Homer Tate has been called the “King of Gaffs,” and rightly so. After all, the macabre artist’s creations certainly fit the definition of a “gaff” —  “a hoax; a fraud” and “a gimmick or a trick.” Likewise, the verb “gaff” means “to hook,” and for the many roadside attractions and carnival sideshows that bought Tate’s work, the handiworks certainly were the hooks that pulled (and still pull) customers in.

Homer Tate working on a papier-mâché head.
Image: Library of Congress/Russell Lee

An Ordinary Life

By all accounts, Homer Tate led a pretty normal life. He was born in Poetry, TX, in 1884 and moved with his family to Arizona shortly thereafter in the 1890s, eventually ending up in the Gila Valley by 1915. As a young man, Tate worked a variety of jobs ranging from mining to farming.  He was even elected sheriff of Graham County from 1925 to 1928. Soon after his job as sheriff ended, however, he moved to Safford, AZ, where he managed both a motel and service station.

Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Nobody knows why or how exactly he started making his strange works of art. Perhaps it was because his Mormon family had seen him as kind of a black sheep and rarely communicated with him as a result. Others say it might have been the stories he heard or the things he had seen while running the motel and gas station late at night.

Whatever the reason, sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Tate started making what he called “artifacts” from things like dirt, paper, animal bones, and hair that he collected from local barber shops and beauty salons, all held together by horse glue that could supposedly “eat the flesh right off your hands.”

Some of Homer’s macabre creations.
Image: Library of Congress/Russell Lee

Each artifact — whether it was his mummies, mermaids, or shrunken heads — came with their own backstories, as well, like that of the Wolf Boy. Made of papier-mâché and dead animal remains, the “Wolf Boy” story was that he was one of 26 mummies “found” in a cave in Peru.

Then there are the Clahuchu and his bride; allegedly (wink, wink) “found” in a Haitian cave in 1740. According to the Tate story, they are the last of the Juju tribe of half-devil, half-man creatures that were known and feared as “they who creep at night.”

With stories like those, it’s easy to see why most of his macabre creations ended up in weird roadside attractions or carnival sideshows, where barkers would charge an extra dime to reveal what was hidden behind the curtain.

Little Shop of Horrors

By 1945, Homer had made enough money (and “artifacts”) to open his own curiosity shop just outside of Phoenix at a place called Apache Station. When he outgrew that, he moved into downtown Phoenix, opening up Tate’s Curiosity Shop on E. Van Buren Street. Though the street was crowded with competing alligator farms, cactus curio shops, junk yards, and reptile gardens, none of them held more fascination than Tate’s. People would come from miles around just to watch the pink-faced Tate create his oddities. On the walls around him hung his handiwork — shrunken heads, mummies, “Alligator Boys,” “Fish Girls,” necklaces of hands, fingers and ears — most of which the visitor could take home for $12.

Tate sits back and admires his creations.
Image: Library of Congress/Russell Lee

The Thing

Without a doubt, the most famous of Tate’s creations sits in a museum off I-10 in Benson, AZ. Simply known as “The Thing,” this self-proclaimed “Mystery of the Desert” was purchased from Tate back in 1965 by Thomas Binkley Prince, who immediately turned it into a tourist attraction.

And though it’s under new ownership today,The Thing” is still there in its glass coffin, waiting for you to walk in and … experience it. Fact is, if you’re traveling I-10, you can’t really miss it thanks to the 247 billboards that advertise the attraction, spread out over a distance of 200 miles.

So, what exactly is “The Thing”? Well, let’s just say it would be kind of a disservice to tell you. You’re just going to have to see it for yourself.

The Mystery Homer Tate’s Legacy

Along with the mystery of “The Thing,” another ambiguity that surrounds Homer Tate’s macabre legacy is what became of his famous curiosity shop. Sources have revealed that Homer got into a bit of trouble with the law sometime around the late 1950s or early 1960s, and he ended up serving jail time.

Homer and his hanging horse thief.
Image: Library of Congress/Russell Lee

Apparently that was the last straw for Homer’s pious Mormon family. They had put up with his eccentric hobby for years, and with Homer in the can, his sons liquidated his curiosity shop and took the rest to the dump.

We can’t imagine that Homer was too happy about it when he got out of jail. Nevertheless, he spent the rest of his life quietly working in the church, passing away in 1975 at the ripe old age of 90.

See a Homer Tate Today!

Though Homer Tate’s Curiosity Shop is long gone, his legacy lives on for those with a penchant for gaffs.

In addition to “The Thing,” you can still find many of his other curiosities located in places like Marsh’s Free Museum in Long Beach, WA, where it’s believed that the current celebrity resident at the museum,Jake the Alligator Man,” is a creation of Homer Tate.

Jake the Alligator Man.
Image: Imhavingfun42 (talk) via Wikipedia

The Graveface Museum in Savannah, GA, is rumored to have the largest collection of Homer Tates, including the “Fish Girl” — with hair chopped from the head of Tate’s wife while she slept.

The Graveface Museum has one of – if not THE – largest collection of Homer Tate’s works in the world. Above is just a sample.
Image: Stephanie Stuckey

While you’re planning your next road trip to see some of America’s best roadside oddities, remember to include a few Stuckey’s stops along the way. After all, it’s not really a road trip without picking up a few of our world-famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls and other road-trip treats. And don’t forget to browse our wide selection of road-trip souvenirs, including our Stuckey’s branded t-shirts and caps for the folks back home. Heck, we even have rubber alligators that are sure to satisfy that little bit of Homer Tate in all of us.

You can also have it all delivered by ordering through stuckeys.com.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!