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Caution: Mind Your Manners When Visiting Robert the Doll

As far as haunted dolls are concerned, those interested in the paranormal are most familiar with Annabelle, who reportedly tormented a nurse and her roommate during the 1970s. Annabelle’s story has been popularized by a big-budget film franchise, but, have you ever heard of Robert the Doll? People come from miles around to visit him at the Fort East Martello Museum at Key West, Florida. Those visiting are advised to mind their manners in Robert’s presence. Visitors are urged to introduce themselves, ask permission before taking a photo, and thank Robert before leaving. Those who don’t send letters to the museum, often addressed to Robert, detailing all the bad luck they’ve had since their visit. Among The misfortunes suffered by visitors who disrespected Robert include job loss, divorce, financial troubles, and even sickness. Many letters conclude with the writer pleading with Robert to lift his curse. There’s a rumor about Robert being the inspiration for Chucky, the homicidal doll of the Child’s Play franchise—he wasn’t. According to Wikipedia, the writers were inspired by many sources but Robert the Doll isn’t mentioned. There’s a trilogy of independent movies bearing Robert’s name that offers a very creative fictionalized story of Robert’s origins: Robert the Doll (2016), Robert and The Toymaker (2017), and Robert Reborn (2019). However, truth is more fascinating than fiction.

Robert lived with the Otto family of Key West during the early 20th century. Robert was the most treasured possession of their youngest son, Robert Eugene born on October 25, 1900. The doll was given as a birthday gift for his fourth birthday. Those who knew the family said that the son was attached to the doll and took him everywhere. He even gave the doll his first name, Robert, while he insisted on being called Gene from then on. Strange things started to happen. Gene’s parents, Thomas and Minnie, would hear Gene talking late at night in his room. They heard a distinct voice answering him but when they opened the door, they found Gene alone in his room talking to Robert. They would also hear Gene scream at night. When they went into his room, they found Robert holding Gene down on the bed. Objects also began to fly across rooms and his parents would find Gene’s other toys mutilated. When they would try to discipline Gene, he would usually tell them, “I didn’t do it—Robert did it!” Thomas and Minnie Otto didn’t get rid of Robert, but eventually, put him in the attic.

The Otto’s were a prominent family who emigrated from Germany during the 19th century and eventually settled in Key West. Thomas Otto was a physician and pharmacist. The family owned two pharmacies in Key West. In those days, doctors often doubled as pharmacists since they did not make as much money as they do nowadays. Doctors often treated patients regardless of their ability to pay and often accepted goods and change in exchange for healthcare services. Gene was the youngest of four children: Mizpah, Joseph, and Thomas Osgood. Gene reportedly shared a close relationship with his sister, Mizpah.1

Accounts differ as to where Robert the Doll came from and who gave it to him. The origin story that circulated over the years was that Robert was a voodoo doll, made by a Haitian servant. The servant gave Robert to Gene as an act of revenge against the Ottos for mistreating her. Robert was said to be made with human hair and stuffed with straw. A team from Key West Art and Historical Society gives Robert an annual examination to make sure he stays in good condition. The team recorded every detail about Robert. Robert’s hair is not human hair but most likely mohair, he is stuffed with a strawlike material and covered with felt. For those unfamiliar with Robert, he stands about 3′ tall, weighs 6 lbs., has short blonde hair, black button eyes, and is dressed in a sailor suit complete with a hat. He also holds a plush lion who the museum staff named Leo, in his arm. Gene gave Robert the sailor suit that belonged to him when he was little and also gave Robert his plush pet.

Gene went away to college as an adult to study architecture at the University of Virginia for two and a half years. Robert didn’t accompany Gene. Gene went on to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago for three years. Besides playing with Robert during childhood, Gene reportedly loved to paint. According to the family, Gene took up a paintbrush before he learned to speak. He spent the following two and a half years working with the Art Students League in New York. From New York, he moved to Paris, where he established himself in a studio and met his future wife, Annette Parker. Parker was originally from New England and was in Paris studying music. The two married on May 3, 1930, at the American Cathedral in Paris. Gene and Anne Otto eventually moved back to the U.S. in the mid-1930s and settled in New York City. This was during the Great Depression and times were difficult financially for Gene, Anne, and both their families. Gene worked as a furniture salesman and Anne performed some shows at The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center as “Anne Girard.” The two composed and copyrighted more than 30 songs with Gene writing the lyrics to Anne’s music. One song, Of Time and The River, was recorded by singer Jimmy Brierly. During the 1940s, Gene learned that his mother was sick and the couple moved to Key West.

A childlike vintage doll, dressed in a sailor suit, sits in a display case.
“Robert The Doll” by Key West Wedding Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Robert hadn’t been with Gene during his travels and had been left up in the attic. After his mother’s death, Gene’s siblings signed over their shares of the estate to Gene and Anne. Gene and Anne moved into the family home, now known as the Artist House. The house currently serves as a bed and breakfast and is also a stop on a ghost tour. It’s also one of the most photographed homes in Key West other than Hemingway’s former residence. Once he settled in with his wife in the family home, Gene resumed his close friendship with Robert—much to his wife’s dismay. Anne didn’t like Robert and insisted Gene keep Robert in a separate room. Gene created a room especially for Robert in the attic. He even furnished the room with child-sized furniture and toys for Robert. Gene made Robert’s room his studio and painted with Robert at his side. Myrtle Reuter, who later owned the Artist House, said that a neighbor told her that Anne said that when Gene would say or do something hurtful to her, he would tell her “I didn’t do it, Robert did it.” It was during the 1940s that stories about Robert began to circulate. Many children who passed the Artist House on their way to school reported seeing Robert moving from window to window in the attic room. In Key West, Gene became a respected citizen and artist as an adult. He had many art openings attended by prominent Key West residents. He also supported community organizations such as the Key West Woman’s Club and Garden Club.1

Gene Otto passed away on June 24, 1974, in a Miami hospital. It was determined that his death was caused by Parkinson’s disease. An article in the Sun Sentinel, written 10 years after his death, said that in the months leading up to his death, Gene spent most of his time in the attic talking to Robert. After his death, Anne found out that she was written out of her husband’s will. According to a letter written by Gene’s sister, Mizpah Otto deBoe to a nephew, Gene was hurt when he found out that he had been written out of Anne’s mother’s will. Gene left everything to his sister, Mizpah. Anne owned the Artist House jointly with Gene. She sold it to a neighbor and friend, William Gaiser. She gave Robert to Gaiser and told him, “That doll was Gene’s best friend. Of course, he never had any other friends.” Anne moved to Massachusetts to live with her sister. She died five years later, in January of 1979, of pancreatic cancer. She was buried in Norwich, Connecticut.

Is Robert a voodoo doll? Robert has been analyzed and examined by a team from the Key West Art and Historical Society. Thanks to the analysis of Robert the Doll and some detective work by paranormal investigator and author, David L. Sloan, much more is known about Robert’s origins. Sloan’s book, Robert the Doll: The True Biography of Key West’s Haunted Doll (2014), includes extensive research on Robert and his caretakers, the Ottos. Sloan had access to family documents including letters and diaries.

Sloan tracked Robert’s physical origins to the Steiff Company in Germany. The Steiff Company is a toy company established during the late 19th century. The company was started by a seamstress Margarete Steiff, who made elephant-shaped pincushions. She noticed that children enjoyed playing with the pincushions and decided to start making more animal-themed toys. Eventually, her hobby developed into The Steiff Company which became a reputable and innovative toy manufacturer. Steiff is credited with creating the most popular children’s toy of all time, the plush bear in 1902, which would later become the teddy bear (named after former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt). Getting back to Robert, the trademark that designated an authentic Steiff toy was a metal button inserted into a doll’s ear with an elephant engraved in it or the company name. However, the evaluation team and Sloan have noted that Robert’s right ear was originally missing. Sloan assumed that Gene may have torn it off accidentally as a child during play. Sloan contacted Rebekah Kaufman, Steiff’s consultant and archivist for North America. He sent her detailed photos and provided descriptions and Robert’s measurements. Kaufman and a colleague agreed that Robert could be a Steiff toy. The following year, Kaufman found a doll similar to Robert that is a confirmed Steiff toy up for auction. Kaufman’s theory on Robert is that he was originally made to be used as a window display because of his lifelike proportions. Kaufman also said that Robert would have been very expensive.

So, now it’s been confirmed Robert wasn’t constructed as a voodoo doll. Theories as to why Robert could be haunted are that the servant could have put a curse on the doll after Gene received it. Robert could also be haunted by the spirit of a deceased child connected to the Otto family, and the most interesting theory is that Robert could have been charged by Gene’s energy through his attachment and affection for Robert.

Two children---a girl and a boy dressed in a sailor suit walk outdoors.
Where’s Robert? Young Gene Otto wears the sailor suit now worn by Robert the Doll as he walks with an unknown friend.
“MM00046331x” by Florida Keys—Public Libraries is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Most accounts agree that Gene received Robert as a gift for his birthday. It’s been established that Robert was most likely manufactured by the Steiff Company in Germany around 1904. The Otto family emigrated to the United States from Germany. According to Gene’s sister, Mizpah’s family history, Gene’s grandfather, Joseph Otto maintained a relationship with relatives in Germany, and both German and American Otto’s exchanged gifts. There’s evidence that Gene’s mother may have brought Robert to the U.S. after returning home from a trip to Hamburg on September 4, 1904. Minnie Otto is on the passenger list for Hamburg-Amerika Line’s Graf Waldersee—a little over one month before Gene’s birthday on October 25.1

What about the paranormal half of Robert’s origin story—a voodoo curse by a disgruntled servant? The Otto family employed two servants from the West Indies, William and Emeline Abbott. The Abbotts were a married couple who worked for the Ottos for many years, starting with Gene’s grandfather, Joseph. The Abbotts are even buried in the Otto family plot. Emeline Abbott gave birth to two children—in 1900 and 1910. While there’s no evidence to prove it, there’s speculation that Emeline Abbott may have had an affair with Gene’s father, Thomas. Information obtained from several documents is cause to suspect that Thomas may have been unfaithful. According to Minnie Otto’s journal, her husband received a lot of attention from women and that women in the community resented her because she wasn’t from a wealthy background. Minnie also didn’t want to be buried in the family plot for some reason. There’s also a mention of some interesting fatherly advice that Joseph gave to Thomas. Gene’s grandfather is quoted as advising his son about venereal disease and to practice “not abstinence but prophylactic care.” Emeline tried to file a lawsuit against the Ottos after Thomas’s death. Something was going on but there’s no evidence to prove that Emeline Abbott and Thomas Otto had an affair. 1

The following are theories as to who haunts Robert: the spirit of Thomas Otto and Emeline Abbott’s child, or that it is her deceased child conceived with her husband, William. Another theory is that Emeline used magic to trap her child’s spirit in the doll. Perhaps Gene’s attachment to Robert stems from Robert being haunted by a half-sibling. Visitors to the museum as well as members of the staff have said that they’ve seen the apparition of what appears to be a female child of mixed race around Robert the Doll. She’s described as about 5-years-old with long brown curly hair, wearing an old-fashioned type nightgown. Poochie Myers served as a caretaker for the Artist House during the 1980s. She described seeing the spirit of the little girl sitting on a staircase. Myers said that the little girl seemed angry.

Robert has lived at the Fort East Martello Museum since 1994. Myrtle Reuter brought him to the museum. Reuter became the owner of the Artist House after William Gaiser and was Robert’s caretaker for 20 years. At first, Reuter said that she didn’t have any problems. She said that she would dress Robert in PJs and put him by the tree on Christmas Eve. She and her husband sold the Artist House in 1980. She took Robert to her new home where she let him sit on the porch. She said that it was after moving into the new house that strange things started to happen.

Key West Art and Historical Society Assistant Director Joe Pais spoke with Reuter. She set Robert down in a chair in his office and said, “This is Robert and he’s part of the Otto family and I can’t stand him being in my house anymore.” Reuter said that she locked Robert in a room after noticing that he moved on his own. After that, she said Robert locked her in a room. “He’s haunted,” she said to Pais. When Pais suggested that she should keep Robert, Reuter insisted that she wanted the doll out of the house and eagerly filled out the paperwork to donate him. She died less than three months later. After Robert arrived at the museum, paranormal activity decreased at the Artist House and increased at the museum.

Pais noticed something different about Robert. He kept Robert in a small antique chair in his office. Pais said that when he looked at Robert, he stared back at him in an unchildlike way. Pais believed that Robert was moving the chair around and made a mark near one of the chair legs to see if the chair was moving. Pais shared his office with Museum Director Susan Olsen. She didn’t like Robert and didn’t want to be in the office if the doll was in there. Eventually, Robert was moved to the museum’s artifact storage room. Robert stayed there for two years and visitors could see him by appointment. Museum employees were so frightened of Robert that they often suggested visitors come back to visit on a day that they weren’t working or put the responsibility of retrieving Robert on a coworker. In mid-1996, a local ghost tour was encouraging guests to visit Robert. After requests for Robert increased, he was placed on display.

A plush male doll dressed in a sailor suit holds a plush lion.
Mini Robert replica with his friend, Leo the Lion. Photo: Melissa Bastek
A close up of red embroidered symbol on arm of doll's white jacket.
Robert’s replica comes complete with U.S. Navy insignia embroidered on his sleeve. According to navydads.com, the markings on Robert’s sleeve indicate E-S Petty Officer Second Class. 1
A message in black print on a light blue strip of paper reads: "Thank you for your order. Take good care of my mini me. I have my eye on you.
Mini Robert also comes with this polite warning: “Thank you for your order. Take good care of my mini-me. I have my eye on you! —Robert”

Two men rented the house from Myrtle Reuter during the mid-1970s and said that they heard noise coming from the attic of children laughing and someone “rummaging around.” When they went upstairs to investigate, they noticed that Robert changed his position. The activity became more frequent. They invited a friend to see Robert, Malcolm Ross. Ross said that he experienced a strange feeling when he was around Robert, described as a metal bar running down his back. Ross also describes Robert changing facial expressions. He describes Robert as looking like a child being punished and that as he talked to his friends about the room, Robert seemed to be following the conversation.
Some examples of strange things that happened to Robert’s visitors at the museum include the story of a couple who spent their honeymoon in Florida. After visiting Robert, they lost all of their vacation photos as well as their wedding pictures. For their first anniversary, the couple decided to visit Robert again and this time they brought Robert peppermint candy and showed Robert the candy. When they were alone with Robert, the lights in Robert’s room went out for a minute. The couple felt that this was Robert’s way of expressing his thanks for the candy. David Sloan said that he had some strange experiences while doing research and writing his book on Robert. He said that he lost four hard drives and that computer techs were able to retrieve everything except the book manuscript. Backups of the manuscript also disappeared. More than one spirit medium also advised him to build a fireproof safe for his valuables while he was working on the book. Sloan was told that if Robert didn’t approve of the book, he would give Sloan cancer. Sloan also said that he was pulled from his bed, held suspended in mid-air, and that he had been levitated. Sloan also founded the ghost tour in Key West that in 1996 influenced Robert’s move from museum storage to permanent display.

Jessica Schreckengost Nauman (Schreckenghost interestingly means, “frightened of ghosts”) manager of the Artist House, put a decorative bowl of plastic lemons on the reception desk. The lemons suddenly started to disappear. Guests checking out would return them. They didn’t say anything but just put the lemons back. About a month later, a package arrived with no name, no note, and no return address, just a lemon. Months later, a guest asked if she had seen a letter to Robert at the Fort East Martello Museum. The letter was from a woman who found a lemon among her and her husband’s belongings when they returned home from Florida. She wrote that she and her husband had seen Robert several times but never experienced anything negative. During their last visit, they stayed at the Artist House in the Turret Suite, below the attic room where Robert lived for many years. They decided to take a look in the attic and popped up into the hatch door. They took pictures thinking that they might catch something paranormal on camera. The next day before check-out, they were doing some last-minute shopping. She began to feel pain, started running a fever, and noticed a rash. After arriving home, a doctor diagnosed her with shingles. Her husband started to feel pain and was diagnosed with kidney stones. When she was unpacking, she found a plastic lemon wrapped up in one of her shirts. She didn’t know how it got into her suitcase. She thought that Robert was the cause of her and her husband’s sickness. She thought that Robert was punishing them for taking pictures of the attic without his permission. She mailed the lemon back to the Artist House. Once the lemon was on its way back, she and her husband began to recover. She requested that her letter be posted near Robert.

Another story is from someone who said that they followed Robert’s rules. The writer told Robert their name, asked permission before taking his photo, and thanked Robert. Later that night, their bottom lip swelled to twice its size and they developed a rash on both their arms and hands that lasted for a couple of days. They looked up Robert on the Internet and didn’t find any information to suggest that the rules weren’t followed. As they closed the tab, they noticed another tab open with no title on it. There was only one sentence on the page that read, “You did not say where you were from.”

There is one positive letter mentioned. The writer was a woman who said that she had nothing but the best of luck after visiting Robert. The specifics aren’t mentioned but the woman expresses her appreciation and thanks to Robert. The letter goes on to refer to Robert as a demon whose role is to teach people to ask permission. She goes on to say that Robert is specifically a demon in charge of good manners.

Robert the Doll has long been the subject of speculation in the paranormal community. He’s currently the main attraction of a ghost tour in Key West. Paranormal activity is still reported at the Artist House, including the apparition of a woman who appears in the garden. There’s a theory that the feminine presence is Anne Otto and that she’s there to protect people from Robert. According to a report from October 25, 2003 (Gene Otto’s birthday) a gathering of 80 people witnessed a blue orb come from the sky, through the guest house roof, and appear to the crowd in front of the house. The orb went through the balcony and disappeared into the ground. This orb is said to have appeared again in October 2012 as a tour guide was sharing new information uncovered about the Otto family. The orb reportedly circled this head for several minutes.

Whether you believe it’s voodoo, a child’s spirit, Gene Otto’s energy charging Robert, or maybe that Robert is simply an antique doll with an eccentric caretaker—Robert the Doll’s story is fascinating. There have been many attempts over the years to try to communicate with the spirit surrounding Robert the Doll. Robert currently has two Facebook pages—one run by the Fort East Martello Museum and the other is the Robert the Doll Experience organized by David Sloan. The museum also has a gift shop online of Robert merch, including, of course, a mini replica Robert. After first learning about Robert, I went online and purchased a mini Robert replica. I’ve had him for about three years, and no, I haven’t suffered any misfortunes since receiving him. If you decide to visit Robert the Doll, remember to be respectful, introduce yourself, tell him where you’re from, ask permission to take his photo, and thank him before you leave.

Notes:

1 Robert The Doll: The True Biography of Key West’s Haunted Doll, by David L. Sloan, Phantom Press, Key West, 2014.

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Written by Melissa Bastek

I've had a longtime love of horror and the paranormal --- in both books and film. I enjoy writing fiction as well as researching the stories behind my favorite films and books. I also have an interest in true crime and forensic science and psychology. Besides fiction, I like to watch documentaries --- everything from behind-the-scenes about a film to true crime cases.

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