The Evening Whirl keeps on spinning in St. Louis

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 5:54 am

For nearly 80 years The St. Louis Evening Whirl has been reporting on crime in a way other news outlets wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do.

The weekly is sold in gas stations, convenience stores and by subscription for $1.50. Readers will find plenty of crime stories told in a distinct style, filled with slang and nicknames. Recent headlines have included “Prosecutor Seeks ‘Big Needle’ in Slaying of Pregnant Teacher” and “D-Boy Throws Bomb at Cops During Getaway.”

Editor Anthony Sanders describes the paper’s writing style as “Whirlesque.”

“We take police language like this ‘suspect.’ No, this ‘crook,’ you mean,” he said with a chuckle.

Sanders took over as editor from the Whirl’s legendary founder Benjamin Thomas in 1995. Thomas began The Night Whirl back in 1938, covering entertainment and nightlife in the African-American community.

Within the year he took on writing about a pedophilia case involving teachers that no other paper wanted to touch. His son, Kevin Thomas, said his dad had to go to press three times to keep up with demand for that edition of the paper, and soon The Evening Whirl was born.

“He kind of noticed then he had a niche,” Thomas said.

While entertainment remained a part of the weekly, the Whirl became known for telling crime stories, sometimes even poetry.

“My dad would take a story and he would change it and turn it into something that not only would give you information, but in some fashion it would also entertain,” he said.

Thomas said his father hated to see anyone taken advantage of and became a crusader against crime. Today the paper’s masthead carries the line “There is power in naming and power in shaming!”

For many, reading The Whirl may be more about seeing their own friends, family members and neighborhoods make it into a newspaper.

“When you talk about The Whirl, you talk about readers and writers familiar with Pine Lawn, Pagedale and Wellston and Kinloch and all these places. They’re not going there like it’s some exotic trip,” said Umar Lee.

A blogger and activist, Lee wrote for The Whirl for a time.

He started reading the paper in the late 1980s and recalls when an older classmate in the Ferguson-Florissant School District was killed, the tabloid wrote a full story, not just a paragraph. Lee said he expects The Whirl will do the same for his 19-year-old nephew, Shelbyon Polk, who was found dead in St. Louis on Thanksgiving morning.

“The Whirl does give the victims dignity, that it writes about them and talks about them and that it matters that they were killed,” Lee said. “They’re not just a statistic. It’s not just ‘two black males found dead.’”

That look into the grittier side of St. Louis life is also valuable to historians.

A partial collection of The Evening Whirl going back to 1955 is held by the Washington University Olin Library. Miranda Rectenwald, curator for local history and special collections, said researchers have quite a bit of interest in the tabloid.

“It documents a part of our community and society that might be overlooked if you only looked at, say, the Post-Dispatch or the leading news outlets,” Rectenwald said.

The Thomas family donated the collection about six years ago to the library.

As the paper prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary next summer, Kevin Thomas said they’re getting ready to launch on-line, as well. He’s now the publisher and president after his brother Barry died in May. Their father died at age 94 in 2005.

Thomas sees continuing The Whirl as important to maintaining his father’s legacy.

“My father, he’s a man who started with nothing and took that nothing and made something of it,” he said. “In 1938 for an African-American who was raised on a farm in Pine Bluff, Arkansas to come into the city of St. Louis and take a chance when no one else would have the courage to do this, that took guts.”

Anthony Sanders, the editor who’s overseen The Whirl in St. Louis for more than 20 years, said Benjamin Thomas provided a blueprint.

“All we have to do is follow it and we’ll have success,” he said.

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