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Robert The Doll

Probably the most famous haunted plaything ever, Robert is a doll that now resides – happily, they say - in The East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida.

Many of you are already acquainted with Robert, the lifelong companion of painter Robert Eugene (called Gene) Otto, who received the three-foot-tall straw companion from his Bahamian nanny when he was just a small boy. The doll would be with him for the remainder of his life.

There are a number of stories about the nanny, obviously the pivotal figure in this doll drama. Many say that, although she dearly loved young Gene, she was mistreated and abused by his parents on a regular basis. Some versions of the tale have the nanny practicing the dark Voodoo arts and giving the doll to Robert out of revenge for her ill treatment, but there is nothing to support this being the case. Evidently, Gene received the doll, said to be a replica of him, as a gift of love. He promptly named it Robert.

To say that Robert stayed by Gene’s side is an understatement, for Gene was never without the little plaything. He even dressed it in his own clothes and spent hours on end playing in his nursery with only the doll as company. It is said that he was often heard talking to the doll and answering himself in an entirely different voice. Gene slept, ate and traveled with Robert by his side.

Within months after the arrival of the doll in the Otto household, strange things began to occur. Objects would go missing and turn up broken, Gene took to the unhealthy habit of sneaking out of his window and wandering the grounds at night, and his parents began to suspect him of all kinds of mischief. If he was caught in the act, Gene would always hold out Robert and say, “Robert did it!”

Although some dismissed the unusual events as the product of an overactive child, others close to the family began to whisper that somehow the doll was to blame.

Soon the doll apparently became bolder. It no longer seemed to require Gene’s company to move about the house. In the still hours of the night, the servants would often wake to the sound of hollow, pattering footsteps. Too frightened to inspect the cause, they would usually cower in their beds until dawn. Weird humming and singing was heard to come from the nursery if Gene inadvertently left Robert there alone. None of the servants was eager to clean Gene’s rooms; nobody liked to turn their back on the doll.

As time went by, the Ottos grew older and each, in turn, died, leaving the adult Gene – and Robert – to live in the house. They spent several years there alone until Gene ultimately met and married a local socialite and took her home to live.

From the moment she arrived, the creepy doll disturbed the new Mrs. Otto and eventually she prevailed upon her husband to put it away. Robert was relegated to rooms in the attic, where he was to remain – mostly – for the rest of Gene Otto’s life.

“Mostly,” because, according to the stories, Robert often left the attic on his own. There are several accounts by the servants and Mrs. Otto herself of Robert being seen darting up and down the attic stairs. Mrs. Otto was often troubled by the sound of the doll’s dancing feet tapping the attic floor above her, and one time was alarmed to hear the doll’s voice singing in the old nursery. Upon entering, she found the doll sitting in one of Gene’s old rocking chairs. When she confronted her husband about taking the doll from the attic when it disturbed her so, she was met with the obtuse statement, “Robert did it!” yet again. When Mrs. Otto eventually preceded her husband in death, many wondered, “Did Robert do it?”

It was widely believed that the death of Gene Otto in 1972 would put an end to the ghostly activity of the haunted doll. It was quickly learned, however, that true evil never dies, and while the house stood empty reports of the awful doll still continued. Many people would hear the sound of singing coming from the house at night and on more than one occasion the gruesome doll is said to have frightened school children by peering out the window in the attic turret and making faces at them.

Eventually, a new family purchased the old house and Robert the Doll was discovered in his attic home and was promptly presented to the family’s youngest daughter, then aged 10, as a housewarming gift.

From the moment she received the doll the child was plagued by horrible nightmares. More than once, she claims, she awoke to find the doll sitting on her face, attempting, she believed, to suffocate her. It seemed that Robert intensely disliked being left behind by Gene and had no love for his new “owner.” It was also painfully obvious that he did not like little girls because he is blamed for having torn up and mutilated most of the young girl’s other dolls. When the family pet became mysteriously entwined in the cord of the nursery Venetian blinds, Robert was once again consigned to the attic.

When the family finally moved and the home was converted into the Artist’s House historic location as it stands today, Robert was donated to The East Martello Museum not far away. It quickly became evident, however, that Robert was still up to his old tricks.

Museum workers began to report strange activity after the arrival of the doll, including one volunteer who was terrorized when the doll apparently spent most of a day following her around. Eventually, the doll was encased in a plastic display case in which it remains to this day. Still, there are those who claim that even this cannot contain the evil doll and it is often blamed for numerous odd occurrences in and around the museum.

Once a year, in October, Robert the Doll (in his case) is taken to the Historic Custom House where he is placed on display. Some visitors comment about the seemingly odd practice of peppermints being placed in the display case along with the doll. They are usually fittingly creeped out by the explanation: Robert, it seems, loves peppermints, and placing some in his case will keep him from wanting to roam at night. Skeptics might scoff at this practice, but it is reported by museum and Custom House staff alike that each morning during his October visit there are empty peppermint wrappings littering the bottom of Robert’s display case…

Robert the Doll, still clad in one of Gene Otto’s sailor suits and clutching a small teddy bear, can be visited at The East Martello Museum and, in October, at the Historic Custom House in Key West, Florida.
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