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For the Love of Freaks

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September 2, 2023


FOR THE LOVE OF FREAKS: Because it takes one to know one

My favorite class in grad school at the New School, where I went to get my MFA in Creative Writing, was a sociology excursion called “Freaks”—almost literally a sideshow, where the professor presented us with live visits from a real bearded lady, a flame thrower, and knife-swallowing Todd Robbins, carny historian and glass eater of Coney Island. Ever the studious note taker, even when someone is crunching and swallowing a glass lightbulb before me or stroking their surprisingly soft femme-beard, 20 years later I still have a folder of papers in my file cabinet from this course. We of course watched and analyzed the 1932 controversial classic “Freaks” and discussed the creepy chant of “one of us, one of us” teasing apart the concepts of the Gaze, the Other with a grotesque character list that includes: dwarf siblings, the conjoined Hilton sisters, Josephine Joseph (half woman-half man), half boy, armless girl, human skeleton, living torso, “pinheads” with microcephaly, bird girl, and of course bearded lady.

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There are the so-called freaks, and then there are the weird people fascinated by them. I might look normal enough but I always feel I am passing in life in myriad ways, and anyone might find me out once they get to know me, which doesn’t take much if you read any of my writing. Comfortable in my introversion, I don’t want to fit in, and yet I can successfully play the role of professional, productive, garrulous member of normal society. Secretly, I want to run away to the circus, but, alas, the circus is dying and I wouldn’t be there to be in it anyway—just to watch and take notes. Perhaps I might better throw around the word “freak” when I scan the profiles in the odd underworld of the dating app, but that’s another story.

When I was writing about the wild submarine murder of young reporter Kim Wall by Danish nutjob Peter Madsen, I read mention of an article she wrote once on a certain freaky town in Florida. In the interest of keeping Kim’s work alive and not just the terrible tale of her demise and the infamy of her murderer, I wanted to explore that article more. Also because…freaks.

Gibsonton, or Gibtown as it’s come to be known, became a refuge for sideshow performers in the off-season since the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus wintered in nearby Sarasota. Starting in 1930s, the first freak settlers to make a home here were the “weirdest couple in the world,” the tiny legless (2’6”) Jeanie and her giant husband (who claimed to be over 8’ because who could tell way up there but was really more like 7’4”) Al. Al and Jeanie Tomaini retired from their showbusiness lives to raise adopted daughters and become pillars of their community, starting the Chamber of Commerce, running the Giant Fish Camp, serving as tallest firefighter, etc. The odd couple attracted more freaky friends to the town and at its height up to 1,000 carnival workers and 100 actual freaks called Gibtown home.

Nowadays there’s only hints of the former industry and population, as trailers rust in lots, a tall monument to Al loses its giant boot demonstrating his shoe size (apparently recently restored), and the Showtown bar that once embraced its sideshow vibe with a fading exterior funhouse sort of mural is now covered in the boring brown barrel tones of a Prohibition bootlegging scene. Still, many a traveling YouTuber, complete with piercings and tattoos, make videos of their exploration of the rundown town and its graves.

Kim’s article on Gibtown in the Guardian has great lists of the fun you might have once found here, while she delicately explores the demise of this culture. It’s a fine line you navigate to write about such subjects as now everyone—and no one—is a freak, and you aren’t really allowed to gawk or even use such a word. It might once have been that people with disabilities could make a good living out of presenting their deformed bodies, but now in part due to the American Disabilities Act, they are protected in their quest to find other meaningful paid work. So there’s the circus animals’ desertion (I love stealing that line from the Yeats poem) and the freaks—at least the “natural-born” ones—are no longer in the sideshow. The other two kinds of freaks are the self-made (tattooed, pierced, tongue-spliced) and the working acts (glass eater, knife swallower). Gibtown seems pretty sad, but still enticing enough to visit with its handful of relics and the International Independent Showmen’s Museum with a two-headed woman, a two-nosed cow, sidelined rides, fetuses in jars that harken to the great Mütter Museum in Philly. But in its heyday, it was a living museum:

For those who didn’t quite fit elsewhere, Gibtown was a utopia. Its first settlers, the Giant, and his wife, the Half-Woman, ran a campsite, a bakeshop and the fire department. The post office catered to little people with extra-low counters, and the beer hall had custom-built chairs for the Fat Ladies and the Tallest Man. Special zoning regulations allowed residents to keep and train exotic animals in their gardens. Siamese-twin sisters ran a fruit stand. Three factories manufactured Ferris wheels and carousels.


There was Betty Lou Williams, who had her baby sister growing out of her abdomen. You could admire Priscilla the Monkey Girl, who had a double set of teeth and silky black hair covering her body (she eloped with the Alligator Boy, with a skin condition making his skin reptile-scaly). You could also meet Lobster Boy, who only had two fingers on each hand.

Every exploration eventually leads down some rabbit hole to a murder, and there’s a notorious one here too of this very Lobster Boy turning into a killer who eventually gets killed. By all accounts, Grady Stiles, who was born with fingers fused like claws and legs like flippers, was a terrible person. He would lose his temper and become a mean drunk. He and his wife had two lobster children, also deformed like he was. When his daughter became engaged, he didn’t approve, and reportedly killed her fiancé. Grady was convicted but it wasn’t believed they could house him properly with his physical problems in jail so they just put him on 15-year probation. He remarried his former wife and continued his cranky drinking spree. Apparently the re-wife and her son (from another father) turned on him. The son hired a carny worker to shoot Grady, which happened three times to the back of his head in his own trailer home. This story is narrated in this video by one of these roaming YouTubers:

The Incredible Lobster Boy Murders | Gibsonton, the Circus Sideshow Town

If all of this sounds like an episode of American Horror Story, it kind of is. The fourth season of this insanely over the top series was “Freak Show” in 2016 (perhaps inspired by Kim’s article the year prior?), which happened to feature a fictional version of one of the last remaining sideshows left—in 1952, Jupiter, Florida, not so far from Gibtown but on the opposite coast. For a freak lover and true crime fanatic, episode after episode of this show with their always-utter goriness became too much even for me, but we all know there’s something endlessly compelling about the freaks of Florida.

That said, New Yorker pride makes us always eager to win whatever prize. There seems to be some pride in claiming to be the keeper of the last sideshow, which Coney Island USA does at the Sideshows by the Seashore Theater, where I did of course go some years back to walk the boardwalk and see the freaks inside and out, in addition to being contrary as a girl pirate in the famed Mermaid Parade this company also produces. The cast of the current shows all look normal-freakish in a burlesque-punk way that no one can object to: Kita St. Cyr, Alaska, Obsidian Absurd, Cyclone Jack Sullivan, Niki B. The Talking Doll, Maggie McMuffin—more costumed than crazy.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop, Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent readership. You can subscribe for free  to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box. 

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