Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sideshow #5, fraturing the Fat Lady and Lobster Boy!

Don't remember exactly where this fair was when I caught it, but did meet Grady Stiles Jr, "Lobster Boy", who apparently quite a dick in real life, or at least that's what his wife and stepson claimed after they killed him a few years later (his life story, the book "Lobster Boy", has 18 used copies for 1 cent each on Amazon if you're interested). Adjacent to his tent was fat lady Suzy Farmer. For a buck or two extra I purchased signed cards from both of them. On the back of Suzy's she also wrote, "Best Wishes From Suzy Farmer Age 36 4'6' Shoes 3D". This must have been around 1987 because I found a newspaper article from the Maryland Fredrick Post by Michael Enright published while the two performers were on tour*.
But the highlight for me was the Snake Woman (for you historians, not 100% sure that the interior shots are from the same show), a classic trick done with mirrors where you'd look down into the display to see a real living carnies head that appeared to be attached to a large faux boa constrictor body. A handpainted sign proclaimed "No Photography" but I wish I had tipped someone $5 (or just snapped away anyhow) to preserve the moment. The Snake Woman, guessing by the unshaved chin, was a man, and his sad sack slack expression and unfocused eyes made on think he was picked because he was so hung over, or still so smashed, that sitting there with an ill fitting brown wig was all he was capable of that morning. Tomorrow it might be someone else.
Oh, back when the sideshow was seedy fun!

*Nearly every man uses his hands to make a living. Some men use them to work the soil, others to write legal briefs or hammer nails. Grady Stiles II makes a living by letting people look at his hands.
"I'm the last true freak attraction around," he says, tearing a $1 ticket in half.
I am known as the Lobster Man. I am known by that name because by hands are shaped like that of a lobster claw, as you see here.
"$10,000 If Not Real and Alive!," the sign on the Midway screams. Don't be aftaid to look - step right up.
That's how Mr. Stiles, who finishes a weeklong stint at The Great Frederick Fair today, provides for his family. And if you have a good question - go right ahead and ask it. The Lobster Man gets tired repeating that same speach a hundred times a day.
The awe-struck faces in the yellow and white-striped tent stare and stare and stare. The bolder ones ask questions and when they do - for the most part - they are not joking.
"Do you eat raw fish?", a wide-eyed boy in a black Nightrider t-shirt asks.
"Are you in the Guiness Book of World Records?", says a teen-age girl, clutching a huge grey alligator to her chest.
"How do you . do you ... do you get used to being with, with that?" says a nine-year-old boy, his eyes never leaving Mr. Stiles' hands.
As the afternoon wears on, Mr. Stiles' well worn spiel becomes more and more abbreviated.
My great-grandfather, my great aunt and my dad before me was born like this. Instead of feet I was born with the flippers, or feelers, of a lobster.
There is a cleft through the middle of both of Mr. Stiles' hands. He has two thick, long fingers on each hand. When a person shakes them, they grab one of his fingers and the other clamps on top.
His legs are barely developed below the knees and instead of a foot, each leg tapers to one lone toe.
When he goes into his Lobster Man speech, he snaps the elongated fingers together and twirls his two toes. When he is finished talking, he grabs a lighter and fires up a Pall Mall. He sips an iced tea.
"I look different but I get the same thrills and excitements that you do," he says, leaning forward again to collect tickets, oblivious to the murmurs and elbow nudgings. "When I'm at home I have friends and enemies like everybody else."
His great-grandfather, a farmer in North Carolina, was the first Stiles to display the deformity, he says. The genetic imperfection has been passed on to each successive generation of the family.
He started in the freak show business with his father when he was 6 years old. That was in 1943, when sideshow attractions were a big draw at the state and county fairs. He was scared to death.
"All these people looking at me!". Mr. Stiles sahs with a start. "That was a little scary for someone so young."
But the years went by and when you're that young, you can learn to adapt to almost any situation.
The other sideshow attractions became his best friends and he remembers their names to this day: Grace Williams, "The Mule-Faced Woman" Betty Lou Wiliams "The Double-Bodied Woman" and Frank Lenetti, "The Three-Legged Man."
All are gone now, he says, ever since the bottom dropped out of the business. He is currently traveling with "Fat Lady" Suzy Farmer and wonders aloud how many more years he can take of the same speech, the same questions and, of couse, the same stares.
"The long days are really getting to me," Mr. Stiles said. "I used to 'jump' at every show but I just don't have it in me anymore."
When the Lobster Man "jumps", he uses his arms to propel himself forward on his table, sometimes leaping over the bar that restrains onlookers and onto the ground below.
These days, Mr. Stiles spends most of his 12- to 14- hour days sitting on a table top pillow, rocking forward to collect tickets or sliding to the left to get another cigarette or glass of tea.
I am married and have four children. Two are normal and two like I am. This is a picture of my family. This is my daughter and this is my son.
Grady Stiles III often pushes his wheelchair from his father's tent to the blue and white one next door, where 500 pound Suzy Farmer can be found. They are best friends, his father says.
The son of the Lobster Man was born with the same deformities as his father but he is not alowed on display at The Great Frederick Fair because of child labor laws in Frederick County.
A moon-faced boy, he smiles often and shows a great deal of affection for his mother, Barbara Stiles, who pops in and out of the tent when her duties as the ticket seller slacken.

Mrs. Stiles met her husband 15 years ago at a county fair when she was working at a nearby carnival stand. She is the mother of the young Stiles and is the Lobster Man's third wife. Well, really his fourth. He got mad at her a few years ago and divorced her, only to remarry two months later.
"I never thought anything of it," Barbara Stiles said of her husband's deformities. "No different than any other man. He's better than some."
They young Stiles says he doesn't want to be the next Lobster Man. He loves to play arcade games. He wants to get into carnival concession sales when he grows up.
We are the only family on medical record in the world to be born like this inheritably. If you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer them.
His daughter, Cathy, also has inherited her father's deformity She is 23 years old and used to travel with her father - nine months on, three months off.
She attends a business college in Massachusetts now, he says. An operation to fit her legs with prostheses was unsuccessful because of the delicate bone structure of her legs.
Doctors at hospitals across the country have tested Stiles' family members countless times over the years, Mr. Stiles said. The problem centers on a chromosome deficiency although no one has been able to locate exactly where or what it is.
Mr. Stiles and his two deformed children have been featured in a number of picture books, including "We're Not Like Others," "World's Strangest People," "Forbidden Images, " and "In Search of The Monkey Girl."
The business hasn't been doing well in recent years, he says, and his back and voice are getting tired. He's been saying virtually the same thing for 44 years.
Maybe next year he'll come back form Tamps, Fla. with a whole new show, he says. This time, though, he won't perform.
"An illusion show. That's what people are into these days.


  1. I too remember “Suzy Farmer”. I knew her quite well as we were married for over 20 years. She was born Jul 21 1947 and her real name was Deidra (Dee Dee) Spencer; she used to go by the name “Miss Peggy” as well. In fact you can still find some of her AKA “Miss Peggy” pitch cards on eBay. She was a regular carnival performer during the 70s and 80s. Although it wasn’t that long ago, it was a time when people her size were a rarity. Suzy was one of the last fat lady performers to actually work the carnival circuit.
    In reality Dee was taller than 4’6”, she was actually 5’2” but unlike a lot of fat people who worked the shows she weighed every bit of the 558lbs she was usually billed at. At her heaviest she was actually well over 600lbs.
    I’m sorry to report that Dee passed away from complications due to pneumonia in 2008.
    Dee worked for Grady Stiles performing in his 10 in 1 show for only a couple seasons. Stiles was a real bastard and was usually drunk more often than not. Although Dee was friendly with his family she couldn’t stand the man as he used to treat her with disrespect and would many times berate her in private. I myself almost killed the SOB one night when he threatened to withhold Dee’s salary because she had been ill with food poisoning and missed a day of work. He changed his mind after I firmly persuaded him otherwise; after that Dee never worked for him again. But that was nothing compared to how he treated his own family members. I can’t even tell you how many times he threatened to kill one of them of menaced one of them with a knife or a gun. Stories abound and it is said that one time he actually shot his daughter’s boyfriend killing him but he never did any jail time and only received probation. I always found that rather curious and bordering on bullshit. The reality was that he was a pathetic little man who dealt with his own self-loathing by abusing others. Like most bullies he only abused people he knew he could bully and who would take pity on him and not turn his useless ass into the authorities. It wasn’t long after Dee left his show that his wife Mary and son had him killed. We weren’t all that shocked to hear of it because anyone who ever knew Stiles knew someone was going to kill him eventually, he was just that big of a prick and deserved whatever nasty end he got.

    1. as a teenager I played in a band. one night a traveling show set up on the out skirts of Pittsburgh and I am sure lobster boy and suzy were there. I wish I knew a date and location of that show for my scrapbook. any ideas? thank you.

    2. Unfortunately it could have been any one of a dozen towns outside or near Pittsburgh. Do the towns of Crafton, Green Tree, Ingram or Mount Oliver ring a bell? Did you play in a band preforming at a carnival or at a local bar? Either way, Dee could have been there and I could have as well. There were a lot of bands in and around the carnival circuit in the 70s and early 80s. What was the name of the band and maybe I can figure it out that way. Unfortunately Dee, aka Suzy Farmer has passed on; she was much better with names and places than I am.

  2. O-M-G I saw Lobster Boy and Suzy Farmer at the Minnesota State Fair. Suzy sat in a tent with a dirt floor, on a broken couch and read romance novels while everybody gawked at her.

    Lobster Boy thoght he was the shit because he could do this flip-spin thing with a pack a Marlboro Reds, it was like pinching a water melon seed between your fingers.

    It didn't take much for amuse himself.