Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit. The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.
In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey to the future of the modern circus and how it began to evolve into what it is today. There were incredible differences from the 19th to the 20th to the 21st century and it continues to change in new and exciting ways. Although I miss the traditional circus in the sense with Lions, Tigers and bears on my, I see the appeal of the new circus with its music, lights and performers. It just goes to show you the circus will never die and thank goodness for that.
Previous Profiles and Stories
The Pinheads Pip/Flip and Schlitizie-
Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)
Koo-Koo the Bird Girl –
From last week we were starting to see the incredible solvency of Ringling Bros and how their empire began to fall due to the fires which appeared fairly common in this industry which would literally wipe out the lives of the performers and would ruin the entrepreneurs from ever being in business gain, quite sad.
Side shows continued to be a major part of the circus and although we don’t see them today in the same way as in the old circus day we do still tend to see performers who perform great tricks that baffle the mind such as sword swallowers and fire eaters which don’t involve those who suffer with human deformities and disabilities.
One of the most famous and well known side shows included Pip, Flip and Schlitzie or also known as Pinheads. Pinheads who suffered from Microcephaly a neurodevelopment disorder which left those who had with unusually small brain and skull, a small stature and a kid like persona. Surprisingly they were well loved and paid fairly well allowing them to have somewhat of a normal life, but into day and age this would surely be outlawed and not allowed with good reason.
The 20th Century Parade has arrived
In the 20th century the circus retained many of its essential components while expanding the scope and extravagance of its displays. By the late 20th century the circus had become an increasingly global entertainment.
Larger shows soon began to progress with parades as these became standardized sending where were called an “advance car” which as the name implies provided advance publicity for a circus by arriving in town two or three weeks before the show day. Bill posters, lithographers, and banner men plastered the town.
On Circus day the train arrived with its stock cars, perhaps with elephant trunks probing outside openings and a long line of flatcars loaded with red baggage wagons, pole wagons, bandwagons, tableaux, chariots, the steam boiler wagon and canvas-covered wild-animal cages. In a large circus such as the Ringling-Barnum Show, there would be several trains.
The Parade was calling!
The show grounds became a scene of high organized chaos: acres of canvas and forest of poles were assembled right in front of swarms of spectators. “Parade call” was then trumpeted, and performers, musicians, animal attendants, wardrobe crews, drivers, brakemen assembled for the grand free street parade.
Following the bugle brigade heralding the grand event, there would be a long progression of horses, flag bearers, bands on wagons, clowns, knights in armor, beautiful ladies on steeds, Roman chariots, chimes, bell, cage after cage of wild animals, cowboys and “Indians” and a long ling of highly caparisoned elephants shuffling along trunk-to-tail.
As one can see the parade was an incredible part of its marketing and getting the town ready for the big event. I can only imagine when one heard the circus was coming to town what excitement would follow. Along with the parade and what was to come the performers where also the most exciting part of the show as one would be able to see side shows which I believe was the biggest draw.
Although each performer was unique in their own right some of them looked like you and me but many suffered from great deformities and disabilities. What is sad that people didn’t see these individuals as people but almost sub-human who were mocked and put down in society, but I guess the joke was on them because many of these so called freaks were well paid.
For many of those we profile its really a draw to how much information is out there about them, some have very detailed histories of their life, some have barely anything, but that does not take away from the fact of who their were and their contributions to the circus.
These performers seemed to make a major impact as their being placed in films to bring those lives to light such as in the film Freaks. Today we are no different we continue to highlight those lives such as in the show Freak Show from American Horror Stories which leads me to our next profile Lobster Boy also known as Grady Stiles.
Grady Stiles (June 26, 1937-November 29, 1992)
An American freak show performer and murderer. His deformity was a genetic condition ectrodactyly, in which the fingers and toes are fused together to form claw-like extremities. The Stiles family had a long history of ectrodactyly, according to his father dating back to 1840. Stiles was the fourth in a line born to Grady F Stiles Sr. and wife Edna that began with the birth of William Stiles in 1805. Grady Stiles father was a sideshow attraction in a traveling carnival when his son was born and added his son to the act at age seven. Stiles married twice and had four children, two of them had ectrodactyly. Stiles and his two children toured together a the Lobster Family.
An Alcoholic and Abuser
Stiles was an alcoholic and was abusive to his family. Due to his ectrodactyly, he was unable to walk. While he sometimes used a wheelchair, he most commonly used his hands and arms for locomotion. Developing substantial upper body strength that when combined with his bad temper and alcoholism made him dangerous to others.
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 shows 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 women name Maria Teresa who had run away to join the circus as a teenager. She was not a part of the act, just a staff member, but 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.
Murder and the Trial
In 1978 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stiles shot and killed his oldest daughters’ fiancé on the eve of their wedding. No one’s exactly sure what happened: Either Stiles went to see his daughters fiancé at his home, or invited the young man over under the guise of giving him his blessing for the wedding planned for the next day. However it began, on the eve of the wedding, Stiles picked up his shotgun and murdered his daughters fiancé in cold blood.
He was brought to trial, where he openly confessed to killing the man and convicted of Third-degree murder. Stiles had no remorse for what he did. He was not sent to prison as no state institution was equipped to care for an inmate with ectrodactyly. Stiles was instead sentenced to house arrest and fifteen years’ probation. At this time he had developed liver cirrhosis from drinking and emphysema from years of cigarette smoking.
A New Beginning and Death
Stiles stopped drinking thereafter, and during this period remarried his first wife, Mary Teresa. However he soon began drinking again and his family claimed he became abusive once again. In 1992, Teresa and her son from a previous marriage Harry Glenn Newman Jr hired a seventeen-year-old sideshow performer named Chris Wyant to kill stiles for $1500. Wyant was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Harry Newman was given life in prison for his role as the mastermind and Teresa was given 43 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
Stiles son, Grady Stiles III, disputes this claim that Teresa Murdered and according to him, his stepmother, Teresa and father were arguing. It is said that a neighbor entered the home with a semi-automatic pistol and shot him multiple times, killing him. He was hated by the community so much that only 10 people came to his funeral and no one volunteered as a pallbearer to carry his coffin.
An another Interesting Sideshow
So much I would have never know about Lobster boy , but what was most interesting is how he used his condition for evil and basically getting away with it feeling invincible after his slap the wrist. Lobster boy of course continues to be in popular culture and although the family has carried on it appears Grady III had a daughter, Sara, who does not have ectrodactyly. Cathy is married and has a lobster clawed daughter named Misty. Grady is buried with Stiles Sr. in the Showmen’s section of Sunset Memory Gardens cemetery in Thonotosassa, Florida.
This would one of the more interesting side shows and one of the most tragic as we have seen, no doubt his story will continue to live in the media. This is definitely one individual one may believe didn’t exist but he did as just another example of Carnies and Circus Freaks who lived their life despite their disabilities and were able to make it.