“Lobster Boy”: The Circus Act Turned Murderer

This rare condition spelled a handicap for many — but to Grady Stiles Jr., it signaled lethal opportunity.
Lobster Boy

YouTubeGrady Stiles, Jr. a.k.a. Lobster Boy.

For more than a century, a peculiar physical condition known as ectrodactyly has afflicted the Stiles family. The rare congenital deformity makes hands look like lobster claws, as the middle fingers are either missing or seemingly fused to the thumb and pinky.

While many may have viewed this condition as a handicap, for the Stiles family it spelled opportunity. As far back as the 1800s, as the family grew and produced more children with unusual hands and feet, they developed a circus: The Lobster Family, which became a carnival staple throughout the early 20th century.

But one son, Grady Stiles Jr., would give the Stiles’ family a different, morbid reputation when he became a murderer.

Lobster Boy

Grady Stiles Jr., who would become known as Lobster Boy, was born in Pittsburgh in 1937. At that point, his father was already part of the “freak show” circuit, adding his kids with ectrodactyly to the act.

Grady Stiles Jr.’s case was pretty severe: In addition to his hands, he also had it in his feet, and therefore could not walk.

For most of his life, he primarily used a wheelchair — but also learned to use his upper body to pull himself across the floor with impressive strength. As Grady grew up, he became alarmingly strong, something that would benefit his homicidal rage later in life.

Throughout his childhood, Stiles and his family toured with the carnival circuit, spending the off season in Gibsonton, Florida as many “carnies” did. The family did well: They made anywhere between $50,000 to $80,000 per season, and unlike a lot of freak show acts didn’t have to subject themselves to anything more than curious stares.

Stiles grew up in this carnival world, and so it wasn’t surprising that as a young man he fell in love with another carnival worker, a young woman named Maria (some sources say Mary) Teresa who had run away to join the circus as a teenager.

She wasn’t part of an act, just a staff member, but she fell in love with Stiles and the two married. Together they had two children and, like his father before him, introduced the children with ectrodactyly to the family business.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England. She's currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Hippocampus Magazine, The Atlantic, The Mary Sue, and Quartz.
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