If you take the time to check out the East Martello Museum in Key West, you will see an interesting exhibit. An unassuming doll, a custom created toy in 1904 in Germany sits on a chair inside a glass display case in the middle of a room. Maybe you feel like taking a photo to show your friends back home. But if you snap that pic without permission, from the doll himself, you might experience ghostly and unlucky things when you head back home. Car accidents, financial ruin, divorces and job loss are said to befall those who don’t take courtesy as a real requirement. If you don’t ask permission, you may wish you had.
There are dozens and dozens of letters sent to Robert the Doll in Key West, Florida. Each letter asks for forgiveness for taking that fateful photo, explaining how their circumstances seemed to be torpedoed as soon as they came home. Robert the Doll has a long and dark history, but his influence can still be felt today, even in a seemingly safe display case rather than in the arms of the young boy he was built for.
The doll is 40 inches tall, made of canvas and stuffed with wood wool, and once featured a painted face with the likeness of a court jester. Today the age of the doll shows in its unique size and construction.
In 1904, Robert Eugene Otto was gifted the unique and one-of-a-kind doll and named it after himself as he went by the nickname Gene or Eugene. Robert immediately changed the atmosphere in the beautiful home. Otto’s grandfather returned with the doll after a trip to Germany and the boy was instantly taken with the toy. He dressed him in an old sailor outfit he’d worn as a youngster. The boy loved his doll from the first day, carrying him with him wherever he went and growing up with the doll as his best friend.
Occasionally, mischievous things would happen in the Otto house, presumably caused by Gene. He seemingly always said “No, it wasn’t me, it was Robert.” His parents saw this as an excuse, at least until the doll began to show signs of the paranormal. Robert would occasionally go missing from the rocking chair he sat on in Gene’s room and would be found in other parts of the home, as if Robert had picked himself up and walked elsewhere. Gene began to report to his parents that the expression on Robert’s face seemed to change while they were playing, showing a smile occasionally and even more terrifying, a look of angry malice.
Like all little boys, Gene eventually grew up and grew out of his obsession with the doll. It would be placed in the attic like so many other toys he had outgrown. His intention with the home was to turn it into an artist gallery, and the home began to be known as the Artist House. Construction workers helping with the renovation reported strange occurrences from the very beginning, hearing footsteps in the attic, giggles echoing in the halls, and the movement of Robert the Doll continuing, with the doll seemingly moving on its own.
After his best friend’s death in 1979, Robert was given a new home in the Key West Art and Historical Society’s museum after Otto’s wife desired to get the seemingly paranormal object out of her home. She first attempted to keep him in a heavy cedar chest, but the paranormal activity around the doll didn’t cease with its locking away. Today the doll is on display in a glass case for visitors to view, but almost immediately the activity resumed in his new home.
Electronics are said to fail and malfunction in the presence of the doll and he takes courtesy very seriously. Those who take photos or act in a disrespectful way in front of the doll nearly always leave the museum to devastating bad luck on the outside. The letters to the doll seem to help alleviate the cloud of bad news. On top of the doll’s effect on those visiting the museum, employees of the museum report even more activity after the lights go out.
One employee said that the doll seemed to change positions in the glass case without a human hand to reposition him. His facial expressions still change, but many explain this as a lighting change on the antique doll.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.