GIBSONTON, FL — In the annals of American crime, few stories are as bizarre as the tale of Grady Stiles Jr. The events surrounding the tumultuous lives of Stiles and his family played out like a real-life version of the 1932 cult classic film Freaks, which featured genuine sideshow performers in a fictional Hollywood story that ended in bloody revenge.
Grady Stiles Jr. never had a choice which direction his life was going to take, it was already determined for him. Stiles was born in 1937 in Pittsburgh with a rare condition known as ectrodactyly. The ailment fused Stiles’ fingers together, giving him the appearance of having claws instead of hands. Ectrodactyly had afflicted members of the family for generations, and Grady was only the latest unlucky person in the Stiles clan to be stricken with it. He also had stubby legs that ended at the knees and forced him to use a wheelchair.
But the family used the hereditary condition to their advantage. Stiles’ father had the same condition and toured the country as a sideshow performer known as “Lobster Man.” The young Stiles hit the road with his father at the age of seven, and was given the moniker “Lobster Boy.” The strange world of the freak show was the only life that Grady Stiles would ever know.
Like many sideshow performers, when they weren’t on the road, the Stiles family ended up living in Gibsonton, Florida, a town south of Tampa where carnival performers and seasonal workers spent the winter. Performers Jeanie “The Half Girl” and her husband, Al “The Giant” Tomaini, encouraged other show folk to settle in “Gibtown” by establishing a trailer park and a restaurant. Those with unusual appearances could live among each other and not feel out of place.
Stiles met a young runaway named Mary who had joined the circus to escape a broken home life, and the two fell in love. Stiles and Mary tied the knot in 1958, and Mary embarked on the sideshow life that her husband had known since he was a little boy. However, after only a short time, Mary realized that her husband, the famous “Lobster Boy” that crowds paid for a glimpse of, transformed into a violent, abusive man after he drank whiskey, which seemed to be his favorite pastime. Although Stiles had deformed legs, he had an extremely powerful upper body, and would routinely beat Mary.
The couple had two daughters together before they divorced in 1973. Mary then married another sideshow performer named Harry Glenn Newman, who was billed as “The World’s Smallest Man.” Mary and her new husband had a son together, Harry Glenn Newman III, who also went on to be a performer in the show, pounding nails into his nostrils and becoming known as the “Human Blockhead.”
In 1978, one of Mary and Stiles’ daughters, 17-year-old Donna, told her parents that she was pregnant and was going to marry the young man responsible. Stiles asked to meet the man who was to become his son-in-law so the two could have a private talk the day before the wedding. When the man arrived to meet with Stiles, the “Lobster Boy” shot and killed the 18-year-old in cold blood.
Donna later said that her father sat on the porch smiling and said, “I told you I would kill him.” Stiles was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years of probation, mostly because his deformities kept him from going to prison, as no state prison was equipped to deal with his physical needs. At this point, Stiles also had cirrhosis from his alcoholism, and emphysema from smoking three packs of cigarettes a day — even though he was only in his early 40s.
Stiles married another woman and had two more children before he and Mary reconciled and married again in 1988 — the “Lobster Boy” promised his drinking days were behind him. But old habits die hard, and soon after the two remarried, Stiles was back to chugging whiskey and letting his hair-trigger temper get the best of him.
The violence Stiles directed at his family escalated, but Mary was fearful of leaving her husband out of fear of what he might do to their children, who were also born with ectrodactyly. For the next few years, Mary suffered in silence as Stiles repeated his daily cycle of drinking and then physical and mental abuse. For Mary, the final straw came on Thanksgiving weekend in 1992. Mary later testified that she woke to her husband on top of her, drunk and holding a butcher knife to her throat. He said to her, “One of these days, I’m going to kill you and your family, but the time isn’t right,” before he crawled away.
Two nights later, on November 29, 1992, a hit man hired by Mary and Harry Glenn Newman III, her “Human Blockhead” 19-year-old intellectually challenged son (and Stiles’ stepson), crept up behind Stiles as he sat in his Gibsonton trailer in his underwear. Christopher Wyant, 18, was paid $1,500 to kill Stiles — and he did just that, firing two shots into his head. “Lobster Boy” was dead at 55 years old.
The three people responsible for the murder of Grady Stiles Jr. were arrested and stood trial. Mary argued that her violent and ill-tempered husband would have killed her had she not done away with him first, and that hiring a hitman was her only means of self-defense. During the trial, she said, “My husband was going to kill my family — I believe that from the bottom of my heart.”
Mary, her stepson, and the teenage triggerman Christopher Wyant were all found guilty and received prison sentences. Mary was sentenced to 12 years, Harry received a 25-year term, and Wyant was slapped with a 27-year sentence behind bars.
The unlikely story of Grady Stiles Jr., the “Lobster Boy,” remains one of the most unusual American true crime cases of the 20th century, with one of the most unusual cast of characters.