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Gibsonton, Home of the Freaks

In Hillsborough County on highway 41 just ten miles south of Tampa, sits Gibsonton, once known as the strangest town in America. Called “Gibtown” by its nearly 8000 residents, it has always been the retirement or wintering home of traveling show folks. During the Depression, carnival and circus folks wintered in this part of Florida, with many of them parking their trailers in the off-season near the Alafia River. This was in the days of the big ten-in-one sideshows that featured live human oddities like the Bearded Lady, or Inferno the Fire Eater, and famous Grace McDaniels the Mule Faced Woman. Today, side-shows are rarely found on carnival midways which are now dominated mainly by amusement rides, game and food joints.

Gibtown became the retirement or home-base for a variety of show folks where next door neighbors were Priscilla the Monkey Girl, the Alligator Man, the Lobster family, or Dotty the Fat Lady. In other places these strange people would have met with some degree of social rejection, but in Gibtown they were treated as average people bonded by the nomadic lifestyle of the traveling show.

In 1949, the famous Al Tomaini, an eight and a half-foot tall giant with a 22-inch shoe size retired from the road and settled in Gibsonton. The Giant and his two-foot tall wife, Jeanie, billed as “The Half-Girl,” started a trailer park and fishing camp that has become legendary among Tampa Bay fishermen as the “Giant’s Camp.” Al and Jeanie Tomaini were known as the World’s Strangest Couple.” For many years, Al Tomaini served as Gibtown’s Police and Fire Chief. It’s a safe bet that Al Tomaini probably held two world’s records as the tallest police chief and the tallest fire chief. The Giant continued operating his fish camp until his death in 1962.

In its glory days, Gibtown had the only Post Office in the country with a special low counter for midgets. The local fruit stand was operated by the famed Hilton Siamese twins and down at the Showman’s Lounge the late Melvin Burkhart livened up the bar crowd by hammering six inch spikes up his nose. Melvin was known on the road as a multi-talented oddity billed as the “Human Blockhead” and the “Rubber Faced Man.” Gibtown was the only place in the country with special zoning laws that allowed residents to keep anything from elephants and monkeys to a dismantled Ferris wheel on their property. Every Spring the town’s population would drop by more than half, as the carnies pulled out to work the fairs and festivals.

In November 1992, Gibtown was hit with negative publicity when the Lobster Boy was murdered. The victim was Grady Stiles, a.k.a. “The Lobster Boy,” a fourth generation descendant in his family lineage to be born with deformed hands that looked like claws and legs that resembled flippers. Two of his four children inherited the strange genetic defect but were never exhibited on the sideshow stage. Grady Stiles was married three times to two women, he drank too much, and was frequently accused of abusing his family. When his oldest daughter announced that she was getting married, Stiles shot and killed her finance. He was found guilty of murder, but the court did not send him to prison stating that the state could not accommodate for his physical needs. Instead the famed Lobster Boy spent 15 years on probation. Then, in November 1992, following years of abuse, his wife, Mary Teresa, asked their son-in-law to help her escape from her abusive husband. The solution came with three shots in Stile’s head as he sat watching T.V. in his trailer. The son-in-law was found guilty of murdering the Lobster Boy and handed a life term in prison. Mary Stiles was sentenced to 12 years but continues to maintain that she was only doing what was necessary to protect her family. The case left a heavy dent in Gibtown’s reputation that is still talked about today.

Gibsonton is not the same as it was during the days of the big shows. Most of the famous freaks have died, but a few of their descendents still live Gibtown. Driving through on highway 41 it looks like any other place, with a grocery store, gas station, library, and even a tattoo shop. But if you take the time to drive through the neighborhood the evidence is still there in the form of rusty parts to an amusement ride, a concession trailer, or perhaps an exotic animal here and there. The Giant is long gone, the Lobster Boy was killed, Jeanie the Half-Girl died at age 82 in 1999, and you’ll never hear the Fat Lady sing again. However, there is a strange nostalgia to Gibtown, especially if you like cotton candy, amusement rides, and weird exhibits, because this was home to those midway nomads who brought that kind of fun to fairs and festivals across America.

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