If you find yourself at a loose end in Key West, Florida, why not spend an afternoon in the East Martello Museum? Amongst the local art and history, you may find yourself drawn toward one peculiar exhibit – that of an almost child sized doll, named Robert.
He sits in his glass case, holding his own stuffed dog (or maybe lion) and surrounded by letters from all over the world. Take a closer look, and you’ll realise these aren’t fan letters from adorning children.
These are letters begging Robert for forgiveness.
The doll that came to be known as Robert was once the childhood companion of Robert Eugene Otto, the son of an affluent Kew West family who went on to be known as a rather “eccentric” artist in his adult years.
Quite how Robert the doll was gifted to Robert the boy is a source of debate, although the legend states one was gifted to the other by a maid of the Otto family. However, this maid was said to practice voodoo and placed a hex on the doll in retaliation to the family’s ill-treatment of it’s staff.
The other -and more likely- theory is that Grandfather Otto purchased the doll in 1904 Germany, and gifted him to the grandson for his birthday. Robert the doll was made by the famous Steiff Company, although it’s likely he was intended to be a window display item, rather than a traditional toy.
Regardless of how Robert the doll came into young Robert’s possession, one was smitten with the other – so much so that Robert the boy named the doll after himself, and began using his middle name, Eugene. Eventually, Robert came to wear Eugene’s own sailor suit, and would accompany the boy wherever he went.
However, things began to take a turn towards the bizarre when little Eugene began to blame his mishaps and outbursts on the (allegedly) inanimate Robert. Legend tells of the Otto parents listening to Eugene playing with the doll alone, only to hear Robert answer back in a deep, husky voice.
As Eugene grew, he studied the arts and traveled the world, eventually returning to the Otto home in Key West with his wife, Annette. The couple lived there – with Robert, of course – until their deaths in the 1970s.
After this, the house was sold twice. First to the Reuter family and later to its current owners who operate the house as a bed & breakfast.
As for Robert, he was eventually donated to the East Martello Museum, where he remains today. Legend says, this was due to a number of alarming incidences involving Robert. He was said to peer out of the house’s top window, following the movements of passers by. Some said he would change positions when alone or unattended.
The Museum took Robert in, paying no mind to his haunted reputation. However, it is said that staff soon began to realise there was indeed more to Robert than met the eye. They decided to keep him safely behind glass, where he attracts the attention of believers and skeptics alike.
Be warned, if you do intend to give Robert a visit, it’s important to treat him with the utmost respect. Electronic devices malfunction in his presence, and it’s said to be impossible to take Robert’s picture without his permission. Many who do not give Robert the respect he deserves have been met with his wrath.
That’s where the letters come in. Even today, the museum is said to receive up to three letters a day, begging Robert for his forgiveness. Broken bones, failed marriages and runs of consistently bad luck are said to befall those who disrespect Robert, only changing after reaching out to him with a grovelling apology note.
An Enduring Legacy
Robert may be one of the oldest examples of a haunted child’s toy, but he is certainly not alone. Ed and Lorraine Warrens’s haunted Annabelle doll is another notable mention, of course, but almost every child has a memory of a toy that made them uneasy at one point or another.
Dolls have always been a source of discomfort for me. Their unblinking eyes and thousand yard stare always make me nervous, but why is that fear so innate for so many?
Perhaps it is the doll’s space in the uncanny valley, where things are aesthetically encouraged to illicit an emotional response, while being not quite human enough for us to do so willingly.
This unease is likely elevated when the object in question is paired with intense emotion. When we project feelings onto a humanlike vessel, it’s easy for us to further anthropomorphises an object, bestowing it with more than just human features.
If we are to take this into account alongside the belief in the paranormal or supernatural, it’s easy to think of this in terms of energy. Depending on personal belief and circumstance, it’s easy to imagine how something so charged with emotional energy could become “haunted”. Another view is that this energy may “open a door” for an intelligent energetic being to take up residence in an object. Something we’re more likely to recognise if that object is humanlike. Then again, tales of haunted chairs and cursed objects are widespread.
Whatever your beliefs, it’s fun to hypothesize.
As for Robert, I believe he is still taking visitors. If you see him, remember your manners and tell him Dr Hawthorn sent you.
– Dr LJ Hawthorn
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