Monday, November 2, 2009

The Evening Whirl

Adapted from Spin, Oct. 1986, and Screw, Dec. 19, 1983:

The New York Times front page motto has been printed in granite for over a century: All the News That’s Fit To Print. The Evening Whirl—East St. Louis’s “Uninterrupted Crime Fighting Publication Since 1938”—had this credo: For Negroes Who Care to Know. But shortly after I subscribed in 1982 they actually changed it to "For Jews and Negroes Who Care To Know." I thereafter considered it the second greatest newspaper in America, after the Times.

Likewise, I would personally rank its founder, Benjamin Thomas, third in the pantheon of St. Louis greats, after Chuck Berry and Miles Davis. He was nicknamed “the Baron” since being dubbed St. Louis’s best-dressed man in the 1930s. Thomas wrote, edited and published The Evening Whirl for 57 years, retiring in 1996. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2007 at the age of 94, but as the Whirl’s history reflects, he probably had it for decades.

The paper always stood in good favor with police throughout St. Louis. During Ben Thomas’ reign, hundreds of St. Louis criminals were apprehended from mug shots in the Whirl, and murders were solved from tips. It flouted a total disregard of the white media’s editorial rules and etiquette. Littered with typos, malaprops and blotchy typeset, a feature might be continued on the back page, just to fit in its final word (the forbidden “widow” in typesetters’ jargon). Yet Thomas’ unhinged crime verse and poetic license were so brazen, each issue was a work of art. Sexual obsession inflamed his religious reproach. He might nickname a pedophile “Tongue-em Young,” whose “tongue became a spike,” or recount a rootin’-tootin’ cleaning lady’s fending off of a rapist with non-stop farting. It’s a wonder it wasn’t until the 1970’s when the local NAACP attempted to boycott the Whirl (needless to say, the paper was never nominated for a Black Image Award).

A relaxed standard of fact-checking may have accounted for the following two cover reports in 1993, the second appearing the next week:

We can only hope poor Mr. Green didn’t hang himself before the apology came out.

I once attempted to book a St. Louis trip to the Whirl with my associate, Richard Jaccoma. But Thomas refused to grant us an interview. No matter. It was with relish and abandon that we lost ourselves each week, getting to know the Whirl’s endless parade of bad guys, sexual maniacs, hero cops and church-going citizens. They were outed before the public in the following columns: Dope Eaters and Peddlers; the Hooch Hound Club (for dipsomaniacs); the Gun Club (those arrested for firing or carrying); the Sodomy Club (anyone so much as suspected of participating in the act); and the Wife and Sweetheart Beaters Assoc. The paper also gave extensive coverage to “the Stroll,” a wicked stretch of prostitution in St. Louis.

Thomas felt it his civic duty to embarrass the culprits of his crime-infested ghetto across the river in Illinois, even devoting headline coverage to beer guzzlers busted for urinating on the sidewalk. Also among the East St. Louis demimonde were model citizen advertisers, like Dr. H.B. Woolcock, a spiritual healer (that’s Voodoo, of course) from the West Indies, who got rid of the “jinks” and cured women’s “lost nature.” After years, old Dr. Woolcock’s face in his ad suddenly changed to that of a young, turbaned Sabu-type. Another weekly ad was for Garo’s fish restaurant—where the honeycomb tripe was so soft, you could “leave your teeth at home.”

Perhaps the greatest Whirl stories of the time concerned sadly unnatural love interests. The banner headline from March 29, 1983: MAN CAUGHT IN PARK MAKING LOVE TO A DOG, THEY’RE HUNG; 2 COPS SHINE FLASHLIGHT ON ’EM, SEPARATE ’EM, DOG ESCAPES. The doomed love affair of Kenneth “Dog Man” Edwards, a garbage man, occupied the next four issues. Thomas covered the police’s shock, the community’s outrage, Edwards’ parents’ woe, and ultimately, the true love between man and beast, as described in a jailhouse interview:

“Kenneth says he found more joy in making love to Nancy [the stray dog] than he did his wife.... They would ride to the park. After kissing they would smell and lick. The car was their motel. He bought a special food for Nancy [for which he stole money] and mixed a little bourbon in.... He is protecting his beloved dog-friend and expects someday for Nancy to bear children...”

Ben Thomas wrote send-off poems and editorials to murderers, rapists and burglars—often unconvicted ones—on their way to prison. Dog Man Edwards’ was accompanied by a mugshot of Nancy:

Long live Nancy my angelic dog
If she ever quits me I’ll screw a frog
No woman in the world can take Nancy’s place
She has trained me how to keep the pace.
I kiss the darling’s tongue and lips
And kiss on down till I reach her hips;
There’s a little something there that I like,
It turns my tongue into a spike.

A year later, the Whirl topped the saga of Dog Man Edwards with that of “Horse Man” Pruitt, a stable jockey whose huge equipment scared women away. Pruitt was arrested for “raping and sodomizing four Shetland ponies,” one of whom dropped dead after he “wrecked their sex.” Typical was another headline, from 1987: PREACHER HAD SEX WITH HIS 3 DAUGHTERS, 14 GRANDDAUGHTERS, 8 GREATS AND 12 NIECES. Thomas admonished criminals in the middle of hard-news stories, often prescribing Biblical punishments—like lashing a rapist’s bare ass and pouring hot lead between his buttocks.

Now a modernized color paper renamed the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl, co-published by Thomas’ son, Barry, it wisely doesn’t even attempt to ape its founder’s style. The Whirl is still homophobic, filled with typos and right wing Negritude. But the poetic brilliance of this weekly crime sheet began and ended with “Baron” Ben Thomas, sui generis in American newspaper history.

© 1983-86, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

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