Key West, Florida A child of ten awakens in the middle of the night and finds one of his brightest daytime companions, a stuffed doll, staring at him from the foot of his bed. There is something unnatural about the glassy eyes, the expressionless face. It sits, silently piercing the child with its gaze, somehow threatening. The child, for no reason he can understand, is paralyzed with fear. Across the house, the child’s mother is awakened by her son’s screams and the sounds of furniture being overturned. She rushes to his room, panic-stricken, to find the door locked. On the other side of the door, she can hear the sounds of chaos and giggling, broken only by the screams of her son calling out to her, pleading for a rescue. When at last she wrenches the door open, she finds her son still huddled in his bed, his room destroyed, and a rag-doll sitting placidly at the foot of his bed. "Robert did it," says the boy in a frightened whisper.
It is not uncommon for children to have imaginary friends. Often times, a mischievous child will blame some wrongdoing on a spectral presence or a favorite doll, and parents will dismiss it as a bright imagination. But what happens when the doll begins to torment the child and terrorize anyone who lives within the household? Such is the strange case of Robert, the haunted doll of Key West, Florida.
The structure known now as The Artist House was built in 1898 by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto. By many accounts, they were well-off but abusive toward their servants. One serving girl who had been badly mistreated and was apparently versed in the arts of voodoo gave their son, Robert Eugene Otto (called Gene by his friends), a straw doll that stood about three feet tall. It was to be his companion and friend for the entirety of his childhood.
Gene gave the doll his first name, Robert, and took him with him everywhere. It is said that his parents often heard him upstairs talking to the doll and answering in an entirely different voice. Strange things began to occur as misfortunes began to befall the family, and always Gene would appear, holding Robert in his crisp white sailor suit and proclaiming, "Robert did it." While, to outside eyes, it would be the work of a rambunctious child, close friends of the family agreed that it was in fact the doll who was somehow to blame. Many claimed to hear giggling coming from the doll or to have caught a glimpse of him running up the steps or staring out the turret-room window at them.
While most children tend to outgrow the imaginary friends, Robert’s hold on Gene was strong. When his parents died and Gene inherited the house, Robert was rediscovered in the attic. Almost from the moment Gene laid eyes on him, Robert’s influence could be felt. His wife found the thing unsettling, insisting she’d seen the expression on its face change, but Gene would hear none of it. When she locked the doll back in the attic, Gene flew into a rage, demanding that Robert needed a room of his own where he could see the street. It wasn’t long before his sanity came into question.
After some time and many unexplainable events, Gene had enough and decided to put Robert in the attic, where he could do no more harm. Robert, it seemed, had other plans. Visitors in the house could hear something walking back and forth in the attic, though no one was up there, and several times demonic giggling interrupted the quiet evenings. Even the other citizens of Key West had heard about Robert and his evil habits. More than once it was reported that the doll watched people and mocked school children from the window of the turret room. Gene, who insisted that Robert was in the attic, was quite surprised to find him in the rocking chair by the turret room window. He seized the doll and took it back to the attic, only to find it again in the rocking chair when he came back down.
When Gene Otto died in 1972, many thought it to be the end of Robert. Evil, however, never dies. Robert waited patiently until another family bought the house. When their little girl, who was only ten years old at the time, found Robert in the attic, she claimed him for her own. She unleashed a chilling hell on herself, claiming that the doll tortured her. Now, more than thirty years later, she steadfastly claims that the doll was alive and wanted to kill her. She is still deeply traumatized.
While haunted doll stories are not uncommon, the case of Robert is unique in that so many claim to have witnessed his evil first-hand. Visitors who have seen him claim to have witnessed his expression changing into a menacing smirk, and a plumber once fled from the house claiming he heard the doll giggle.
Robert, still dressed in his white sailor’s suit and clutching his stuffed lion, has also reportedly pulled pranks aplenty on those who care for him. A museum employee once cleaned Robert and left for the evening, locking the doors behind him and shutting off the lights. When he arrived the next day, several lights, including the one near Robert’s case, were on. Also, Robert was placed differently than when the employee last saw him. Stranger still, the bottoms of Robert’s shoes were coated in fresh dust as though he’d been walking around the museum. More than once, employees have reported hearing a sound like someone tapping on glass as they pass Robert’s case. When they turn to look, they have seen Robert’s hand pressed against the glass.
But Robert is not the only restless soul associated with the Artist House. When Robert was finally removed, it is said that Anne, the wife of Gene Otto, took up residence in the turret room to guard against the little monster’s return.
Today, Robert lives quite comfortably, though well guarded, at the Key West Martello Museum. Visitors are welcome to see him, though taking pictures has proven to be difficult. Cameras tend to stop working when pointed at the doll, only to resume normal function outside the museum walls. The Artist House, too, is open to the public, having been turned into a bed and breakfast. Visitors who stay in either the turret or attic rooms often report strange occurrences and sounds, as though someone is pacing the floor or watching them while they sleep. The staff just smiles and nods, knowing that it’s actually Anne watching over them.
Though Robert is available to take visitors year-round, the best time to introduce yourself, a practice recommended and followed by the museum staff, is during the month of October. During that one month, Robert is taken from the Martello Museum and housed in the Historic Custom House a few blocks down. It is during this time of year that he is said to be most active, and the employees always leave a bag of peppermints in his case with him in an attempt to cajole him into behaving. They swear there are always fewer candies the next morning.
Until next time . . .
Original concept art designs by Bill "Splat" Johnson