In the world of true crime there are often cases that leave us scratching our heads and just simply open-mouthed at the absurdity and weirdness of it all. These cases are not always particularly supernatural in nature or even unsolved, but nevertheless hold a veneer of the truly odd and ridiculous. Surely one of the greatest of these must be the case of an evil circus freak known as the Lobster Boy, who went from a famed sideshow performer to a dark and unrepentant murderer.
In June of 1937, Grady Franklin Stiles Jr. came into this world already a bit of a monster in the eyes of many. Like his father before him he was born with a birth defect called ectrodactyly, which is basically a congenital deformity that causes a fusing of the toes and fingers that twists them into claw-like appendages. Indeed, the whole Stiles family had long been cursed with this genetic affliction, and Grady’s own father had made a living off his deformity by touring with traveling carnival sideshows where people would gawk at his claw-like hands and feet. It was his father that would bring him into the act at the tender age of just seven years old, and Grady would perform under the name “Lobster Boy,” part of the famous “Lobster Family,” touring off and on from their permanent home in Gibsonton, Florida, a notorious town where many circus freaks and geeks wintered.
Grady had the deformity pretty bad, with his feet and hands both fused into two-pronged claws that prevented him from walking, although he was known for his ability to crawl along on his hands and for his impressive upper body strength. He and his family made a rather good living off of people’s morbid fascination with their contorted physical features, and Grady grew up rather well-off because of it. He would later marry a normal woman who worked at the circus by the name of Maria Teresa, and they would have four children, with two of them inheriting the same gruesome affliction as Grady and his family, and they too got in on the lucrative freak show circuit. It all seemed like things were doing well for Grady Stiles Jr., and that he had made a successful life for himself despite his challenges, an inspiration for others to overcome their physical limitations and make something of themselves, but there was darkness lurking in the background, and he was about to begin his grim journey into true monsterhood.
By all accounts Grady had already always been a bit of a hot head, prone to losing his temper and throwing tantrums at a moment’s notice, to the point where many of the other sideshow performers outright avoided him, but things escalated quickly when he became fond of hitting the bottle. He became a slave to the demon of alcoholism, and he was not a happy drunk, with his family taking most of the brunt of his alcohol-fueled outbursts. Grady would shout at, abuse, and both mentally and physically torture his wife and kids, and he was supposedly incredibly strong, his clawed hands like vices, which made him all the more terrifying to those around him. By this time he had branched out to start his own freakshow, and by all accounts he was a tyrannical and abusive boss who instilled great fear and loathing amongst his peers. Grady’s son, Grady Stiles III, would in later years say of this state of affairs:
I’m not a fan of my dad as a person. My father was racist [and] abusive. When I cried, [he was like] ‘I’ll give you a reason a to cry. I think alcohol brought out the worst in him.
This would go on for years, with the domestic violence and rampaging tantrums steadily escalating until one day things took a rather macabre turn. Grady’s daughter Donna had apparently fallen in love and gotten engaged to a Jack Layne. This was one of the physically “normal” kids, and the apple of her daddy’s eye, well at least when he wasn’t beating her, and he strongly objected to the marriage. He objected so much so in fact, that he gave the phrase “shotgun wedding” a very literal twist when he grabbed his shotgun and proceeded to blow away the would-be son-in-law on the day before their planned wedding in 1979. Considering the perpetrator’s reputation as a side show freak and the overall surreal quality to the whole thing, the murder became a media sensation at the time, all fueled by Grady’s complete lack of remorse and even at times braggadocio concerning what he’d done.
With Grady shamelessly admitting to the murder and even gloating about it, one would think that it would be an open and shut case, that they would lock the Lobster Boy up and throw away the key, but things would take an unusual turn during the trial. Grady’s deformity, combined with his chronic liver disease due to his excessive drinking and bad case of emphysema from his constant chain smoking, managed to get him a sympathetic verdict, and he was only sentenced to 15 years of probation and house arrest. As such, he was free to return home and continue his reign of terror, in the meantime getting divorced, remarrying to have two more kids, and then marrying his first wife yet again. Through it all the alcoholism and violence never stopped, indeed becoming even worse and more relentless, with the Lobster Boy often drunkenly proclaiming that he would kill them all, until Grady’s own wife and son decided that something needed to be done about it once and for all.
The wife went about concocting a plan along with her son Harry, a freak himself called “The Human Blockhead,” known for using his head to bash nails into boards, to have her husband killed, and in the process hired a 17-year-old circus performer and hitman with gang connections by the name of Chris Wyant to carry it out. On the evening of November 29, 1992, Grady was in his living room planted in front of the TV like any other night, but this time he wasn’t alone. Wyant crept up behind him, raised a .32 Colt Automatic to the back of the Lobster Boy’s head, and blew his brains out at point blank range. There was no love lost with Grady’s death, with no one even wanting to be his pallbearer at his funeral, and his wife, son, and the hitman were promptly arrested and convicted of murder, with Wyant sentenced to 27 years in prison and Teresa given 12 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Harry got the worst of it, labelled as the mastermind and given a life sentence. For her part, Teresa would defend her actions by saying, “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.”
It is all a totally outlandish case, inhabited by colorful characters from another era where deformities were something people paid good money to go and see. It is also a rather tragic tale of a man who had a life of being gawked at and treated like something less than human, the Lobster Boy, never respected, and perhaps this contributed to his fall from grace and his descent into murder and madness. Whatever the case may be, with its cast of characters and pincer-handed hellion of a villain, it is certainly one of the most bizarre and outlandish murder cases there is.