The tale of Robert the Doll is a fascinatingly haunted one filled with truth, mystery, and some seemingly bona-fide paranormal activity. As is the case with most ghost stories, Robert’s has been the subject of both hyperbole and fabrication. Also, it is the only haunted artifact in the Florida Keys with its own Facebook page.
As for the doll’s origins, it was originally given to Robert Eugene Otto on his fourth birthday, Oct. 25, 1904. It was the birthday boy who declared that he would now go by the name Gene and the doll would be named Robert.
The doll stands 40 inches tall and is dressed in a sailor’s uniform. Robert is stuffed with excelsior, or wood wool made of slivers cut from logs; he has shoe button eyes. Once upon a time his face was painted in the manner of a jester, but whatever colors may have originally covered the doll’s face have long since faded. Today Robert’s somewhat spongy countenance is all that remains of his façade.
As for Gene, he was youngest of three boys and the first to be born at the 534 Eaton Street house built in the 1890s. Gene’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto, moved into the house in 1898. The Ottos were a prominent Key West family and Gene’s father, a third generation doctor. His mother was a white Bahamian.
According to all accounts, Robert and Gene were inseparable. A room complete with furniture and toys was built for Robert. While Gene spent a great deal of time playing with Robert inside his room, what became apparent in the Otto house was that something out of the ordinary was occurring.
When Gene was playing with Robert up in the doll’s room, Gene could be heard having conversations that were accompanied by giggling. There were other noises emanating from the attic as well. Sometimes when only Robert was inside his room, not only could the giggling be heard, but also the scratch and thud of objects being dragged across the attic floor.
If a household item turned up missing Gene blamed Robert. When something was found broken, he did the same. In fact, whenever anything went wrong at the Otto house, Gene’s standard response was, “Robert did it!”
Of course little boys, unlike dolls, grow up and after discovering his innate artistic talents, Gene moved away from the island to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago.
Later he would attend New York’s Art Students League before travelling overseas to study and paint in Paris. It was while in Paris that Gene met his wife, Annette Parker of Boston.
Annette was a brilliant pianist who once, according to David Sloan (Key West’s favorite ghost hunter), gave a command performance for the King of England. Annette and Gene married in Paris on May 3, 1930, and it was only after Annette finished her studies abroad that the couple moved back stateside. The couple lived in New York for a few years where Gene painted and Annette performed at Rockefeller Center’s famed Rainbow Room.
It was only after Gene’s mother became ill that he brought his wife home to Key West.
Annette was not thrilled with the idea of having to endure the isolated experience of Key West, especially considering the fact that her husband seemed more concerned with his childhood doll than with his wife. Annette hated Robert and it was only after Gene’s death in 1974 that she was able to finally stuff the doll into a trunk and try to forget about it.
The house, a bed and breakfast known as the Artist House today, was first sold in 1974. Robert was donated to the Fort East Martello Museum in 1994, and today he sits upon a doll-sized wooden chair behind the plexiglass wall of his display case. The exhibit seems to have in no way precluded Robert from participating in his peculiar brand of shenanigans. People claim to see him shift in his chair and change his facial expressions.
The doll’s most common offense is electronic interference. Devices fail. People taking pictures without first asking Robert’s permission find themselves with corrupted, blank and unrecognizable images. Worse yet, people who fail to ask the doll’s permission experience bad fortune.
Robert is not alone inside his display case. He has a stuffed animal sitting on his lap. The toy was once (allegedly) part of the Edna Wolkowsky dollhouse, a collection of antique toys (dolls and stuffed animals) exhibited in period display cases at the museum. Thomas Locklear, storyteller for Historic Tours of America and former Operations Manager for Key West’s Ghosts & Gravestones Frightseeing Tour, passed this anecdote along, “A museum employee tells the story of a volunteer, cleaning windows on the cases in the dollhouse, noticing something missing: a pronounced space between two of the stuffed animals. She checked to see if the case had been left unlocked or possibly pried open but found no signs of either. Making a mental note to report the missing item to the curator, she continued cleaning into the museum. As she began wiping the glass on Robert's case, she suddenly noticed the missing toy: a small stuffed lion nicknamed Leo, sitting on Robert's lap. Am I saying that Robert comes out at night looking for things or people to play with? No. But I am not saying he doesn't either.”
When asked about his experiences with what is arguably the most haunted artifact in the Florida Keys, Locklear had this to add, “All of us who work with him have, at the very least, seen his facial expression change. Most of us have seen him move. I took photos of a new ghost host in Robert's room without asking permission. I figured I was not taking pictures of Robert — just in his room — and it didn't matter.
The phone I used got very hot and stopped working before I left East Martello. When I took it to Verizon the next day they said the entire inside of the phone burned up and they had never seen anything like it.”
It should be noted that the photograph accompanying this piece was taken some years ago without permission using old-fashioned 35mm film. Every picture came out. Rest assured there are other stories and a myriad of facts regarding Robert the Doll not permitted in this limited space.
Fortunately, Key West’s favorite ghost hunter David L. Sloan’s book <i>Robert the Doll<i> (Phantom Press) is expected to be available by Christmas.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.