The dark story of Robert the Haunted Doll began near the turn of the century when the family of eccentric Key West artist Robert Eugene Otto took up residence in the famous Artist's House in the heart of the city. They settled in with their young son and a large staff to wait on their every need.
Local legend holds that the Ottos were stern people who held their son to rigid expectations and expected strict obedience from their staff. It is said that the Ottos took on a Jamaican woman as a nurse for young "Gene," as they called him, and it was she who spent the long hours with him while his parents travelled the States and other parts of the globe. But the idyllic relationship was not to last, and the story is told that the nurse got on the bad side of Mrs. Otto and was promptly dismissed. But before she left the household she gave a gift to her favorite charge -- a hand-sewn stuffed doll, made in the likeness of young Gene. A slightly imperfect replica who Gene took to immediately.
The doll was christened with Gene's first name, Robert, and from the moment he received him from his Jamaican nurse, Gene never let the doll out of his sight. It went everywhere with him and was often seen accompanying the boy on day trips into town, both neat little gentlemen in pressed white sailor suits sitting perched among the Otto servants or straggling along behind Mrs. Otto as she shopped.
At meal times Robert sat in his own little chair beside Gene who would sneak little bits of food to Robert out of the sight of his parents. At bath time Robert would assume his spot on a dry towel while Gene soaked and played with wooden ships and corks in his nightly ritual. And when it came time to settle in for the night, Robert was tucked neatly in beside the drowsing boy ready to accompany him even into his dreams.
Soon, however, the relationship between Gene and his doll took on a troubling aspect. Gene could often be heard playing joyfully in his toy room one moment and then, after a solemn silence, the sound of low conversation would trickle down to the servants' ears, first in Gene's boyish voice and then in an entirely different tone. Sometimes Gene's voice would sound agitated, but the responding voice only sounded insistent, and it was these moments that began to trouble first the servants and then Mrs. Otto most. On occasion the concerned mother would burst in upon her child and, oddly and unexpectedly, find her son cowering in a corner of the room, and the doll perched in a chair or on the bed, seemingly glaring down at the boy.
More troubling were the inexplicable events that began to occur -- glassware and silverware thrown about the dining room, servants locked out while on their nightly rounds, clothing torn up and bedding in rooms long unused disturbed and crumpled on the ground. Most troubling, other beloved toys belonging to young Gene began to turn up mutilated and brutalized while deep in the night there was the sound of giggling.
Of course, young Gene was blamed for committing mischief and was soundly disciplined by his parents. On each occasion the boy took the punishment but not without first pleading and insisting each time that "Robert did it!" Although his parents never believed this, it didn't take much protesting to convince the servants, and the staff turnover at the Otto house was understandably high. At one point, concerned relatives attempted to intervene and on the recommendation of a great aunt, Robert the Doll was taken from young Gene and sent to live in a box in the Otto attic. One night later the aunt was found dead in her bed, the victim, it was believed, of a stroke, but immediately following her untimely demise, Robert once again took up his place at Gene's side.
Gene Otto never left the family house and when his parents finally died he was left there to live unhindered, with Robert by his side. Unlike most mature men of his age, Gene never put away this particular childhood relic -- later it would be suggested by some close to him that the doll would not allow Gene to abandon it in such a way. As Gene got used to life "alone" at the Artist House, Key West began to talk -- and not about the living resident they knew to be there.
Stories abounded of the sounds of giggling and maniacal laughter coming from "the Turret Room" -- the Victorian corner of the house that Gene had inhabited as a boy. This had now become Robert's domain, or so it was said, and everything there -- the furnishings, the curtains, the "tolerated" toys that Robert had not destroyed all were left as they had been in Gene's childhood.
Servants were kept sporadically and even the most stout hearted of them didn't stay for very long at the Artist House. Finally, the staff dwindled altogether to a couple that came in for a few hours a day; while the wife cooked Gene's meals the husband would tend to minor chores around the house. But both would be long gone before sunset, and neither would venture into the Turret Room or near that end of the house no matter how they were threatened or cajoled.
Soon, the needs of manhood (at least temporarily) over rode the attachment to childhood and to Robert the Doll when Gene Otto took a wife. The marriage was troubled from the start, not the least because Gene insisted on Robert accompanying the couple everywhere, having a place at their dinner table, and even, amazingly, that he assume his place in his favorite little chair beside the newlyweds' bed. Not surprisingly the marriage went sour quickly and ultimately Mrs. Otto went insane and died of undisclosed causes. She is said to haunt the Artist House to this day.
Eventually, Gene Otto followed her in death and for a time Robert the Doll was left alone in the huge house. When new owners bought the house to restore it to its place as a Key West showcase, Robert was committed once again to an attic box. But this is said to have pleased him no more than it did the first time it was tried, and the nights became unbearable for the new owners who reportedly found Robert in all manner of places, in all manner of predicaments. When the doll was found giggling and holding a kitchen knife at the foot of the new owners' bed, there wasn't any Gene Otto to blame it on. The new owners left in a hurry and Robert the Haunted Doll was moved to his new home at the East Martello Museum in Key West, where he is well guarded.
Still, tourists who visit the Artist House today say Robert is not necessarily "attached" to his new home, as they have reported the sounds of giggling and small scampering feet in the empty rooms where the tour guides feared to take them. Sometimes children on their way to school pass the Artist House and flee in terror from the face of Robert peering down from the Turret Room windows. Doors are still found unlocked, windows left slightly open in the areas that Gene and Robert frequented all their lives.
But his displeasure at being a display item at the East Martello Museum seems unceasing. Visitors are chilled by the sight of him. One woman was disturbed to find that the expression on the doll changed right before her eyes. "One minute he was smiling, then he was frowning and mad," she said.
Other visitors who try to take a photo of the famous doll have been disappointed to find black frames instead of photos. Digital cameras are useless and the lighting in the area where Robert now "lives" is consistently bad, despite the musuem's repeated attempts to provide more illumination. Of course, "Robert did it" is still the motto when things go bump in the night, and no member of the museum staff wants to be the last to leave at night.