It’s a common theme of old and new horror films: a possessed doll that seems to come to life and potters about committing creepy murders all over the darn place. In fact, more than a staple, the thing is a full-blown cliché nowadays; but did you know that the fictional likes of Chucky et al have their roots in many real-life stories? One such tale tells of a doll that survives to this day, a doll that you can even visit if you are so inclined, a doll that has a “terrifying reputation”: his name is Robert.
Sometime in the final years of the nineteenth century, Thomas Otto and his family took ownership of a large Florida mansion in Key West. It was shortly after this that Robert first appeared, being gifted to the youngest child of the family: a boy whose name was Gene Otto. Some say the gift came from an unrecorded source, others say that a Bahamian or Haitian servant girl who had been mistreated at the family’s plantation gave it to Gene having cursed it beforehand in an act of vengeance. Cursed or not, Gene and Robert became almost inseparable.
Robert is unique. No assembly-line toy here: he’s hand-made, stitched together by someone whose name has long since disappeared from public knowledge. He’s pretty big for a doll too, standing some forty inches high (that’s about one metre tall). It’s rather are faded now, but his face was once painted in the manner of a jester—something that seems to me to be a bit of a strange choice, considering his garb is that of an old-fashioned sailor. Perhaps the sailor’s outfit is a later addition.
Pretty soon after Robert turned up, weird things began to take place. Often, when Gene was accused of mischief, like the occasions when his bedroom was found smashed up and the furniture overturned, he would blame Robert, insisting that it had been the doll that had done the damage. Of course, most children do this from time-to-time in an attempt to evade punishment, but Robert’s supposed antics soon became even weirder. And darker.
At night, the Ottos could hear what they thought was the doll laughing—sometimes it would be a quiet sound, sometimes it would be “terrifying giggles”. Likewise, it was reported that it sounded as though the doll was actually moving through the house at varying speeds, going from room to room and up and down stairs and corridors. Apparently, neighbors would report seeing the doll moving from window to window when the house was known to be empty. More reports by a variety of guests spoke of the doll’s expression shifting on its own—even of it blinking. Gene himself would sometimes be found terrified and screaming in bed, with his room ransacked and furniture in disarray, crying that Robert had gone haywire.
Robert, despite the weirdness, was an immovable fixture in Gene’s life. The young boy would sit for hours in his room talking to the doll. Sometimes the family would hear the doll answer (although this was, at first, put down to Gene changing his voice to mimic a reply). This behaviour went on for years until Gene had grown into an adult.
Eventually, Gene married a woman by the name of Anne. Anne, like any normal person might do, decided that Robert and Gene should be separated a little and she insisted that the doll be placed in the attic. Eventually, a compromise was reached and Robert was given a seat on the top floor of the house, propped up in a chair next to a window out of which he seemed to peer. Local children swore they saw him move every now and then.
Even after Gene’s death in 1974 Robert seemed to be the focus of strange goings-on. Footsteps would be heard coming from the attic where he had been moved to. A plumber was greatly unnerved when he heard what seemed to be Robert’s signature giggling. He turned to look for the cause of the noise, only to see that Robert had somehow moved across the room by himself. After Anne moved out, she leased the house to another family, the ten-year-old daughter of which woke one night, terrified, adamant that a doll was moving about and attacking her. A Solares Hill reporter named Malcolm Ross visited the house to see Robert for himself and he too had a strange experience. “At first when we walked through the door, the look on his face was like a little boy being punished. It was as if he was asking himself, ‘Who are these people in my room and what are they going to do to me?’” When he again glanced at the doll’s face its expression had changed to one of anger.
Once Anne died, the doll was removed from the home and installed in the East Martello Museum. Staff and visitors still report weird goings on around Robert and, bizarrely, it receives letters regularly.
Fort East Martello Museum now houses the doll if you dare visit it, and you can even buy your very own cuddly version in the gift shop…
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