Land of the Freak


Gibsonton, Florida is the only place in America that is classified as a Residential Business Zone – meaning you can store and display business materials near your home. This law was enacted in the 1940s, when a large community of carnival performers decided to make Gibsonton their home. It meant they could train their animals – elephants, bears, monkeys – in their homes, and even store carnival rides right on their front lawns.

The sideshow-ification of Gibsonton, a nondescript fishing town in Florida, started out ordinarily enough.

Jeanie Tomaini and her husband Al were the first of the new wave of settlers to move to town – they opened a seafood restaurant called Giant’s Fish Camp, but food wasn’t exactly what they were best known for. You see, Jeanie was born with no lower extremities and was known on the sideshow circuit as the Half-woman. At two and a half feet tall, she was almost four times smaller than Al, who was said to stand over eight feet tall. The town seemed to accept them and, before they knew it, many other sideshow families moved in.

One such family was the Stiles clan (also known as the Lobster Family), with Grady Stiles Jr. at its head. Grady Jr. was the sixth in a line of family members born with Ectrodactyly, a disorder that causes malformed hands and feet, giving them a claw-like appearance.

Grady’s father performed in the sideshow as the Lobster Man and wasted no time enlisting his son to join him on stage. From a young age, Grady’s badly deformed legs rendered him incapable of walking, but he was said to have incredible upper-body strength as a result of relying on his arms for mobility. He was also said to be one mean sonovabitch. When his oldest daughter fell in love with a young man that Grady disapproved of, he showed his disdain in the most extreme way imaginable: by killing the poor sucker.

Grady was convicted of the murder in 1978 but, luckily for him, his physical condition, along with various internal health problems caused by decades of heavy drinking and smoking, kept the state from incarcerating him. He was released with only 15 years probation. He spent those years moving to and from Gibsonton, eventually remarrying his first wife Mary and subjecting her and the rest of the Stiles family to violence and beratement, fueled by his whiskey-guzzling habit. Eventually, the family had enough of his fucked up behavior, and hired their young neighbor Christopher Wyant to end the clawed-one’s reign of terror once and for all.

Reportedly, Grady’s last words were his standard greeting: “What the fuck are you doing in my house?” Wyant shot him twice for the low, low price of $1,500. So it goes in Gibsonton, Florida.

—Alix / @alixmcalpine

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