Years in print:
The Evening Whirl – Blood, Bodies and Babes
By Roy Malone
In the 1600s in Salem, Mass., and in some of the other colonies, wrongdoers were punished by having to sit in stocks and have passersby look at them. A form of this humiliation still exists here in St. Louis, where lawbreakers and other miscreants have their photos plastered in the pages of the weekly St. Louis Evening Whirl newspaper.
Yes, the 71-year-old Evening Whirl is still being published  – alive and well in all its sensational glory. Cops, prosecutors and even some university professors have read it over the decades because of the way the Evening Whirl castigates the villains among us, often in a literary style. And criminals scan it to see mug shots of other dudes who have been arrested.
While the Whirl has been expanded and stylized to include other content like photos of attractive, young women, it sadly has lost the kind of poems and ditties that its founder, Ben Thomas, wrote to cleverly describe the criminals and mayhem in the city. Thomas died in 2005 a wealthy man. He had left the paper several years before due to illness.
The Whirl still uses screaming headlines to gain attention: “More Than 20 Shots Fired In Fatal Attack On Boy, 16: City’s Body Count At 100.”
Derogatory names are given to suspects who are charged, like “Dawgs” and a favored detective who makes arrests gets the moniker of “Stonehard.”
For some, The Whirl is just a crude rag of a paper, sexist and definitely not for family consumption. Many readers, even those who guiltily steal a peek at the Whirl on the convenience store rack, find it curiously entertaining and coming closer to the truth about crime than what the regular media report.
The Whirl advertises itself as “An Uninterrupted Crime Fighting Publication Since 1938.” It says in its credo that it “specializes in exposing rift-raft (sic) to a point of embarrassment in an effort to help reduce crime” and cooperates with law enforcement “to keep real criminals locked up.” Many cops and prosecutors avidly read the Whirl to keep up on crooks, killers, rapists, felons, gangsters and other desperadoes.
The eight-page broadsheet is now in full color. It is part of a corporation with Ben’s son, Barry R. Thomas, of Los Angeles, as president and publisher. Anthony L. Sanders is editor-in-chief. Sanders, 61, had worked under Ban Thomas and before that at the old East St. Louis Monitor. He says he’s had some kind of involvement with the Whirl since he was a teenager.
“It’s a unique publication,” Sanders says, noting that no other city has anything like it. He says seven full-time employees collect crime news from police and perform other editorial duties. Plans are being made to expand the Whirl to other major cities and a six-month marketing test was done in Atlanta.
The Whirl’s circulation had dipped to 4,000 from the 50,000 that Ben Thomas once ballyhooed. But, with Sanders helping to rescue it, gains have been made to recover the lost circulation by expanding distribution throughout the entire metro area. Most of the Whirl’s revenue comes from sales of the paper, at 75 cents per copy, at some 400 local outlets. Ads are bought by local businesses, lawyers and bail bondsmen.
Gentry W. Trotter, a communications, marketing and promotion veteran, joined the Whirl last year and is publisher-at-large. He occasionally writes a column. In a recent one, he trashed movie director Roman Polanski as a “filthy freak.” Polanski had been arrested in Switzerland after being on the lam for 30 years to avoid sentencing for raping a 13-year-old girl.
The pictures of culprits these days include many whites, a bow to African-American readers who did not like to see blacks stereotyped and now can see that white are degraded just as blacks are.
Trotter’s role is to beef up the Whirl’s political, entertainment and community news. There are photos of top politicians, business people and celebs. The sexy women pictured are often identified only by their first names. Ed Martin, who was chief of staff for former Gov. Matt Blunt, writes a column in which he usually attacks Democrats. There’s also a gossip column by Jerry Berger, former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Berger recently came out of retirement to launch an online column.
SJR was unable to verify a circulation figure for the Whirl, but Trotter said it is anywhere between 75,000 and 100,000. He bases this on an estimate of 7.5 people whom he says read each copy, such as when the Whirl is “passed along to several people in a barber shop.” He said this was a fair way of estimating the distribution of the Whirl and that the Post does the same thing when it proclaims that it is read by 1.3 million adults each week. Who can dispute the figures, which are used to lure advertisers?
Sanders said the harsh reality of crime comes across in the pages of the Whirl causing some young men to say, “Man, I don’t want to go out that way.” He said the city may total 128 or more homicides this year and while the victims are always unknown in advance, “they will die.”
The Whirl comes out each Monday. On weekends staffers work hard to finish production. Computers and digital equipment are used to produce the saucy and highly profitable newspaper, a far cry from the way Ben Thomas put together his pages by hand.
While the Whirl decries the level of violence in St. Louis, crime does pay.
(Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 9/2009).
One of A Kind Crime Reporter - Evening Whirl Founder Ben Thomas 1910-2005
By Scott Eden
Ben Thomas appeared as a guest on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989. A careful dresser, he wore a navy worsted suit, a shirt with red candy-stripes, a red necktie and a white pocket-square. Onto his feet he had slipped a pair of two-tone red-and-white spectator shoes. He was 79 years old, small and spry and bandy-legged. He had hair white as an empty page. “For over 51 years,” Arsenio Hall announced, “our next guest has published the wildest newspaper, I think, in the country.” Ben Thomas parted the curtains and stepped onto the stage as if he were coming from another century.
It was quite unlikely that many of those present or watching on television had ever heard of either Ben Thomas or his Evening Whirl, an eight-page weekly newspaper, a one-man operation, that had covered crime, scandal and gossip in the black neighborhoods of St. Louis since 1938. Thomas looked a bit dazed, and throughout the long portions of his conversation with Hall he maintained a wide, mute smile on his face.
Seen in retrospect, it could have been one of the first symptoms of senile dementia, for within four years of Thomas’ television appearance, stories in the Evening Whirl would begin repeating themselves verbatim in back-to-back weeks; the names of the cops would sometimes get confused with those of the perps; and, finally, in 1995, Ben Thomas’ dotage would force his retirement.
Thomas had a domineering presence – he was a fearful disciplinarian with his sons and a taskmaster with his assistants. He commanded attention; he had the gift of authority. Possibly this characteristic had resulted from a professional five decades spent publishing a newspaper in which his voice alone prevailed. His editorial predilections ran toward such subjects as lovers’ quarrels gone homicidal, preachers who spent their free time pursuing sex on the St. Louis stroll, the 1970s heroin dealers who ruled over the housing projects, or any person who’d gotten on the editor’s bad side. He’d put your face on the front page.
Although the Evening Whirl covered crime and scandal in St. Louis, the word “covered” when applied to Thomas and his paper suffers from some imprecision. Commenting practically on a territorial war between rival gangs in 1978, for instance, Thomas wrote:
“There is a rumor around the town
That one of three will be cut down.
The Petty Brothers or Dennis Hayman
Will join the soapman, Mr. Sayman.
The city wonders who it will be.
Just take it easy, you will see.
Guns will roar and rip like hell,
And how the Evening Whirl will sell.”
The Evening Whirl had a singular design – mug shots, both profile and obverse were wainscoted two-deep below the headlines. Pictures of the perps, Thomas knew, sold newspapers. The faces were almost always black. Eight columns of triple-decker tombstones declaimed the week’s crimes and scandals, usually involving a killing, a cutting, a robbery, a rape or some piece of local gossip. The lead story of nearly every edition was annexed with verse, built of four-line stanzas rhymed a-b-a-b. Headlines and pictures were sometimes cockeyed. Captions and advertisements were occasionally hand-written. With its shabby appearance and neighborhood scuttlebutt and atmosphere of danger, the Evening Whirl had the look and feel of an old, dark, corner-saloon metamorphosed into a newspaper.
Crusader Against Crime
People likened Thomas to a Wild West newsman, an X-rated Walter Winchell, a blues lyricist. In later years he was also called an ancestor of gangsta rap. But he considered himself none of these things – in his own eyes he was a crusader against crime, an exposer of wrongdoing, and he had absolute confidence in the righteousness of every word that he wrote. His persona in print was that of a hanging judge; he thought of his paper as a public service. But the man also liked to sell newspapers. At its peak in the 1970s, the Evening Whirl had newsstand sales of 50,000. Thomas relied not only on advertising, but also on circulation – the popular vote – and at a time when black business success came rarely, people around St. Louis referred to the editor as “the black millionaire.”
By the time Thomas came to Arsenio Hall’s attention, however, the editor had entered the twilight of his career, and the health of the Whirl had begun to erode. Circulation had declines substantially. People had begun to think of the Whirl as a relic from another era, as a particularly offensive anachronism. Controversy and animosity had always surrounded the newspaper, and it arrived from two socioeconomic directions – from the criminals it brazenly attacked, and from the black bourgeoisie, whose sexual peccadilloes and petty connivings Thomas sought to expose whenever he could get the dish.
Nearly every issue of the Whirl included lists of curious blurbs that appeared under the heads WHY and WHO. They were bits of crime news posited in the form of a question, as in:
WHY didn’t Primus Oden, 18, of 3916 N. Florissant, pick up a gun and mow down the robber that invaded the P.M. Gas Wash at 3720 N. Kingshighway and robbed the place of $250 cash? Make yourself valuable and useful.
And: WHO was the charming woman that had a flat tire in front of 1500 N. Union and was offered assistance by a stranger, and of course she accepted, but was fooled by the man who said, “Come and go with me to get a new tire,” and then he led her into an alley at gunpoint around midnight where he robbed her of $85, her watch, and raped her too? A dog! Beware of strangers.
Thomas, in the newspaper, stated his credo this way: “The Evening Whirl, a weekly newspaper dedicated to the exposure of crime and civic improvement. Our chief aim is to keep the public well informed of the interesting happenings in our community from week to week. Our aim will always be to help, but never to harm, and let the chips fall where they may regardless of class or culture or status in life.”
In his editorials Thomas expressed his opinions rather more bluntly. They read like apologies. He was responding to his critics. “We know that all good christians (sic) and decent citizens love the Whirl for its daring exposure of crime and attempt to lessen it by mere exposure. Our chief aim is to let the people know what is happening in St. Louis. We print the good and the bad news.” As his critics grew more vocal, Thomas’ apologias appeared more frequently and followed an opposite course in delicacy. “The Whirl has preached PURITY and condemned CRIME. Those who don’t like it can kiss our behind.”
Over the course of his career Thomas survived Molotov-cocktail firebombings and drive-by shootings. He suffered libel suit claims amounting to millions of dollars and an attempted boycott of his newspaper organized by the president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP. And yet, despite this constant flak, despite the vehemence of his opposition, Ben Thomas survived long enough to wind up on Arsenio Hall’s purple sofa.
A Favorite of Academics
I first heard of the Evening Whirl while a graduate student in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis. A professor of mine named Charles Newman, a writer of elusive novels and a founder of Triquarterly magazine, suggested the Whirl as a possible story idea. Among a handful of the university’s literary academics – most prominently William Gass – the Evening Whirl had long been a favorite. Gass even gave copies of the Whirl to visiting writers as a kind of going-away present. Evidently, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes were particularly taken by Thomas and his paper. Gass said the Latin American writers, so attuned to the structures of race and class, found, in the Whirl, something familiar.
When Ben Thomas died in 2005 a wealthy man, he left behind a body of work comprising some 3,000 editions of his newspaper. It has all largely gone missing. Most African-American newspapers have been poorly collected, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Evening Whirl has been collected more poorly than most. No library in St. Louis, university or municipality, owns even a single copy. Scattered issues lie here and there in scattered institutions around the country. The newspaper repository at the University of Texas, for example, owns precisely two copies. Howard University has an 18-month run from the mid-1970s.
But by far the largest number of Whirls amassed in one place belongs to a private archive. Stored inside three plastic mail crates, one stacked atop the other, they sit in a closet in the basement of a house in St. Louis not far from the boyhood home of T.S. Eliot. Anthony Sanders, the owner of the house and current editor-in-chief of the Evening Whirl, uses his basement as his newsroom. Along with Barry and Kevin Thomas, the founder’s sons, who have lived in Southern California since their boyhood, Sanders took control of the Whirl in December 1995. A few months earlier the Thomases had moved their father, deemed senile and incompetent, out of St. Louis for good. Despite his failing health, Thomas did not want to relinquish his throne. Under some duress, his sons moved him to California where he had long owned vacation homes, first in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, and then near the ocean in Laguna Beach – examples of what the Evening Whirl’s income could buy you. But these properties were sold by the boys. Ben Thomas resided in the Los Angeles exurb of Valencia, first at Kevin’s place and then in a nursing home, while halfway across the continent his legacy moldered, as shopworn as its creator.
Shortly after arriving in St. Louis in the summer of 2000, I sought out Sanders, who escorted me into his basement and introduced me to the mail crates. The Whirl editions were yellow and fragrant with age. Brittle at the edges, they shed flakes like confetti, and after several hours spent parsing through the pages I had to wash my hands. Water from the faucet ran black with ink. The dates of the newspapers ran from July 1971 up through Ben Thomas’ final days, with major gaps impeding the way. The constituted the disordered, incomplete record of a career – a life.
Ben Thomas was born in 1910 in Pine Bluff, Ark., raised by maternal grandparents who had been born into slavery, and educated in the early 1930s at Ohio State University, where he claimed he had run on the track team with Jesse Owens. (For the rest of his life he would ceaselessly tell stories of his exploits on the team with Owens, especially when in conversation with single women.) By the time he arrived in St. Louis in 1934, Thomas was already purged of his country-rube beginnings. As an undergraduate he worked as an OSU campus correspondent for a black weekly in Pittsburgh, and when he settled in his new city, he found a job at the St. Louis Argus, which in those Jim Crow times was the newspaper of record for the city’s black community. (The mainstream dailies, which wouldn’t hire black reporters in the first place, covered black neighborhoods only infrequently.) Despite the Depression and Jim Crow, St. Louis hit its cultural apex in the 1930s. The Swing Era was in full sway, and Thomas because the Augus’ lead entertainment and music reporter, a post he held for a little over three years. Whenever big acts visited town – Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong – Thomas became part of each one’s entourage. For a brief time in the mid-1930s he dated Billie Holiday. His nickname was “The Baron,” which he often used in the Argus as his byline. Always entrepreneurial and trolling for new hustles (he was also a jazz and nightclub promoter) Thomas eventually decided to apply his talents to his own weekly publication. He titled it the Night Whirl, and for the first year of its life, 1938, it covered music, nightlife and local celebrity gossip – the social whirl of black St. Louis.
Finding His Niche
But less than a year later, Thomas caught wind of another kind of story that had nothing to do with jazz acts or club owners. Two high-school teachers had escorted a group of boys on a picnic to the country; pedophilia was the allegation. No other paper in town had the temerity to print the scoop. In a 1991 interview, Thomas recalled: “So I changed the name from Night Whirl to Evening Whirl…right then and there. I was through with amusement news…I had no idea that they were gonna keep me runnin’ back to the press to print more papers. I put thatpaper out, and I went back to the press for the third time before I could satisfy St. Louis. It’s been a crime sheet ever since.” Thomas said he sold 50,000 copies of that first crime issue at a nickel apiece. If he had wanted to make a dollar by hustling newspapers, this, he discovered, was how.
Never simply a crime newspaper, the Whirl stuck close to its roots as a scandal and gossip sheet, and however adamant Thomas became in later years about his anti-crime crusade, he relied upon titillation as his most-powerful newspaper selling tool. Always economical, the resulting headlines told the entire story. They read like abstracts:
TEACHER PASSES OUT
AFTER TORRID SEX WITH
ANOTHER TEACHER IN
MOTEL; SHE DRESSES AND
LEAVES HIM; HIS WIFE
COMES, GETS IN BED WITH
HIM; HE AWAKES MAKING
LOVE TO WIFE AND HAS
Almost always Thomas appended these tales with verse, often in the form of a dramatic monologue:
Pearl there’s only one thing I want you to know,
You’re nothing but a husband-stealing hoe.
Your ears may quiver and your hips may shiver,
If you have Max again I’ll throw you in the river.
Respectable burghers were Evening Whirl favorites. They were the success stories of the black population, coveted examples of racial uplift, and yet Thomas attacked them anyway. The Whirl stood in complete opposition to one of the traditional and well-established projects of the mainstream black press – that is, to print whenever possible only the positive doings of the African-American community as a way to encourage its rise up the socioeconomic ladder.
For his part, Thomas felt he was being democratic. “The average man, be he a preacher, a schoolteacher, a doctor, a lawyer – whatever, they like to get out and get around sometimes,” he told a reporter from the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “And when they get caught, that’s when I cash in on them.”
In graphic, salacious detail, Thomas chronicled scandals picked up from the police or whispered over the telephone by anonymous sources or confided over drinks in dark barrooms by trusted informers. Lawyers caught cuckolded, doctors who had sexually harassed their patients, churchmen busted by streetwalkers who suddenly presented badges, political leaders discovered to be homosexual – potential targets such as these would say prayers of mercy and open that week’s Whirl with trembling hands.
In 1979, for instance, a lawyer was caught with another man’s wife.
CAUGHT IN BED IN HOTEL
WITH HIS LOVER.
AS HER HUSBAND ENTERS
WITH GUN, HE KNEELS AND
The husband, who “had reasons to suspicion the fidelity of his wife,” trailed her and the lawyer to their hotel room and “smashed through the door like a football player. And there they lay buck naked in the bed all absorbed in a love duel. Trysting time had come around and [the wife’s] paramour was functioning.” The occasion inspired seven stanzas. Thomas prefaced his verses by explaining that they were not his. Instead they were part of an extemporaneous song sung by the wife while in bed with the lawyer. A portion of the poem read,
Daddy, oh daddy, I love your stroke.
You conjure my soul with every poke;
Love me this morning ‘til the cows come home,
Carry on fool; You’re real gone!
I’ll quit my husband if you quit your wife,
And be your woman the rest of my life;
I’m a good rockin’ mama, night and day,
We will only have the devil to pay.
Thomas felt guilty of nothing in printing such pieces, and his neighbors in St. Louis came to expect this. Around town people would often say to each other, as a kind of half-joking, good-luck goodbye, “All right now. We don’t want to read about you in the Whirl.”
Chronicling the Drug Violence
Though Thomas had an eye for the absurd and the comic, his voice in the Evening Whirl also contained heavy doses of anger. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Thomas watched as poverty, drug addiction and gangland violence increased in the black neighborhoods of his adopted hometown. The social whirl of St. Louis now involved more gunfights than jazz acts. To Thomas, it seemed as if the black community of St. Louis was responsible for destroying itself.
Thomas’ anger was particularly evident when one of the last remaining gang lords of the 1970s, a man named Nathaniel Sledge, was murdered early in 1980. Tomas felt obliged to sum up the ‘70s with a kind of retrospective:
“The decade that ended December 31, 1979, was the bloodiest decade for, by and with blacks in the history of the city of St. Louis. Hundreds of black men and women died each year from 1970 to 1980 by the slashing and plunging blade or by the smoking bullets. It is a disgrace to our race to have so many murders within one race.
“One might blame the white man for leaning toward segregation and discrimination. But he certainly doesn’t destroy our lives with bullets and knives. We are our own worst enemy. Even blacks slay more whites than whites slay blacks. We seem to be attuned to murder as a pastime.”
In terms of newsstand sales, the Whirl didn’t really start gathering momentum until the 1950s. Not coincidentally, it was during that decade that the city’s black street gangs first developed a certain entrepreneurial elan. “Crimes were happening and reports of them appeared inthe dailies in about three inches of space unless a white person was involved,” Thomas wrote in a short history of his career, printed in the Whirl in 1984. Coverage of black neighborhoods by the big, mainstream newspapers virtually didn’t exist. And those African-American papers that were in operation, including the Argus, tried to avoid any news that might have cast a negative light on blacks. Thomas and his newspaper, therefore, filled the gap. By the 1970s, the circulation of the Evening Whirl reached its peak, estimated by Thomas’ sons at anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 issues.
Among the reasons people bought the Evening Whirl was that it detailed the doings of the community’s most mythologized figures. Within their poverty-stricken confines, St. Louis’ black drug lords and career criminals achieved folk hero status. And because the Whirl told their stories over and over and in such gutbucket style, Thomas played a major role in that mythmaking. A 1972 headline:
VICELORDS…RUN FOR THE MAYOR OF THE CITY
The story’s lead:
“Two representatives of the underworld came to the Whirl office by appointment Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. very nattily dressed. They said they came to announce the entry of (black gangsters) as candidates for the mayor of St. Louis. Both said neither Cervantes nor Poelker (the city’s legitimate mayoral candidates) would have a chance at the lofty position. They reasoned that the two crime overlords had taken over the city anyway and were running it as they saw fit with a few cooperative police and their own men.”
Even when he used satire to make a point, Thomas succeeded at the same time in creating antiheroes. During the first half of the 1970s Thomas directed much of his rage – and myth-forging influence – at a group of heroin dealers. “The gang’s lead assassin beat murder raps on three separate occasions. In the fashion of the day, he wore wide-brim hats and jawbone length sideburns. He had learned his trade with a high-caliber rifle as a Marine Corps sniper in Vietnam, but for his work stateside, he preferred, a bit indulgently, sawed-off shotguns. He lived in a high rise in Pruitt-Igoe, but in order to reach him it was necessary to pass through a platoon of armed sentinels.”
Thomas published this headline in August 1970:
COMMITTED MURDER 3 WEEKS AGO:
COMMITS ANOTHER AND HE WALKS THE STREETS FREE.
He led the article by saying, “If I, Benjamin Thomas, were to be a judge in the circuit courts of St. Louis I would retire in shame…This newspaper viciously condemns such court action and suggests that our court system be abolished and replaced with a court of honor that would protect the innocent and the worthy citizens who detest crime. I hope I am elected to the State Legislature. I will do something about this horrible situation and do it fast for the safety of decent human beings.” The editor noted that 282 people were murdered in St. Louis in 1969, and that, in 1970 so far 161 had met the same fate. “The year,” he wrote portentously, “is only half gone.”
Thomas did indeed run for Missouri state representative in 1970 with crime curtailment and gun control constituting the whole of his platform. He made sure to play up his Evening Whirl credentials, not that he needed to. The name recognition was built-in. Ultimately, though, his campaign failed; he lost in the Democratic primary by a wide margin. The incumbent, DeVerne Lee Calloway – the first black woman to hold elected office in Missouri – focused not on crime but on liberal welfare reform. She went on to a fifth term in the House. Though he never again stumped for office, each week in the Evening Whirl, Ben Thomas continued to preach his gospel.
The Clergy Felt His Sting
At a diner in North St. Louis, a coterie of Baptist ministers gathers each morning before work. They eat breakfast, read through the local papers, and conduct heated political debates, exercising their wits in preparation for Sundays in the pulpit.
One cold December morning before Thomas died, I arrived at the diner to discuss the Evening Whirl with two preachers: the Rev. Earl Nance, Jr., the head of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition and pastor of the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and the Rev. E.G. Shields, Sr., pastor of the Mt. Beulah M.B. Church, another big local congregation. Examining the day’s Post-Dispatch, Shields and Nance dissected the latest Jesse Jackson scandal in which Jackson had admitted to fathering a child out of wedlock, but soon the preachers’ conversation turned to Ben Thomas and his Evening Whirl.
“I don’t think you’ll find too many ministers who will admit to reading the Whirl on a regular basis,” Rev. Shields said. “It was a scandal sheet. Ben was always looking to put something about ministers on the front page.”
This was an understatement. Aside from murderers and maybe hookers, stories on wayward preachers amounted to the Whirl’s most fertile genre. Everywhere in St. Louis, it seemed, “prayermen” were cultivating harems or fleecing the faithful. There was the clergyman who had acquired four wives, and, in defense of his polygamy, was quoted by the Whirl in a monologue:
“All of us are God’s chillum, and we can marry as much as we want to…When I moved out it was the next sucker’s job to take over, ‘cause he’d be the one sleeping with her and enjoying her.” There was the pastor who, according to a 1984 Evening Whirl headline, begged
MOTHER AND DAUGHTER TO BE HIS BABES;
HE ASKS THEM TO INDULGE IN ORAL SEX;
The pastor was quoted as saying to the daughter, “If I have to put you to sleep to make love to you, I will do so. Do you know how to put lipstick on my dipstick? Amen! Glory! Now you have heard my story.” There was the preacher who allegedly beat his children with “tree limbs and electric cords,” and who, Thomas continued, “badly needs his own ass whipped until he can’t sit down on it on a pillow without crying like a baby and meowing like a pussy cat.”
Not surprisingly, preachers around town grew ever more wary, and weary, of Ben Thomas’ scribblings. The Rev. Nance said, “Oh, yeah, they printed rumors. Preachers were always feeling the heat from that kind of thing.”
The Rev. Shields said, “Between the both of us, we knew any number of ministers who were written up in the Whirl. I was kind of glad when he stepped down.”
(Neither Nance nor Shields ever saw their faces on the front page of the Whirl.)
Hundreds of churches do business in St. Louis, and for Thomas they were, on the whole, just that – commercial enterprises masquerading as spiritual. Obviously Thomas had no problem with commerce; it was the masquerade he attacked. Wherever a minister abused his station, whenever he drove around town in a fancy car or enticed young women with his congregational pay stub or lorded over the laity with an iron fist, Thomas was there to report it, substantiated or not. More than one irate minister sued the Whirl for libel, and more than once, the Whirl lost. The money Thomas made by printing these stories mitigated the occasional legal obstacle. Barry Thomas says of his father, “Even if preachers were good and honest, that a preacher would ask for money – it looked dishonest to my father. He’d say, ‘Why take money from poor people?’ And then you’d see preachers driving around in big Cadillacs while all of their members were destitute.”
As the Revs. Nance and Shields discussed Ben Thomas in the diner, a man walked into the restaurant. He was older, perhaps in his early 70s, tall and broad-shouldered, with graying hair and a thin mustache. After a round of hearty good-humored greetings with Shields, Nance and almost everyone else in the restaurant, he sat down at the table and removed his leather gloves. Without a word passing between him and the wait staff, food appeared in front of him. Nance apprised the newcomer of the discussion at hand. Instantly the man’s face changed shape.
“The Evening Whirl! That was the dirtiest, lousiest evidence of lies about the truth about a people I’d ever seen. What angered me about it, you could find it in Clayton.”
The man’s name was James F. DeClue. He sketched a hypothetical scene. A white father, on his way home from work, buys the Whirl at the Clayton vendor, and later that evening his kids get hold of it. They spread the paper wide across the dining room table for a gander at the doings of the black race in St. Louis. Mug shots among the Brussels sprouts. “Children’s minds would be infected with the idea that this is how these people live,” DeClue said. “But nobody would fight him. It must’ve been some knd of mob hookup.”
In the mid-1980s, DeClue was pastor of the Washington Tabernacle Baptist Church in the city. During that same period he was also president of the St. Louis chapter of the NAACP. Sometime during his tenure there, DeClue became fed up with Ben Thomas and the Evening Whirl, and in his capacity as president, he took the extraordinary step of trying to organize a boycott of the newspaper. According to NAACP rules, any boycott of a business requires the permission of the national office in Baltimore. DeClue’s gambit, however, never made it that far.
“Mostly I was just trying to find someone who would join me in a fight against him and his paper,” DeClue said. “I tried to convince my members to boycott it, to not buy it. I wasn’t successful. No matter whom we talked to, groups of ministers, businessmen, there seemed to be some kind of fear. Maybe they were afraid they’d end up in it.”
A Little Huggable Man
On the concrete driveway of a suburban house in Southern California, q 90-year-old man stood with his hands behind his back, surveying the scene. The day was bright and dry and warm. November 2001. This was Valencia, set down and let loose in the once-wild chaparral of the Santa Clarita Valley about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
“Right now,” Ben Thomas said, “if you asked me what city I was in I’d be guessing.”
“Take a guess,” said Barry Thomas, who stood beside him.
“I lived in Columbus once. Am I in Ohio?”
“You’re in California.”
“California! Well, I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
Earlier that morning Thomas had dressed carefully in 1970s chic: brown polyester trousers, a silk shirt with wide purple stripes over a red turtleneck sweater, burgundy patent-leather shoes. His eyes were still intense, their color extraordinary – deep brown surrounded by a band of cobalt blue. Photographs taken of Thomas just five years earlier showed a man with broad shoulders. Now, his ankles and wrists were bone-thin and he weighed only 145 pounds. Still, considering his age and despite his frailty, Thomas moved nimbly. He looked athletic and fit, a little huggable man.
In Valencia, Thomas was not altogether aware of what status he had with regard to the Evening Whirl. A pencil always peeked out of his breast pocket. In explanation, he responded, “Well, I’m a newspaperman.” Sometimes he believed he was on short-term leave and that he’d soon be back making rounds at police headquarters. At other moments the old vitriol over his contentious retirement would loosen his synapses. Once, informed of the papers new ownership, Thomas, his voice pitched with disgust, said, “When I get back to St. Louis I’m going to clear out that entire staff.” He was reminded that he had retired and therefore had no staff.
“Well, I’ll come out of retirement then! No one can stop me. I own that paper. I can do anything I want. There’s not one person alive,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger a quarter inch apart, “who owns this much of that paper.”
In Thomas’ bedroom at his son’s house, old photographs covered the tops of a dresser and a bookshelf – an ornate photo-biographical collage. More than half were pictures of girlfriends. The shelf also held a half dozen spiral notebooks and legal pads. Out of them stuck envelopes, scraps of paper, dog-eared pages. They contained hundreds of poems, all of which Thomas had composed since his move to California. He would sometimes take a notebook, seclude himself in his room, and write for hours. One poem, called “Confused,” has this last stanza:
“Nothing special was on my mind.
Was there something I had left behind?
Somehow I twisted and I turned.
The more I did it, the more I burned.”
In July 1995, in a wood-paneled auditorium at Washington University, the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists convened its annual Hall of Fame awards ceremony. The headlining inductee was Benjamin Thomas. Three months later he would be in California, never to return to St. Louis. Needless to say, it came as a surprise to many that the Evening Whirl had, in the year of its editor’s retirement, received this tribute from its peers, especially from a group as archly mainstream as the Association of Black Journalists. A debate within the association’s board had preceded its decision to induct Thomas.
The late Gregory Freeman, who at the time was a Post-Dispatch columnist and a member of the ABJ board, explained to me, “The question we asked was, ‘Is this journalism? Is this something we should be honoring?’ Ultimately this guy had been around since 1938. At one time it was the best-read black weekly in St. Louis. And in that sense, he was deserving of the award.”
At the ceremony, Freeman introduced Thomas with perhaps five minutes of remarks, after which the editor slowly ambled to the podium. He accepted his Hall of Fame prize and turned to meet the camera flashed. The crowd applauded – some people stood, some did not – and When Ben Thomas returned to his chair to watch the rest of the night’s presentation, he fell asleep.
(Printed with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 9/2009).