Let’s face it: Some of us are fascinated by the mythology of carnival sideshows and the people who make their living performing in them.
From the The Elephant Man to The X-Files and American Horror Story: Freak Show, our obsession with circus sideshow performers endures to this day. But it’s shockingly easy to forget that these performers are real people carving out a life for themselves, often under the harshest of conditions. Sometimes the unforgiving lifestyle turns dark—and leads to a tragic end.
One such case is that of Grady Stiles Jr., better known as Lobster Boy. Author Fred Rosen gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of his sensational true crime book Lobster Boy, which explores the bizarre life and brutal death of the notorious sideshow performer.
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Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1937, Grady Stiles Jr. had a rare congenital condition known as ectrodactyly, or split hand. The Stiles family had a long history with ectrodactyly; its presence in their bloodline stretched back to 1840. In Grady's case, he was born without middle fingers, while the digits on either side of the middle knuckle were fused together. This caused his the hands to resemble lobster claws.
Instead of viewing young Grady's condition as an impediment, however, the Stiles family turned it into profit. In fact, Grady Sr. was a sideshow performer himself, and soon integrated his seven-year-old son into his act. The family toured the country and became a big hit. Over the years, Grady Jr. adapted to the sideshow lifestyle. Despite not being able to walk—his feet were also affected by ectrodactyly—the young performer did not slow down. He primarily used a wheelchair but he also learned how to crawl on his hands and arms over the years, leading to rather shocking upper body strength.
The carnival scene offered advantages in both his professional and personal life. As a young man, Stiles met Mary Teresa, another carnival worker. Mary had run away to join the carnival when she was 19. The two fell in love, got married, and had several children together. Just like his own father, Stiles integrated his children with ectrodactyly into the carnival business. They toured together as the "Lobster Family." Soon, however, life on the road took a dark turn.
Stiles began to drink heavily and would physically abuse his wife and children. One night in 1973, Grady fought with Mary and used his bare hands to rip his wife’s IUD out of her body. He then attempted to choke Mary. Shortly after the altercation, Mary divorced Grady... but the worst was yet to come.
When Stiles discovered that Donna, his eldest daughter, planned to marry despite his disapproval of the groom, he took matters into his own hands. On the eve of the wedding, Stiles fatally shot the would-be groom. When he was brought to trial, Stiles confessed to killing the man without compunction and was charged with third-degree murder. His precarious health situation—liver cirrhosis and emphysema, in addition to the ectrodactyly—meant that there was no prison with adequate medical care. So Stiles was let off with a sentence for 15 years probation and allowed to return home.
At this point, Stiles had remarried another woman, had two other children, and then ended up divorcing his second wife. For reasons unknown, Mary remarried Stiles in 1989. Tragically, the years of unrestrained violence emboldened Stiles. By 1992, Mary had had enough. Fred Rosen's Lobster Boy takes the reader inside the brutal home life that made Mary Stiles so desperate ... and the lengths she would go to to ensure the safety of herself and her children.
Read on for an excerpt from Lobster Boy, and then download the book.
The four-lane blacktop that is Federal Highway 41 rises gently into a bridge that spans the Alafia River.
The Alafia is a lazy body of water filled with recreational boaters and fishermen. But it was the Cargill Fertilizer Plant on the river’s western banks that really dominated the scenery.
Smoke spewed from long stacks that climbed toward the sky. Set off by its ominous-looking, gunmetal-gray machinery encroaching on the water’s edge, the fertilizer factory gave the river an ugly, grayish pall.
On the other side of the Alafia, a sign at the bottom of the bridge reads GIBSONTON.
The first building on the right is the “Giant’s Camp.” It literally is that, a place where a giant camped.
At eight feet six inches, Al Tomaini was a giant of a man. During the 1930s, he was exhibited in the “World’s Fair Freak Show.” It was there that he met and wed his wife, Jeanie Tomaini, “The World’s Only Living Half Girl.” Jeanie was born with the lower half of her body missing.
Al and Jeanie had heard from their friend “The Crocodile Man” that the place to go during the off-season was Gibsonton, a town on the Gulf of Mexico, twenty miles south of Tampa.
“In those days,” Jeanie recalls, “there wasn’t much here, just swampland and not much else.”
But the carnies came nevertheless, to winter away from their public. After a while, the town had a thriving population of dwarfs, bearded ladies, human blockheads, magicians, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, clowns, strippers, and the real backbone of the carnival, the roustabouts.
When Jeanie and Al decided to quit touring for good, they opened the Giant’s Camp, a combination restaurant/bait and tackle shop/trailer court. On any given morning, you can still see Jeanie behind the counter, “The Bearded Lady” in the corner, “The Human Blockhead” shoving unimaginable things up his nose, and out back, a fire-eater working on a new trick.
Decorated like somebody’s kitchen, you can get a complete meal of home-cooked food for $4.
The men and women in the small restaurant, which formed the main room of the Giant’s Camp, shared a hard-bitten look that they wore like the uniform of their trade. The carnies came by their money the hard way. They work at least seven months out of every year on the road, traveling throughout the United States, wherever a carnival could be set up with its tents and rides and midway.
Be it a deserted field in Holcomb, Kansas, or the parking lot of the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, sooner or later the carny would play your local town.
Beginning with films like , in which Tyrone Power became a geek—a sideshow performer who bites the heads off live chickens—carnivals and carnival folk have become the focus of derisive portrayals in all facets of the media.
Yet with all the bad publicity, they never told the real truth, carny people asserted. Carny people are kind and caring. For instance, you never see a crippled child on the midway without a toy given them by carnival people.
Most nights, Gibsonton residents gather for a drink in the famous Showtown USA on Highway 41. A mid-sized local pub with a well-stocked bar and a small stage area for live local bands, it affords the locals a place to blow off steam and swap stories.
Many of the carny folk live in trailers cemented to a foundation. They build on room additions as money permits, but most of them look unfinished. Number 11117 Inglewood Drive, on the east side of town, was no exception.
Number 11117 was a long, wide, dark brown, aluminum trailer set on a concrete slab, with a room addition on the east side of the structure that opened on the street.
On the night of November 29, 1992, the side door of the trailer was open, spilling light on the ground. Standing in the doorway was a haggard-looking woman. Her name was Mary Teresa Stiles.
“Come on, Glenn, you wanna come with me?” she said to her teen-aged son in the trailer.
“Sure, Mom,” he called from one of the back bedrooms.
“See ya in a few minutes,” Teresa yelled back to her husband, Grady.
In the shadows, their neighbor Chris Wyant, 17, watched them go. He waited a few moments before going inside. He wore a black leather jacket with a Raiders hat turned around backward, black Nike Cavericis tennis shoes, a black-and-white IOU T-shirt and blue jeans.
Having been to the house many times before to play chess with Glenn, Chris knew the layout. He sneaked along the passage, passing the kitchen and stepping into the living room.
“What the f—k are you doing here?” Grady barked at the boy.
“You son of a bitch, get the f—k out of my house!”
Wyant said nothing.
“I said get the f—k out of my house! And don’t ever come around here again.”
The boy mumbled something and waited.
Grady had seen him.
To Marco Eno, it sounded like four gunshots in rapid succession.
In the third trailer, which sat on the northwest side of the property, Marco Eno was lounging with the gorilla. It was actually a gorilla suit, used in a carnival illusion done with mirrors and light that purported to show a woman changing into a gorilla.
Marco had been working as a roustabout for years. In his mid-thirties, his body was all edges—slim and sharp, arms tattooed. On his upper left arm the inscription read “Carnie Power.” He had lank black hair, and a jet-black handlebar mustache.
Marco was watching TV about 11:00 when he heard shouting coming from the brown trailer out front, then the shots.
Eno ran outside to see what had happened. A moment later, a young man in a dark jacket whom Marco did not recognize sauntered out the side door of the brown trailer like nothing had happened and disappeared into the night.
Eno strained his ears. The yard gate creaked. And then … silence. What the hell was going on?
When Glenn heard the shots, he ran out of his half-sister Cathy’s trailer in back of the property. He immediately recognized Chris Wyant fleeing from the back door of the brown trailer. Then he saw Marco Eno running toward him from the other side of the yard.
“Did you hear those shots?” Marco asked breathlessly.
“Oh no, it might be Grady,” Teresa said with anxiety in her voice. She had joined her son along with her daughter, Cathy, and son-in-law, Tyrill.
“I’ll go, Ma,” Glenn said quickly. “You all stay here.”
“Come on,” said Marco.
They tramped across the grass to the side door.
“I’ll go in first,” said Marco.
He threw the screen door open and stepped into the trailer. The TV was on.
He walked into the living room.
Grady was sitting in his favorite armchair. Dressed in undershorts and nothing else, he was slumped over, his face almost in his lap. And there was blood. Lots of it.
Beginning to go into shock, Marco plodded forward unsteadily. It was like a dream, or some horror movie. There was Grady all right, but he wasn’t alive like he had been a few hours before when Marco saw him. He looked stone-cold dead.
The blood came from bullet wounds on top of his bald head. It dripped down his face in rivulets, and some of it had coagulated in a dark reddish pool on the floor, under his chair.
“Hey, Marco, what’s happening?” Glenn called in.
“Glenn, call 911,” he yelled. It sounded like it was someone else.
“Your father’s been shot!”
Want to keep reading? Download Lobster Boy now.
Want to learn more about Lobster Boy? Fred Rosen's investigation of the bizarre life and brutal death of Grady Stiles, Jr. is a lurid read about an all-too-real tragedy. From Stiles's alcoholism and cruelty to the abuse of his family, Lobster Boy paints a stark picture of the desperation felt by the entire Stiles family. As Grady Stiles's stature grows thanks to pop culture portrayals in American Horror Story: Freak Show, the true story, one of heartbreak, poverty, betrayal, and murder, needs to be told.
Featured photo courtesy of Open Road Media