116 Issues of America's Greatest Newspaper
Thomas, Benjamin. The Evening Whirl. St. Louis, MO. 1985–1994.
Crude. Unhinged. Fearless. These words, and more, have been used to describe Benjamin Thomas’ Evening Whirl, an African-American weekly that waged war against crime and depravity in East St. Louis. Benjamin Thomas was a one man band who single-handedly edited, wrote, and published the paper for 57 years, and whose colorful, over-the-top prose and heated headlines made the Whirl a local favorite among St. Louisians, among them local author William Gass, who would give copies of the paper to visiting writers as a kind of going-away present. Old issues of the Whirl are hard to come by, let alone a whole collection, making these 116 issues truly exceptional.
Thomas began publishing the paper as the Night Whirl in 1938, mostly covering the local music and entertainment scene for African-Americans. Within a year, however, he came across a scoop that no St. Louis paper had the temerity to print: two teachers who had escorted a group of boys on a picnic to the country had been accused of pedophilia. Thomas was not only willing to print the scoop, but to headline it. According to a 1991 interview, he estimated that that first issue alone sold 50,000 copies. He subsequently changed the paper’s name to the Evening Whirl, and immediately refocused its coverage to crime.
Nicknamed “the Baron” for always appearing impeccably and immaculately dressed, Thomas has been called, variously, a “Wild West newsman,” “X-rated Walter Winchell,” or “blues lyricist.” He had total disregard for journalistic formality, believing it was his civic duty to embarrass the culprits of his beloved, but crime-ridden, East St. Louis with the most inflammatory rhetoric he could muster. The paper had a singular design: seven columns on the front page filled with mug shots, both profile and obverse, followed by text endowed with righteous fury that declaimed and decried the week’s killings, cuttings, robberies, and rapes. Each lead story would include some inspired verse built of four-line stanzas, rhymed a-b-a-b. Here is one example from an October 16, 1984, story of “Horse” Douglas Pruitt, who sodomized four horses, killing one in the process:
I bow my head to sup the joy,
The pony neighs and I say “Ahoy!”
Deep into my act I bury myself,
And I don’t need anything else.
As writer and admirer Josh Alan Friedman has written, “Thomas exposed an epic rise of depravity in the Black ghetto of East St. Louis, Illinois. Shootin’, stealin’, and rapin’ seemed more pronounced in this Midwestern ghetto that dwindled from 82,000 to 27,000. Thomas saw this in Biblical proportions, to which he could only wax poetic in the purple prose of an obsessed newspaper hack…. Like Weegee, his work became its own art.”
Although he would eventually hire some assistants, two of whom were his sons, Thomas continued to mostly manage the paper by himself until his retirement in 1996, when he handed over the reins to his sons. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2006 at the age of 94, and the paper continues today as the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl.