thing cost $8 and you can pawn it easily for $5,” said Masterson according to the Denver Times.

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