I was recently poking around the interwebs and found a story that so piqued my interest that I am diverging from my usual St. Pete ramblings, looking instead due east across Tampa Bay to a town named Gibsonton. Referred to as “Gibtown” by the locals, the town is just south of Tampa and nestled between the Bay and I-75. The peculiar little municipality may fly under the radar today, but for a long time it was well known for it’s cadre of unusual people that called Gibtown home.
The Circus Comes to Town
Gibsonton was a tiny speck on the map as late as the 1930s; it was pretty much a sleepy fishing village and home for those who worked at a local lumber factory. But that all changed in a short period of time. By the mid-1940s people from the “Outdoor Entertainment Industry” – mainly sideshow performers and carnival workers – were being attracted to the town as a place to settle in the off season. Gibsonton was the perfect spot, too: Located between Sarasota, Tampa, and Venice the performers and employees at Gibtown stayed close to these wintering homes for traveling circuses. The town was warm, sunny, relaxing, and out of the limelight. In short, Gibsonton was the perfect semi-remote location to hide out for a few months and to add to the attraction, some of their fellow carnival comrades actively encouraged their associates to join them.
An Accidental Beginning
In 1924 Eddie and Grace LeMay, carnival cookhouse operators, were the first traveling workers to stop in Gibsonton. Headed south for the winter, the couple briefly stopped to fish in the Alafia River. They liked it there and on a whim decided to call the little town home. The LeMays settled about a decade before the town became popular with the show people, but with their encouragement the community of carnival workers did start to grow. Together, they opened a casual restaurant, Eddie’s Hut, a Gibsonton restaurant that operated for many years.
Eddie and Grace urged their fellow carnival workers to join them. Many industry workers including a large number of sideshow performers answered the invitation perhaps slowly at first but then all at once. The word spread on this new, welcoming winter home for traveling show people and the community grew quickly through much of the 1940s and 50s.
Big Heart, Big Dreams
Perhaps the couple that really put Gibtown on the map when they settled in the town in the mid 1940s were Al “the Giant” Tomiani, who was roughly 8 feet tall, and his wife Jeanie “the Half-Woman” who was a mere 2.5 feet tall. If OnlyFans had existed back in the day, am I right? Ok sorry. Anyway, as Al and Jeanie approached retirement from the industry they bought waterfront property on the Alafia River to start a fish camp after decades of touring as “The World’s Oddest Couple.” Al, who seems to have been an all-around nice guy, made improvements on his property creating a modern trailer camp. He also started a restaurant and operated “The Giant’s Fishing Camp” which became very popular. Al also served as both police and fire chief for Gibsonton for many years and Jeanie was the town’s postmistress. Al and his Jeanie adopted their children and raised their family in the town.
Al and Jeanie were well-known and very much liked by other performers who had known them on the circuit, and they were a draw for many other participants in the industry who became off-season residents of Gibsonton. Al embraced and welcomed all the other giants, midgets, pinheads, tattooed men, bearded ladies, sword-swallowers and even women lugging snakes who made Gibsonton the carnival capital of America – the place where freaks and show people had decided to live when they weren’t on the road. This made the town a destination in itself, where tourists could interact with many of these performers on a more personal level, and of course the fishing was great thanks to Al.
And Not Just the People!
When Gibsonton was its height of sideshow-performer-popularity, special zoning laws had to be introduced. Many residents kept exotic pets, which were often part of their acts or part of another circus performance. Elephants, tigers, and monkeys were just a few of the animals residents were permitted to keep in their yards. Zoning also allowed carnival rides on personal property, and some, in the crumbling final stages of decay, are still on display.
The Murderous Lobster Boy
One of the more notorious residents of Gibtown was Grady Stiles. Also known as “Lobster Boy,” he was a sideshow performer known for his rare physical condition called ectrodactyly, which caused his hands and feet to resemble lobster claws. He had developed immense upper body strength due to his condition; his lack of ability to walk was compensated for by his torso. Stiles had inherited the genetic condition which had been present in his family for generations, and would also afflict two of Stiles’ four children. Even from a young age, Grady was known to be a violent and unhappy person. He became an abusive drunk as an adult; coupled with is brute strength and alcoholism he was not known as a pleasant man.
In 1978, Stiles’ tumultuous life took an even darker turn. 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.
From One Circus to Another
The trial was called 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.
Stiles continued to perform in sideshows and remarried his wife Maria (somehow!) while on probation but faced declining popularity and financial struggles. His personal life remained chaotic, marked by abusive relationships and family disputes. Eventually, the family 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.
Gibsonton, as a carnival sideshow worker retreat, began to change in the 1960s and 70s. Once popular and socially acceptable, exploiting individuals for their deformities and unusual features thankfully passed out of fashion. Medical advances, changing public perceptions, new laws as well as the dramatic rise of television also led to the demise of the carnival sideshows.
As a result, many human performers who worked for shows saw their numbers dwindle in Gibsonton during the remainder of the century. By the early 2000s, many of the sideshow performers and their families had died or moved away.
That said, there are still remnants and reminders of the town’s Showy past.
If you are interested in exploring the lifestyle and stories that are much too colorful and lengthy for me to recount in detail, you might just go ahead and make your way over to Gibsonton, where the carnival industry still has a foothold. It is home to the International Independent Showmen’s Association, which holds the largest trade show for the industry annually, and more tourist-focused is the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.
Exploring the history of the sideshow life, the museum will offer up more tales, photos, and history of the industry, the people, and the town itself.
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