The Stiles family has been afflicted for over a century with ectrodactyly, a condition commonly known as ‘Lobster Claw’ syndrome. It is a rare congenital deformity of the hand where the middle digit is missing and the hand is cleft where the metacarpal of the finger should be. This split often gives the hands the appearance of lobster claws although cases range in severity. Often this condition occurs in both the hands and the feet and, while it is an inherited condition, it can skip a generation. While the term ectrodactyly sounds medically sterile when compared to ‘Lobster Claw Syndrome’.
William Stiles was apparently the first in the family to display the condition in 1805. He was followed by Jacob Stiles, Elisha Stiles and Grady Stiles Sr. Grady Sr. was a sideshow attraction and when Grady Franklin Stiles, Jr., ‘The Lobster Boy’, was born in Pittsburgh on July 18, 1937 his father added him to the show at a young age.
Grady’s condition was severe and he was unable to walk. He learned to use his hands and arms for locomotion and, as a result, developed incredible upper body strength. He married twice and had four children. Two of those children, a girl, Cathy, and a boy, Grady III, were born with variations of ectrodactyly. Although the siblings were from different mothers, they sometimes toured together as The Lobster Family.
Grady had a dark side. He was known to be a highly abusive drunk. He often used his frightening strength to beat his wives and his children. When his oldest daughter Donna fell in love and became engaged with a young man in 1978, Grady didn’t approve with her choice. Perhaps the young man stuck up for Donna, perhaps he confronted Grady. The night before the pair was to be married; Grady picked up a shotgun and murdered the young groom in cold blood.
The trial was a media circus. In court Grady openly confessed to his crime and showed little remorse. However, he did not serve any time for the murder. He used his condition to his advantage. It was stated that since the prison system was not equipped to deal with his ‘disability’, confining him to such an institution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Grady was let off on 15 years probation.
Following these events, Grady felt invincible. When he resumed beating his family one of his favourite taunts was ‘I killed before and got away with it, I can do it again’. Amazingly, during this time Stiles remarried his first wife Maria. She left her new husband, a sideshow dwarf, to remarry Grady and almost instantly regretted the choice.
Eventually, the family had had enough. On November 29, 1993 Grady was gunned down by a hired assassin. The hitman was then 19 year old sideshow performer Chris Wyant, a neighbor to the Stiles family. He was paid $1500 in cash by Maria and her stepson Harry, to put three bullets into the skull of Grady Stiles Jr.
Wyant was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to twenty-seven years. Harry was considered the mastermind behind the plot. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Maria was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
In her defense, Maria stated ‘My husband was going to kill my family. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. I’m sorry this happened, but my family is safe now’.
The family has carried on. Grady III has a daughter, Sara, who does not have ectrodactyly. Cathy is married and has a lobster-clawed daughter named Misty. The three of them still perform on occasion. Cathy has taken up acting and has appeared in the series Carnivale and in the Tim Burton film Big Fish.
image: Grady postcard in the author’s collection. The reverse was signed by Grady himself in 1961.
For more information on medical marvels,I highly recommend Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi.