Grady Stiles Jr.: The Lobster Boy
Carnivals in the early 20th century were much different than the ones we know today. Sure, the games are still rigged and the rides always break down several times a week, but much has changed. History Daily reports the many appalling attractions that have been dropped or changed over the years, many of them outright racist or abusive to animals. What was once known as the "African Dip" became the widely popular dunk tank once the racist overtones were stripped away. "Far East" attractions have been eliminated entirely, as they should've been. Animal cruelty is yet another practice that has thankfully ended in the carnival circuit. Freakshows, however, seem to have evolved into something entirely their own. Despite their evolution, the world will never forget the most infamous freakshow performer of all.
Grady Franklin Stiles Jr. was born on June 26, 1937, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wikipedia lists his parents as Grady F. Stiles Sr. and Edna Stiles. Dating back to 1840, the Stiles family had a long history of ectrodactyly. This genetic condition causes a malformation of the hands and/or feet involving the deficiency or absence of one or more of the fingers or toes. This condition is also known as split hand, cleft hand, split hand/foot malformation (SHFM), or lobster claw syndrome as the hands and/or feet will closely resemble lobster claws. Both Grady Jr.'s hands and feet were misshapen from his affliction.
Like most in their family's position in the 19th and early 20th century, the Stiles' took to the carnival circuit to support themselves. It had pretty much become a family tradition for those that inherited the gene to join the show from young ages. Grady Jr. was no different, starting out alongside his father at the age of 7. He would spend the entirety of his youth and a large portion of his adulthood traveling with the other carnies. He would meet his first wife while traveling with them, and raise their children among them.
While Historic Mysteries reported his first wife's name as Mary Teresa, All That's Interesting referred to her as Maria. For this post, I will just call her Maria. Though she suffered no malformations, the young girl had run away to join the carnival at 19 for reasons unknown. Soon after finding her place among the staff, she met and fell in love with Grady. Now a grown man, Grady was quite strong. He had built up an almost superhuman amount of upper-body strength from pulling himself around on the ground when he wasn't using his wheelchair. The two got married and had several children together.
All seemed to be going fine for a time. Working on the circuit, they were making anywhere between $50,000-$80,000 every season. Considering that this had to be somewhere between the late 50s and early 60s, this was an enormous amount of money for one family to make in less than a year. In the off-season, the family would retreat to Gibsonton, Florida with many of the other carnies for a well-deserved break from the gawkers. In due time, two of the children Maria and Grady had together that inherited the gene would start working with their father, just as Grady had. His daughter, Cathy, who did not inherit the malformation, became the apple of his eye. Things changed dramatically when he started drinking, though.
Grady was a mean drunk that put his unusual strength to a terrible use when he began beating his wife and children. He would use his claw-like hands to choke Maria. In those terrible moments, it seemed as though his hands had been made to do just that. For years, Maria endured her husband's drunken rampages and withstood his beatings. That is, until one night in 1973, when Grady went way too far. During one of their regular fights, Grady threw her down on the floor and ripped her IUD out with his bare hands. After this horrifying altercation, she immediately divorced him.
After divorcing his first wife, life became quiet. Though he was still a bitter, mean drunk, he was alone with no one to fight with. Maybe it was this lack of dissension in his life that led him to the atrocious act he would later commit. Maybe, in the absence of someone to batter and control, Grady's rage was boiling over.
In 1978, Grady's oldest daughter, Donna, fell in love. Her father outwardly despised her beau, a man that Huff Post reported to be named Jack Layne. When Jack proposed, Donna was over the moon and ready to start her life with the man of her dreams. Her father and abuser just couldn't allow her to ride off into the sunset, though. No one really knows how it happened. Whether Grady invited his daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law over to give his blessing, or if he showed up at Jack's house. What it is known is that the day before their wedding, Grady shot Jack with a shotgun, killing him. I cannot imagine the immense pain and grief that Donna suffered after the man she loved was killed by her abusive father just one day before they were supposed to be married.
Grady showed absolutely no remorse for his actions. He confessed without a hint of contrition, or even any prompting. His trial would turn out to be a major disappointment, not only for Jack Layne's family, but for the entire community of Gibsonton as well. He pointed out in court that no jail or prison would be able to house him due to his disability. Years of drinking Seagrams and smoking cigarettes had left him with liver cirrhosis and emphysema as well. His defense was able to successfully argue that imprisonment for Grady Stiles Jr. would be a cruel and unusual punishment. Unfortunately, they were right about correctional facilities being ill-equipped to accommodate him, having erctodactyly.
In what must have felt like a deal with the devil, Grady was released to his home to serve 15 years on probation for premeditated murder. By this point in his life, he had married his second wife, having two more children with her. She and their children were subjected to the same kind of abuse. After Grady's trial, it became so much worse. Now knowing that quite literally no jail could hold him, he felt invincible in the eyes of the law. As a result, his family suffered all the more. He would even tell people outright that he could kill them and get away with it. Everyone knew that it was true.
His second wife wouldn't stand for the abuse forever. She left and divorced him, never to see her tyrant of an ex-husband again. For reasons that are completely unknown and incomprehensible to those that knew her, Maria returned to Grady, remarrying him in 1989. It didn't take long for her to find out just how much more violent her husband had grown in her absence. It also didn't take her long to put an end to it for good.
The more severe beatings brought out a new-found desperation in Maria. She wasn't just looking for a divorce and a way out. She was looking to make sure he couldn't hurt anyone else ever again. It only took three years for the pot to boil over into a bloody mess. Along with her son from a previous marriage, Glenn Newman, III, she began to form a plot. In November 1992, at her wits end, Maria enlisted the help of her 17-year-old neighbor, Chris Wyant. She paid the boy $1500 to kill Grady for her. Today, that would be worth $3,167.60.
As Grady sat in his Gibsonton, Florida home, watching television, he never heard Chris enter. The teenage boy walked up behind this convicted killer and shot him at pointblank range in the head. He died instantly, while his wife breathed a sigh of relief.
The case was cut and dry when it passed along to the courts. Chris Wyant was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years in prison for the murder of Grady Stiles Jr. Maria also stood trial and was handed a 12-year sentence for her role. She tried and failed to appeal her conviction and began serving her term in February 1997. Her son, Glenn, received life in prison for his role in the planning. His mother had begged him to take a plea deal, but he refused. None of the three denied what they had done. It likely felt more like a public service than a crime.
The carnival community appears to have had pretty split opinions about the once-legendary Lobster Boy. Some referred to him as Satan himself, and only seemed to remember him for his bad temper. Others called him a good businessman. None called him a good person. Many of them believed that Maria should've simply walked out and left him. The question is, would he have allowed her to leave a second time? The justice system had already proved to him that he could kill with impunity. He had spent every day since holding his invincibility over the heads of everyone in his life.
When it came time to bury Grady, the entire community made their feelings about him known. Not a single family or community member would agree to be his pallbearer. His funeral wasn't attended by many. With little respect held among his family and neighbors, there wasn't much respect to be paid at the service. He had done nothing but hurt the people in his life, and many of them were likely relieved by the loss.
Huff Post wrote an article detailing an interview Grady's son, Grady Stiles, III, had given on AMC's Freakshow. Grady, III had traveled with his father on the carnival circuit throughout his childhood. He was also part of the Lobster Family act. As he sat with Freakshow stars, Todd Ray, Danielle Ray, and Phoenix Ray, he spoke earnestly about his father. He called him a racist and abusive man, saying that he thought alcohol brought out the worst in him. When young Grady, III would cry, the elder Grady would promise to give him something to cry about. He had no problem admitting that he was no fan of the man that had beaten and terrorized their family for years.
When asked, Grady, III said that he had only one thing that he wished he could say to his dad. He wished to thank him for showing him what kind of man to not be. He also hoped that he could appreciate the man he grew up to be despite him. Huff Post quotes him as saying, "You were a drunken bastard, but you were my dad."
The true story of the Lobster Boy is tragic, and a far cry from American Horror Stories' portrayal of the old carnival star. It's domestic abuse at its absolute worst. It's the story of a man so unhappy with himself and his life that he fell into a bottle and an ill temper, never to recover. After his swift escape from justice in 1978, it's not hard to imagine why Maria felt that the only way to deal with the problem was to put a bullet in it. You can only back someone into a corner so many times before they strike back. Maybe if Grady had learned to love himself, he would've been capable of loving others. Sadly, had he been allowed to live he likely would've never changed. Hate and rage were too deeply ingrained in his personality.