Benjamin Thomas, founder and longtime editor of a weekly newspaper that gained national attention for its sassy crusade against drugs, crime and violence in St. Louis’ inner-city neighborhoods, has died.
Thomas was 94 and had Alzheimer’s disease. He died Wednesday at a retirement community in Los Angeles, his son, Barry Thomas, said Thursday.
Thomas was “a maverick and pioneer of his own unabashed style of crime reporting,” said Barry Thomas, who succeeded his father as publisher of the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl when the elder Thomas retired in 1996, shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Benjamin Thomas began the newspaper in 1938. It gained readers around the country with Thomas’ colorful style — rhymes, slang and word play — with heavy emphasis on crimes in predominantly black areas of north St. Louis.
Headlines proclaimed, “Yes We Are Dope Eaters and Peddlers,” and “The Wife and Sweetheart Unswerving Beaters Association.”
He once wrapped up a story about a man arrested for selling heroin this way: “He will begin his term very soon, where he cannot watch the moon but he can sing a prison tune: Oh ho, I’m so low, and I’ll never have a chance to grow; I will sit and lick my toes, and blow snot from my nose; Where I’ll end up in life only God knows.”
His effort landed him on the “Arsenio Hall Show” and “Nightline,” and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.
“Ben was ahead of his time as a journalist and as a newspaperman,” said Whirl editor Anthony Edwards, who knew Thomas for 40 years. “The Evening Whirl embodies not only the spirit of Ben, but the essence of his desire to publish a newspaper that would live forever.”
Among the biggest supporters of the paper are police officers and prosecutors.
“It’s a wonderful publication,” U.S. Attorney James Martin said. “It was beneficial to us, letting people in the neighborhood know who’s committing crime. Ben Thomas will be very much missed and was a friend to the U.S. Attorney’s office.”
Since Thomas’ retirement, the paper has continued its pull-no-punches style with only slight modification — for example, dropping “allegedly” into sentences and attributing statements to police.
The paper, which costs 50 cents, has a circulation of about 52,500 and has subscribers in all 50 states. Subscribers include comedian Dick Gregory and movie director Reginald Hudlin. Actors Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy have also been subscribers.
But the paper is not without its critics, who charge that the Whirl focuses too much on the negative aspects of the black community with its relentless crime coverage.
Edwards said, “We feature the most heinous crimes. By shear fact, in St. Louis those are black culprits and lawbreakers — we can’t help that.”
Funeral services will be Thursday at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif.