By Charles Nelson
Gibsonton is a town with a fascinating slice of history unknown to many Hillsborough County residents. Nationally famous residents included Al and Jeanne Tomaini, Casper Belsom, Dolly Reagan and Percilla and Emmitt Bejano. They share a unique story; these folks were once human stars of bizarre traveling, carnival sideshows popular in mid-century America. Yet, it was in Gibsonton where they found a permanent home far from the curious crowds.
Al Tomaini stood at 6’4” and was known professionally as ‘The Giant.’ He was also the fire chief in Gibsonton and president of the town’s chamber of commerce.
In stark contrast to her husband, Jeanie Tomaini stood a mere 30” tall. She once performed as a carnival acrobat, billing herself as the ‘Half-Lady.’ Jeanie also served as one of Gibsonton’s postmistresses. Together, they toured as ‘the World’s Strangest Married Couple.’ After permanently settling in Gibsonton, they operated Giant’s Fish Camp and Restaurant (and many other businesses). Al died in 1962, and Jeanie continued to run the restaurant until she died in 1999.
‘Colonel’ Casper Belsom also toured with the carnival circuit in the mid-20th century. As a little person, Belsom stood 36” tall and counted Al as one of his best pals. He served as Gibsonton’s police chief (and entire police force) from 1949 until the early 1960s. He ran for the title of honorary mayor in 1964. He was a proud Gibsonton resident for 18 years until his death in 1968.
Dolly Reagan, immobilized her entire life due to a birth-related condition, was once Gibsonton’s town librarian. She, too, traveled the carnival sideshow circuit under a variety of show names, including the ‘Ossified Girl’ and the ‘Half-Woman/Half-Baby.’ Yet, she found comfort in her Gibsonton home, where she felt at ease and entirely welcome in the small town until she died in the early 1990s.
Many more carnival sideshow workers found a home in this place they lovingly called ‘Gibtown.’ Percilla Lauther (the ‘Monkey Girl’) and Emmitt Bejano (the ‘Alligator Skinned Man’) were married for 40 years and also lived in Gibsonton for several years. (Emmett died in 1995, and Percilla died in 2001 in Lutz.)
More infamously, Grady Stiles, aka the ‘Lobster Boy’ because of his claw-like hands, lived in Gibsonton until 1992, when a neighbor, hired by Stiles’ wife, murdered him. The resulting criminal case splattered all across the nation’s papers. Yet, despite the notoriety of this infamous case, most carnival sideshow workers, including sword swallowers and human pincushions like Melvin Burkhardt, lived everyday lives in a town that they called home.
Eddie and Grace LeMay, carnival cookhouse operators, were the first carnival workers to come to Gibsonton in 1924. Heading south for the winter, they crossed the Alafia River, stopped to fish, had lunch and planned to rest before moving on. But, instead, they were attracted to the area and decided to make it their permanent home. Together, they opened Eddie’s Hut, a Gibsonton restaurant that operated for many years.
Eddie and Grace urged their fellow carnival workers to join them. Many carnival workers, including a large number of sideshow performers, answered his invitation, and the word spread on this new, welcoming winter home for traveling show people for much of the 1940s and 50s.
Gibsonton, as a carnival sideshow worker retreat, began to change in the 1960s and 70s. Medical advances, changing public perceptions and laws as well as the dramatic rise of television led to the demise of the carnival sideshows.
As a result, many human performers who worked for shows like the Gibsonton-based Royal American 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.
To experience Gibsonton’s role in this once-dynamic industry, do plan to visit the International Independent Showmen’s Association on Riverview Dr. near U.S. 41. Here you will find an excellent museum highlighting the carnival industry. It’s well worth a visit.