Does anyone among my loyal readers remember a National Enquirer edition that showcased The Lobster Boy – a circus freak attraction? I remember seeing it as a kid and actually believing it since we know that everything in the Enquirer is true. For once the Enquirer was telling the truth. Grady Stiles Jr was born on July 18, 1937 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had a severe genetic defect known as ectrodactyly (literally, “monstrous fingers“). Grady was the sixth in a long line of lobster-men (preceded by William Stiles, 1805-1888; Jacob Stiles, 1843-1932; Elisha Stiles, 1880-1935; and finally Grady Stiles, Sr., 1912-1988). Grady could not walk and used a wheelchair in public, but could crawl around on his incredibly powerful arms and could perform nearly any task using his “claws”.
This deformity didn’t keep the afflicted members of the Stiles brood down and they found their perfect niche in the “carnival freak” community. Grady’s freakishness was spectacular as not only were his hands fused into claws but also his legs and feet were stunted into flippers. In the 1930s his father was already an attraction at the traveling sideshows. He quickly put Grady to work in the tents at age 7, billing him as the amazing Lobster Boy, a cruel moniker he would retain for the remainder of his life. People paid a nickel to gawk at the child who only had to sit in a chair and smile. Talk about lax child labour laws. However Grady enjoyed life in the circus. He was not regarded as a freak. Grady played with other circus performer’s children. He learned how to write his name and how to shoot a revolver, a skill that would prove deadly later in his life.
Grady grew up, and married another carnival performer named Mary Teresa Herzog, a pretty girl with a good figure. A victim of her stepfather’s incest Mary Teresa married an abusive carnival worker named Jerry Plummer. Eventually they divorced. Somehow Mary Teresa found the deformed Lobster Boy charming. Strangely, this odd man was high above her in the carnival hierarchy. He was a star and she a mere ticket seller. But over time Mary Teresa moved up first as a Bally Girl, ballyhooing the shows inside the circus tent. Next she became The Blade Box Girl (no, not that box, you). Finally Mary Teresa was the Electrified Girl, sitting in what appeared to be an electric chair and being electrocuted. How appealing. Can’t you just picture this girl’s history in an episode from Tales from the Crpyt?
When not traveling with the carnival the Stiles family lived in Gibsonton Florida, a poor mobile town that lacked even a McDonald’s or a gas station. Many other carnival performers lived there during the winter season. Apparently circus employment doesn’t pay a great salary. At first Grady courted Mary Teresa with flowers and gifts. “Grady was such a charming man,” she stated. “Everyone enjoyed being in his company.” Mary Teresa and Grady lived together for nine years before he married her. After the two married Grady wasn’t so charming. he began drinking heavily. When he hit his wife he avoided her face, knowing a bruised face would decrease her value as a circus performer. How thoughtful. He was a drunken, hateful bastard, mentally and physically abusive toward his wife and the four children he produced. Grady’s handicap left him unable to walk but because he constantly walked on his arms he developed massive upper body strength, allowing him to deliver vicious pinches, punches, headbutts and choke holds to any and all who displeased him. Even his handshakes were excruciating.
Grady beat up every member in his family including the girls. Two of his children were lobsters, a girl named Cathy and a boy named Grady III. At first, Grady beat up Donna more than his other children. Finally one night he threw Mary Teresa and his children out. Mary Teresa turned to Harry Glenn Newman, the World’s Smallest Man, and he put her up in his mother’s house. A little man with a big heart, it would seem. Mary Teresa married Newman and had a son named Harry Glenn Newman. Glenn grew to be well over 6 feet, but alas, was mentally retarded.
In the interim Grady filed for divorce. Mary Teresa, unfamiliar with divorce proceedings didn’t attend court which gave Grady custody of his two children. In addition Grady married a woman his children didn’t like, Barbara Browning. From this blessed union Grady produced a third child, Grady III, another lobster.
Meantime Donna met a young man named Jack Layne. She began missing school and her teacher visited Grady Jr to discuss her progress. Grady later insisted that he had sex with Donna’s teacher who, “kept coming back and back and back because she of this. Everyone I have sex with wants to have sex with my claws. They love it when I use my claws.” Nasty. In 1978 when Donna was engaged to marry Lyne, Grady shot and killed the boy on the eve of their wedding. Donna told him, “you’ll die for this you son of a bitch,” to which her father replied, “don’t give me that shit.” Unaware of his history, police wondered how a man with lobster claws could have fired a shotgun. Mary Teresa stated the night before the murder Grady was watching Ruby, a movie about Lee Harvey Oswald and the shooting of John F. Kennedy Jr.
Like everything in his life, the trial was a media circus. Showing no remorse Grady admitted openly to the killing. Due to his deformity the jury sympathized with Grady. The jury was treated to a free carnival performance. Several character witnesses from the carnival came forward to testify on his behalf including the Bearded Lady, the Fat Man whose real name was Paul Fishbaugh, and a carnival dwarf. Grady escaped the death sentence and instead received a prison sentence of fifteen years. However Grady also escaped a prison sentence on the grounds that no prison was equipped to handle his disability. He was given fifteen years probation.
Mary Teresa’s marriage to Newman floundered. Newman had suffered a fall and became partially disabled. Mary Teresa got bored and She packed up and returned to Grady. Inexplicably she told Donna, “I still love your dad.” Clearly Mary Teresa was born to be abused. It would seem that the entire Stiles family operated in strange ways. They all joined their abusive father in the carnival life. Glenn became the Human Blockhead and shoved nails into his nose. Donna and her husband Joe Miles ran the Gorilla Illusion where Donna turned into a gorilla. Lovely.
However Grady had not changed his ways and he frequently threatened to kill Mary Teresa and her family. He often threatened to kill Cathy and punched her in the jaw hard enough that it swelled up. For whatever reason, he beat Cathy regularly. She must have been a substitute for Donna. He often lay in bed muttering “I should just kill you all and get it over with.” He choked Mary Teresa, knocked her to the floor and hit her about the face and forehead. A real family man. It seemed only a matter of time before he made good, so on November 29, 1992, Mary and her son Glenn Newman paid another carnival worker, Glen Wyant, $1,500 to shoot Grady four
times in the head while he drank and watched television, which seems like something else they probably could have charged admission for. Police were immediately concerned about his family’s demeanor: “guy gets killed in his own house and no one bats an eyelash.” Glen had an IQ of approximately 79. When police asked him to take a polygraph he readily agreed. When police told him he had lied during certain questions Glen broke down and told the story.
Wyant, Mary Teresa and Glenn were all found guilty of different charges. Wyant was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Harry Newman was given life in prison for his role as the mastermind, no doubt the only time in his life that the mentally handicapped man would ever be accused of intellect. In her defense, No longer the pretty carnival girl, Maria 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’. Her plea fell on deaf ears and she was given 12 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
Grady Stiles was so despised in his community that nobody could be found to step forward to serve as a pallbearer, and his simple gravestone was devoid of any epitaph. The only engravings, aside from his name, were two sets of clasped, praying hands. The family has carried on. Grady III has a daughter, Sara who does not have ectrodactyly. Cathy is married and has a lobster-clawed daughter named Misty. The three of them still perform on occasion. Cathy has taken up acting and has appeared in the series Carnivale and in the Tim Burton film Big Fish.