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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 13 - Man! Circus Performers Don't F**k Around!

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

SARAH:

The Bizarre Life and Death of Grady "Lobster Boy" Stiles


Lobster Boy, Grady Stiles, Electrodactyly
Grady "Lobster Boy" Stiles

Gibsonton was a small town on the coast of Tampa Bay in Florida. It was also a haven for circus freaks and is home to the International Independent Showmen’s Association. This happened to be one of the very few places in the US that allowed keeping circus animals on residential properties. Those that worked for and with the circus lived in a mobile home park called Bull Frog Creek. If you were to go there now, there is still a plethora of vintage circus equipment there that stands as landmarks and reminders. You can find everything from trailers to rides and all other sorts of equipment that would be easily identifiable as being used by or owned by a circus.


It also happens to be home to one of the more bizarre murders in history.


The Stiles family was born with an odd deformity. Their heritage would include six generations of people who were afflicted with a condition called Electrodactyly, dating as far back as 1840. This condition causes deformation - usually of the hands and feet. This deformity is also referred to as split hand/split foot malformation (SHFM). This would include Grady Stiles Sr., who happened to be part of a traveling carnival sideshow. We would refer to them now as “Freak Shows”. Grady Sr. would start including his son, Grady Stiles Jr. into the act by the tender age of seven. Having the affliction they did, they were mercilessly ridiculed and harassed by spectators. However, being the main attraction at a carnival’s freak show made for good payment…sometimes paying upwards of $80,000 every single season they “performed” But was it worth it for Grady Sr. knowing that he was subjecting his son Grady Jr to ridicule, pain and anguish?


Grady Stiles Jr. was born on June 26th in 1937. He was also born with Electrodactyly, as it is a genetic trait. This caused Grady’s hands to be shaped like the claws of a lobster, as with his condition caused the three middle fingers to be absent or fused to both the thumb and pinky fingers. His legs were also miss-shaped, with both of his legs ending just below the knee, and oddly shaped feet. This is what would lead to Grady being known as “Lobster Boy”.


Grady would never gain the ability to walk, so he lived his mobile life in a wheelchair. However, he WAS able to move his body using both of his arms, and with his upper body strength, he had to drag himself across the floor. All this strength building just literally just to sit and be looked at. Grady Jr. wound up liking the circus life. Despite his unique appearance and general non-use of his hands…he learned how to write his name and even how to shoot a gun.


After spending almost his entire childhood touring within the circus, Grady would meet a circus staff member, Mary Teresa. She was by society's standards…normal, and she had no physical appearance issues. She was just a teenager who had run away from home to join the circus - where she happened to fall in love with Grady Stiles Jr. They would marry and then go on to have three children together in a blended family. The children were conceived and both parents-to-be were elated. And then surprised at birth. Only two of the children would inherit their dad’s lobster claw hands. Cathy and Grady the 3rd would inherit the deformity - and Donna, the oldest daughter would not have it. When Grady’s children were of age, he brought them into the freakshow circuit, just as his father did with him. They would be labeled “The Lobster Family”.


However, over time…she would come to realize she had married a very bitter, angry and violent man. Their neighbors would say they heard frequent screaming coming from the Stile’s home in Gibsonton. Grady Stile’s, Jr. had fallen to alcoholism and would frequently physically abuse and mistreat his wife and children. Remember….all that upper body strength he gained for himself….yeah, he would use that to violently throw himself to the floor and then use his claw hands as weapons. He would use them to beat, choke and slam his children and wife in their faces - their eyes and skin were the usual targets for him.


There was one particularly violent encounter where Grady was in the midst of attacking his wife, Mary. His daughter Cathy, while pregnant, would attempt to stop the fighting by grabbing her dad’s wheelchair and rolling it in between her parents. This, as you can imagine, only helped to enrage her father. Grady would turn towards his pregnant daughter and beat her so badly that she went into labor a lot sooner than she should have. Fortunately, her baby survived…and was next in line to inherit Electrodactyly, and did.


Mary said her husband was a great man when he was sober, but stated that Grady being sober only lasted for about two hours a day…usually between 8 am and 10 am. However, when 1973 rolled around and Mary was done. She had had enough of the abuse towards herself and her children. She came to the decision after Grady beat her again…this time, using his claw-like hands to remove her birth control device from inside of her body.


After the numerous beatings aimed at his wife and children, he ultimately threw all of them out of the house. Mary would get lonely and turned to another circus performer, a midget named Harry Glenn Newman - also known as the world's smallest man in the carnival circuit. The children somehow made it back to Grady’s house and were left there to endure every bit of rage their father had.


One of Grady’s daughters, Donna had gotten engaged to a guy named Jack Lane when she was in her late teens. Grady of course was not happy with this. Donna didn’t seem too concerned about whether her father gave a shit or not…she was just ready to be away and free from her father, his abuse and control once and for all. This was seemingly her main reason for getting engaged in the first place. She would insist upon living with Jack - with or without her father’s approval.


Grady and his control over his family was not something that he was not simply going to let walk away from him. He threatened Donna that if she didn’t leave Jack, he would kill him. Jack arranged a meeting between himself and Grady to discuss the marriage in question. Jack would have insisted that he and Donna were going to marry, whether Grady gave his permission or not. Unfortunately, upon Jack’s arrival at their meeting point on the eve of their wedding night - Grady shot him in the back and killed him. When Donna learned about her fiancé, Jack, being murdered - her father sat up with a menacing smile on his face and said “I told you I would kill him”.


This led to a media frenzy. Grady would subsequently be arrested and go to court. He openly confessed to shooting Jake and showed absolutely no remorse. Unfortunately, he would never see the inside of a prison cell for the crime he committed, as the prison systems were not equipped to deal with his disability. The courts found that committing him to prison would be nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment. With that…they allowed Grady to be home, on house arrest and probation for 15 years.


With him basically being pitied and not being sent to prison, Grady felt invincible. He would go back home and continue to abuse his family, taunting them with “I killed before and got away with it, I can do it again”.


For the sole reason that after Grady was sent home and quit drinking for a while….Mary chose to return to and remarry Grady after she left her new sideshow midget husband. This time, it took Mary no time to say enough is enough.


On November 29th of 1993, Grady Stiles Jr. was shot and killed by a hired assassin. The shooter was a 17-year-old sideshow performer named Chris Wyant. He was a neighbor of the Stiles family. Mary, and her stepson Harry, paid $1500 cash to put three bullets in Grady’s skull.


Wyant was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Harry (the stepson) was considered the mastermind behind the murder. He was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Mary would be convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Honestly, I think she should have just been able to walk away after this shit Grady put her and their children through. Mary stated “My husband was going to kill my family. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. I’m sorry this happened, but my family is safe now”.


After the death of Donna’s fiance, Jake, and the death of Grady “Lobster Boy” Stiles, the family had no choice but to continue on.


Son, Grady the 3rd, has a daughter named Sara. She did not inherit Electrodactyly.

Daughter, Cathy, is married and has a daughter named Misty. She has lobster claws.

All three of them still perform from time to time. Cathay even took up acting and appeared in the series Carnivale as well as in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish.


Grady was buried with his dad, Stiles Sr. in the Showmen’s section of Sunset Memory Gardens cemetery in Thonotosassa, Florida. According to Wikipedia…Stiles was reportedly widely disliked in his community, so much so that only 10 people came to his funeral, and nobody volunteered as a pallbearer to carry his coffin.



With all of that said…Grady Stiles was a very notable and noticeable person. He was used as a reference in a lot of things. So here are some FUUUUN FAAAACTTSSSSS!!!!!


If you are around our age and listened to grunge/alternative music in the early 90s (because who the fuck didn’t?)…you probably remember the album from Silverchair called Freakshow…the cover of that album is a drawing of Grady.


His story was referenced in the Freakshow, a season of American Horror Story by Evan Peters who played a character with Electrodactyly. If you look closely there is a small statue in the opening credits that is formed after Grady Stiles. And you can also see in episode 3 of this season a photo of him in the American Morbidity Museum. This was one of my favorite seasons honestly.


A person named Lobster Boy appears in a Deadpool comic. In that comic, Deadpool is hired to assassinate him.



 


DAVID:

The Day the Clowns Cried


The Day the Clowns Died, Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey
Hartford, Connecticut Circus Tent on Fire behind a Ringling Bros Circus Truck

In the final years of WWII, families would treat themselves to a day at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus better known as, “The greatest show on earth.” on a summer day in July of 1944. With buckets of popcorn and lemonade in hand. As excitement fills their hearts for the circus, people would file in and find the best seat before the show would start under the big top.


During WW2 most circuses would travel by rail but, they weren’t as high of a priority on the rails as troop trains for the armed forces were. So, they would suffer from multiple delays and would miss a show on July 5 which would cause their first show to be canceled. With the superstitions of circus staff and performers, it was extremely bad luck to miss a show. Even with their delay and short staffing due to being drafted into the military and equipment shortages due to wartime rationing. The evening performance would go on without a hitch in the show but, all the circus employees are still on edge about missing the afternoon show.


The big top itself is 450 feet long and 200 feet wide. The side walls are 15 feet high, and the roof itself is 48 feet off the ground. So, the name big top is no joke. The big top tent could hold 9 to 12,000 spectators sources varied on this number, on the outside perimeter of a 25-foot-wide track to separate the three rings and the spectator seating. The tent was lined with nine entrances around the entire perimeter but, two on the north side would be blocked with the animal chutes to transfer the animals between acts to and from their cages. The field in which the circus had set up was mowed prior to their arrival and any bare spots in the ground are filled with sawdust.


The circus would advertise their tent as being waterproof but, not fireproof during this time. A common waterproofing technique at this time would be to boil paraffin wax with white gas (commonly used for camping stoves and lanterns.) It would take 6k gallons of white gas and 18k pounds of wax to waterproof the giant big top. The side panels wouldn’t get this waterproofing treatment.


Thursday, July 6 would be a hot summer day with a high of 85 degrees. Approximately 7,000 people would be in attendance for an afternoon matinee. At 2:23 P.M. the greatest show on earth would begin with animal trainer Joe Walsh on the Northeast ring with lions and bears and May Kovair with Leopards and Panthers on the Southeast end. As The Flying Wallendas are preparing to be the next act above the center ring, at 2:40 P.M. (sources varied on who first spotted this fire) it's believed that circus seatmen as they called their ushers noticed the fire first and attempted to put it out with buckets of water, but they had no effect. The Wallendas can sense something is wrong and start to come down from the highwire. It's believed a single fire extinguisher would have stopped this fire about the size of a window as it was described by witnesses, but they were still in a crate from the circus’ late arrival the day before.


While the seatmen are attempting to put out the flames Circus bandleader, Merle Evans directs the band to play “Stars and Stripes Forever” which was a distress signal to all circus employees. As the fire is creeping up the sidewall of the tent survivor Donald Gale would recall someone yelling fire as the fire grew in size racing towards the wax-coated roof. He would say all hell broke loose after the crowd’s attention to the fire. He first wanted to jump over the back side of the bleachers and squeeze out under the sidewalls, but his friend Helga felt responsible for him and wanted him to stay with her as they would make their way into the section where the folded chairs are. These folded chairs aren’t secured and are piling up in the panic causing people to trip and create a bottleneck. Donald Gale would become entangled in chairs as his friend Helga tries to free him, he would recall a sailor would push his way through the crowd hitting hard as he would say. He would say the crowd was moving like water and had no choice in what direction to go.


At 2:43 PM, the first alarm is sounded at fire stations for the circus blaze. Within minutes police, fire, and medical staff would arrive.


Most of the crowd tries to exit through the main entrance where a majority of the roof is ablaze, clown Emmett Kelly is doing the best he can to usher people out on the southside of the tent but is overwhelmed by the crowd and pushed Kelly out of the way according to his grandson.


On the opposite side of the tent as Gale is Elliott Smith attending the circus with his sister and his mother. His sister Joan would jump down the back of the bleachers. His mother would grab his hand and they would follow the instructions of the seatmen. With the fire racing across the top of the wax-coated roof large globs of this heated wax are dripping down on those still trapped inside the tent along with large pieces of the canvas with it.


By 2:47 PM with the North side entrances in a bottleneck panicked spectators rush to the opposite side of the tent where the animal chutes would be blocking exits on the South end.

A man by the name of Bill Curlee would straddle the animal chute hoisting children to the other side to safety. Bill Curlee and his son would escape but Bill would go back in to help others but does not survive.


By 2:50 PM the entire tent has been devoured by flames and collapsed on those still trapped inside. Survivors and circus personnel would be haunted by the screams and cries of those trapped inside.


Donald Gale and Elliott Smith would both be trapped inside and manage to survive by both being buried in separate piles of people trying to escape. Elliott Smith would recall hearing people screaming and praying as he was trapped under them, and it would eventually be silent.


In under 10 minutes, the world’s largest circus tent would be a pile of ashes injuring 700 people and killing 167.


Donald Gale would recall hearing the firefighters pouring water after regaining consciousness but doesn’t remember if he was found or yelled out. Elliott Smith would remember hearing the spray of water from fire attack lines and would call out to be rescued. Rescuers would have to pry apart bodies fused together from the wax and heat from the fire to rescue him and Donald Gale. Elliott Smith’s sister Joan was found alive later on the circus grounds and taken home by their neighbor. Elliott Smith’s mother would also survive but would be severely burned by burning canvas on her upper arms, shoulders, and head. Elliott Smith would spend 5 months in the hospital. Donald Gale would share a room with Elliott Smith and spend a month longer in the hospital.


A temporary morgue would be set up in the Hartford Armory and most of the bodies could only be identified by clothing. Personal inscriptions on jewelry would also aid in identification. One-third of the victims would have to be identified by dental records. Two women would be identified by C-section scars.


In the aftermath, four circus managers would be charged with involuntary manslaughter and would only spend a year in prison after being pardoned. Even with their convictions, the managers were allowed to travel to the next stop in Sarasota, Fl to assist the circus to set itself up again after the disaster.


The cause of the fire is still unknown today and the circus would take full financial responsibility for the fire and set aside its profits for the next 10 years to pay liabilities to the victims of the fire equaling 5 million dollars today. In the years prior to this, the circus would move away from performing in tents and in areas only. For the rest of their 1944 season, they would perform in open-air stadiums.

On July 6, 2005, 61 years after the fire a memorial was dedicated to the victims of the fire. A large bronze medallion sits where the center ring with the names and ages of the victims. The medallion is surrounded by memorial bricks as well. The footprint of the tent is outlined with dogwood trees.


I wanted to include some survivor stories but there are so many of them to choose from if you would like to read some yourself you can visit circusfire1944.com as long with pictures of all the inscriptions with the memorial bricks.


There is one I want to share by a survivor named Uriel Goldsmith. He was only eight years old at the time Uriel would escape by climbing down a tent pole near the bleaches he was sitting on as where else everyone went running for the exits where the tent was on fire. Uriel then would squeeze his way out underneath one of the sidewalls. Why I wanted to include his story since at the time he was recalling the story he was in assisted living for Alzheimer’s, and it was just fascinating how that those that suffer from this disease can clearly remember everything about an event from as simple as letters his daughter Monica found when cleaning out his home.


Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus would stop operation after 146 years because of declining ticket sales and pressure from animal activist groups the greatest show on earth would perform in Hartford, Ct. on April 30, 2017, at the Xl center during their farewell tour in 2017. Their final performance would be in Nassau, New York.


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