Robert the Haunted Doll of Key West

At the turn of the Century, the eccentric Otto family took up residence in the famous Artist’s House Compound in Key West, Florida.   Mr. and Mrs. Otto had a son named Robert Eugene Otto, or “Gene”, as he was called.  The elder Ottos were known to be very stern people, and rumor has it, they were harsh with their servants.

One of the workers for the Otto family was a Bahamian woman, who served as Gene’s nanny.  She spent many hours every day with the boy while his wealthy parents traveled around the U.S.  Apparently, the boy and the nanny formed quite a strong bond, which was sadly severed upon a disagreement with Mrs. Otto.  As the story goes, the Nanny was rather unkindly dismissed from service by the Otto family.

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The beautiful Artist’s House of Key West, Florida

Before leaving Gene’s side for good, his faithful nanny made him a gift.  She presented him with a hand sewn straw doll, made in the boy’s likeness.  Gene immediately became attached to this new companion, and carried the doll with him wherever he went.  The doll was given Gene’s birth name of Robert, and all around town the boy and his doll could be seen, wearing their matching sailor suits, never leaving each other’s side.

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Robert the Doll photo by Rob O’Neal. Obtained from Key West Art & Historical Society press release dated September 20, 2004.

Now, here’s where the legend takes a very creepy turn.  As time went on, Gene’s relationship with the doll began to change.  Servants would report hearing Gene playing in his room, having conversations with Robert.  And they claim that they would hear a second, deeper voice speaking, although no one else was in the playroom.  At first most dismissed it as their overactive imagination.  But the incidents continued.

The conversations between boy and doll grew heated, alarming even Mrs. Otto.  At one point it is said that Mrs. Otto grew so worried that she burst into the room to find Gene cowering in a corner, with Robert sitting on a chair facing the boy.  People began to speculate that the Bahamian nanny, who supposedly was skilled in voodoo (or in my mind more likely some form of Caribbean magic such as Santeria or Obeah) may have cursed the doll to bring pain to the family.

As time went on, the strange happenings seemed to pass outside the playroom and began to fill the entire household.  Dishes were smashed, doors mysteriously locked, books flying off of shelves, and perhaps most disturbingly, Gene’s other toys were turning up around the house completely torn apart.

Young Gene was often blamed for the mischief, and his stern parents disciplined him harshly.  Gene would always insist that “Robert did it!”, and while his parents were reluctant to believe it, many of the superstitious house staff were convinced it was true.  Eventually, they attempted to take Robert away, storing him in a box in the attic.  This only caused the activity to increase, however, and the boy and doll were reunited.

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Robert Eugene “Gene” Otto

Gene kept Robert with him all through his youth and into his young adulthood.  He rarely let his doll leave his side.  Only when he went away to Paris for school did he leave his companion behind.  In Paris, he met his future wife Anne. The newlyweds moved back into the Artist’s House in Key West.  Gene embarked upon a successful career as an artist, and became quite wealthy in his own right.

Upon moving into his childhood home, Anne was introduced to Robert.  She found Gene’s seeming attachment to the doll rather disturbing, but she humored the eccentric artist and agreed to allow Gene to have a special room built just for Robert.  Gene said that Robert needed a room with a view, so they built him a space in the third floor turret, complete with scale sized furniture for Robert the doll to enjoy.

With Robert propped in a chair facing the window, passers by were able to look up into his room and see him staring down at them.  Some claimed that they could see him moving around the room and glaring at them.  Many people became afraid of the Artist’s House and kept their distance. In time, Anne grew to hate the doll, and became more and more fearful of Gene’s obsession with Robert.

As Gene grew older, his behavior became more erratic, and his connection to Robert intensified.  By some accounts Gene was growing increasingly abusive toward Anne, at times even locking her into a closet just below Robert’s room, to torment her.

Gene’s stately wife, Anne

In 1972, Gene passed away, and Anne promptly locked Robert in his room, leaving him there.  She moved out of the home and put it up for rent.  In the lease agreement, she stated explicitly that no one was to remove Robert from that room.  There are varying stories about what became of him after that.  Some say that the new tenants abided by Anne’s wishes, while others say that he was allowed out of the room, and he began to wreak havoc on the new residents.

What is known is that in 1994, Robert was donated to Fort East Martello Museum where he resides to this day.  He sits inside a glass encasement, on a small wooden chair, clutching a small stuffed Lion, still donning his little sailor suit.  Staff and visitors of the Museum claim that Robert continues to be a frightening and mischievous doll, who at times will turn his head and even change his expressions.

One legend about Robert is that in order to take his picture or video tape him, you must politely ask for his permission first.  Failure to do so will result in all manner of misfortune to he who dared to capture Robert’s likeness without his consent.  Further, if you bold enough to take his picture without permission, the only way to make the bad fortune cease is to write Robert a letter, asking his forgiveness.  Some of the many letters people routinely send to Robert are posted in and around his glass case in the museum.  In fact, there is even a blog site where people’s requests for forgiveness are posted. You can see these posts here:

Below, I’ve included some videos of Robert. Watch them if you dare. But, perhaps you should request his permission first… just to be safe.