For 70 Years The Whirl Has Fought Crime In St. Louis And Sees No Reason To Slow Down
Edited by ANTHONY SANDERS, Editor-in-Chief, St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl
I n St. Louis when folks say goodbye you may hear something that isn’t heard anywhere else in the country:
“Alright now, don’t let me see you in the Whirl.”
Although said as a joke it’s serious. Since 1938, The Evening Whirl, now known as the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, has been the country’s one and only crime fighting publication. To be on the Whirl’s front page meant that you were part of the problem.
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S ince founding the newspaper in 1938, Benjamin Thomas has put the stinging light of the media on the criminals and crime that plagued St. Louis. Thomas’ innovative and fearless approach to exposing and fighting crime has been recognized worldwide. He had no real competition. The local white papers generally printed crime news only when it involved white people. In addition, the local black papers believed in printing only positive news about their community.
Writes Author Scott Eden of Chicago: “Around 1940, as Thomas recalls, a friend put him onto a story that would forever change his little paper. A story that involved two local teachers who were also Thomas` friends. When the shocking story of child molestation came to Thomas’ attention, he did what no other paper in St. Louis was willing to do. He investigated the story and published it. The public was hungry for that type of information. They followed the story and Thomas’ paper became a hit.
According to Thomas: “He said, ‘Man, do you know that in the summertime, when these two guys, these school teachers, when they take their kids out supposedly for the pleasure of a summertime outing, they`re having sex with those boys?’ “I didn`t believe it. He said, ‘Ben, it is true. The kids started talking about it to their parents, and they`re the ones who let it out to the public and it got around.’ “He said, ‘Ben, don`t take my word for it, go see the circuit attorney and you’ll get the story.’ I said no. He said ‘Go do it. News like that should be in a newspaper. They`re not going to put it in the Argus [a St. Louis newspaper]. . . They`ll cover it up.’ “So I went to see him, and (the circuit attorney) spread open the file on these two people in front of me, and I started to read it. In addition, the more I read, the more disgusted I became. “So I thought to myself, I’m going to run this story. . . Now mind you, I never carried anything but entertainment and sports news before. But I wrote the story.
“Man, talk about calls coming in . . . I had to go back to the presses three times and then sold out.”
He decided that crime reporting was what the public was hungry for. Thomas changed his paper’s name to the Evening Whirl and for seventy years, it has exposed and attacked the crime in the city.
“Right then and there, I was through with amusement news,” he later recalled. “It’s been a crime sheet ever since.” The rest is history.
Thomas was both fearless and uncompromising in his approach. He took on gangsters, thieves, pedophiles, and any other criminal that plagued the black community in St. Louis. His efforts were rewarded with a huge regular readership and international fame.
Thomas’ Evening Whirl has been praised as the country’s number one (and only) crime fighting publication. It has been featured in the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal as well as on television. Before his death, Thomas even appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show.”
For 57 years, the Evening Whirl was published, edited, and written by the cranky, crusty, eccentric Thomas. In 2007, the Whirl and its colorful creator was the subject of a wonderfully entertaining story in the Believer, a literary magazine whose definition of literature is broad enough to include everything from avant-garde poetry to . . . well, the Whirl, writes Peter Carlson of the Washington Post.
In the 1970s, when drug-fueled violence ravaged St. Louis, Thomas became an obsessed anti-crime crusader. “Hundreds of black men and women died each year from 1970 to 1980 by the slashing and plunging blade or by the smoking bullets,” he wrote.
“It is a disgrace to our race to have so many murders within the 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.”
The Whirl’s circulation peaked in the ’70s, selling 50,000 copies a week at a quarter apiece, but Thomas was not universally beloved. He was shot at, firebombed, and sued for libel. The local NAACP tried to organize a boycott of the Whirl, arguing that it was bad for the black community’s image. But the boycott fizzled for one simple reason: People loved to read the Whirl. And why not? Where else could they read a newspaper with a regular column on domestic violence called “Wife Beaters and Sweetheart Mistreaters.”
In the 80s, the founding publisher graced the Front Page of the Wall Street Journal, one of the world’s most respected publications. How many other publication can claim such prestigious coverage. During that same decade, the newspaper was the editorial subject of the Kansas City Star and the Chicago Tribune.
Thomas, who retired in 1996, appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show at the height of the late night show’s popularity. Also, during that same year, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings highlighted the newspaper approach to crime fighting in one of its news segments. After all, the Evening Whirl was fighting crime long before John Walsh introduced America’s Most Wanted in the 1980s.
In September 1995, with Thomas’ health declining, his two sons, Barry Thomas and Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles, came in to take over the operation. Barry Thomas, a graduate of CalPoly Tech in Ponoma, Calif., took over the leadership of the business and began modernizing the paper.
In January 1996 Barry Thomas reached out to Anthony Sanders––who had produced the publication for Thomas for several decades––to help put the publication on a sound production and management course. Barry Thomas and Sanders found that they shared the same vision for the future of the Whirl. That genesis has catapulted the now-70-year-old publication to its current popularity among readers’ worldwide.
Thomas eventually died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 at the age of 94, but his newspaper lives on. Now titled the St. Louis Metro Evening, Sanders says the paper still focuses on crime news, but he and the Whirl’s staff of 40 don’t even attempt to imitate Thomas’ inimitable style.
“Nobody here is capable of doing poetry like he did,” Sanders says.
Sanders, who is located in St. Louis, runs the editorial and daily operation of the newspaper while Barry Thomas manages the corporate side from offices in downtown Los Angeles. Both Barry Thomas and Sanders see a bright future in the Whirl’s continuing development. They are eyeing locations in Atlanta, Washington D.C., Chicago and Memphis to bring this high-tech brand of publishing to other cities.
“We would like to be in all these cities by 2012,” Barry Thomas said. “It just a matter of doing it,” Sanders added.
Together, the duo have resurrected a small newspaper into a mammoth publication that is a journalistic institution in America.
In a 2004 Riverfront Times article Chad Garrison writes: “...Sanders, editor-in-chief, is credited with reinvigorated St. Louis’ premier crime tabloid — adding color to its pages, cleaning up its writing (well, sort of) and resurrecting readership from an anemic 4,000 a decade ago to a circulation today of around 52,500. With the transformation, the paper is earning a reputation never before thought possible. The Evening Whirl is getting its propers.”
“I’m very familiar with the Whirl,” says United States Attorney James G. Martin, who each Tuesday casts aside his Wall Street Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch to pore over the Whirl’s garish tales of human carnage,” Garrison notes. “I’m a big believer that our greatest job in law enforcement is crime deterrence, and I’m convinced the Whirl gets the stories out there that deter crime,” Martin is quoted.
As the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, the publication regained it popularity in St. Louis and other parts of America as evidenced by the articles that it has been featured in. Even movies and television programs such as American Justice, Cold Case Files, Court TV’s Forensic Files, and most recently The History Channel Gangland has featured the stately publication. Its more recent silver screen exposure came in Universal Pictures’ Red Dragon with Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel. The film is directed by Hollywood stalwart Brett Ratner.
The more recent honor bestowed on the newspaper was an award for “The Shadow” column, penned by an anonymous writer. Even senior editors and editorial staffers at the newspaper do not know the identity of the author. But the accuracy of the column’s information has never been challenged. That honor came in August 2004, when the powerhouse circulated Riverfront Times named “The Shadow” the “Best Columnist.” A few weeks later, they featured the newspaper in an article titled “As the Whirl Turns: St. Louis’ crime tabloid is still dishing the dirt after 66 years—and the cops love it.” The article even points out that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri lauds the paper for its anticrime appeal. [See above] Lisa Pisciotta of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department agrees. Says Pisciotta:
“The Whirl is responsible for the capture of more wanted criminals in St. Louis than all other media combined.” That’s one hell of a reputation.
Accolades aside, the Evening Whirl is one of Missouri largest circulated newspapers. In fact, it is St. Louis’ largest sold newspaper—behind the daily publication, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Its circulation as of October 2004 was 52,500. That measures into about 100,000 weekly readers—and growing.
We could go on and on about this dynamic publication, however, as the cook slaving over the hot stove quipped: “The proof’s in the tasting.” Subscriptions for the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl go out both nationally and internationally. It is one of the most unique and progressive newspapers in the nation.
Peter Carlson of the Washington Post and Scott Eden, a freelance writer and author living in Chicago, provided information for this story. Eden, a Erie, Pennsylvania-native is a graduate of Notre Dame University and Washington University in St. Louis. Also contributing to this article is Chad Garrison, writer for
the Riverfront Times.