Monday, August 14, 2006

Grady Stiles, Jr.: "Lobster Boy"

Pittsbugh has had its share of famous people who were either born or lived most of their lives in the city. Many of them are well-noted- Andy Warhol, Philip Pearlstein, Andrew Carnegie, Jeff Goldblum, Micheal Keaton, Gene Kelly, August Wilson, Stephen Foster... much has been written about the time they have each spent in Pittsburgh. But every once in awhile I come across a lesser known figure who made their residence in this fair city.

Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr. was born in Pittsburgh on July 18, 1937. He was the product of a genetic line that produced offspring with the mutation of ectrodactyly- a "deformity of the hand where the middle digit is missing, and the hand is cleft where the metacarpal of the finger should be" (thanks wikipedia). The name of this condition literally translates to "abortion of a finger". Grady Stiles, Jr. was fifth in a line of famous Stiles males known as "lobster men". He had a long career of performance in side shows and even owned his own proposition at one time.

What makes Stiles particularly interesting is his personal history of trouble. He was a heavy drinker and was said to be physically abusive while under the influence of alcohol. He was also an excessively domineering father. He would train his progeny by wrestling with them until they were at his mercy on the living room floor. For much of his life he used a wheelchair, but he was agile and strong- capable of taking a man by surprise and vanquishing them before they realized what was happening. He could also fire a pistol, as his daughter's fiancee no doubt discovered when he was shot to death by Stiles. This happened right on the North Side of Pittsburgh, on the eve of his daughter's wedding. It was national news, as was his trial's outcome. Stiles, having confessed to the killing "in self-defense", was spared a prison term by a jury that was hesitant to place a man with such a disability in a place without proper accomodations. His daughter held a grudge against him, but he never expressed any remorse for his action.

Stiles met his ultimate end in Gibsonton, FL when he was shot three times in the back of his bald head. His wife Teresa, who was implicated in the contract killing, used "battered wife syndrome" as a defense. Stiles' life is both complex and tragic. In many ways he overcame a debilitating birth defect... only to visit his repressed angers and resentments on his family.

If you'd like to learn more about Stiles, the most famous "lobster boy"... Fred Rosen wrote a book about him. There are also rumors of a movie being made about his life. Keep your eyes open for it.


Blogger lee said...

My son's boy scout master guy had this affliction (I had no idea it had a name) and because I am a shallow, shallow girl, he's scared me shitless. Every time he grasped that clip board with two merged fingers on back and front, a little part of my black little soul died.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I can understand why that would have bothered you. It's one thing to go into a tent, searching for human oddities to stare at, and quite another to have to confront this type of thing in an otherwise ordinary context.

I remember a strange experience in my childhood- the memory of which still gives me the willies. I was a little boy on a shopping excursion with my parents. As could be expected, I was bored out of my little brain in a huge shopping outlet-type store. I used to like getting in the center of those wraparound clothes racks, and pretending I was in a cloistered world of my own making. On this particular occasion, my pretend world became abruptly all-to-real. As I was peering from the inside through a ring of puffy-down winter jackets I came face-to-face with a deformed mongoloid-looking youth. He was laughing maniacally, and waving his webbed hands in my face. I'm sure all he wanted was someone to play with... but it left a deep scar in my psyche that lingers to this day.

6:09 PM  
Blogger lee said...

I would have peed my panties.

9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are related to the man who helped conspire to kill this man.This man was so abusive to his family,I am sorry it took these measures for the law to do something but he also was a murderer and that family suffered a loss.So what goes around comes around and I pray to God know one else will endure this kind of abuse.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


You are related to who? Stiles was abusive, form all the accounts I have read. Is that what you were talking about?

4:34 PM  

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