Robert the Doll: Serious Nightmare or Innocent Child's Toy?

By: Allison Troutner  | 

Robt the Doll
Robert the Doll, with his leathery, pockmarked face and little sailor hat, is a truly terrifying little fellow. Cayobo/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Just before the turn of the 20th century, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto moved into a beautiful colonial Queen Anne style home in Key West, Florida, bringing their three sons, including young Robert Eugene Otto and his unusual best friend — a 3-foot-tall (0.91-meter-tall), straw-filled doll, also named Robert.

The doll had been a gift from Gene's grandfather, who bought the life-size toy during a trip to Germany. It was manufactured by the Steiff Company, makers of the famous teddy bear, though it was never sold as part of a line of toys for the company. It's thought the doll was initially one of a collection of clown and jester-dressed dolls designed for a store window display.

This all seems perfectly normal and all within the realm of the reasonable, doesn't it? What makes Robert truly unlike any other doll are the paranormal events that have surrounded his existence for 117 years. We spoke to Jessica Schreckengost, general manager at The Artist House in Key West, Florida, which now operates as a bed and breakfast and was once home to Robert the Doll.

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The Story of Gene and Robert

Robert Eugene Otto went by the name Gene. By all accounts, he was a perfectly normal boy except for his strange relationship with Robert, his doll.

People who knew Gene knew Robert. They were inseparable. Gene treated Robert less like a doll and more like a living playmate, a confidant. In fact, the little sailor suit that Robert wears to this day was a hand-me-down that Gene actually wore and passed down to his doll.

Anecdotes from Gene's childhood tell of a doll that was both a friend and an alter ego. Typical for young kids of Gene's age, all his mischievous behaviors were blamed on Robert. "I think Robert was a scapegoat for Eugene. 'I didn't eat that candy, Robert did!'" says Schreckengost. "I think he gained a reputation of being mischievous, and as the story got told and retold, it transformed. I do think that he has something special to him. He likes to be respected. Bad luck befalls those who are less than respectful."

Robt the Doll
Gene Otto wearing the sailor's suit still worn to this day by Robert the Doll.
Otto Family Collection/Florida Keys Public Libraries/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Stories claim that servants of the Otto household heard Gene talking in two distinct voices in his room, alone. Some nights, Gene would wake up screaming. On one night in particular, his parents rushed in, expecting to assuage a nightmare, and found the room trashed, the furniture overturned and Gene curled up in a frightened ball. Their son blamed the doll sitting atop his bed, staring and motionless by the time the parents arrived.

Most kids grow out of imaginary friendships with dolls. Gene didn't. The stories of Robert's odd behaviors continued into his adulthood. "Everyone had a doll or toy that at some point growing up they imagined or wished was alive," says Schreckengost. "Robert's story lures people in because it's a relatable story that just went a little wrong."

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The Artist House

Time passed and Gene became a well-known artist in the area. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Eventually, he traveled to Europe to refine his craft. In Paris, he met his future wife, Anne Parker; the two married in 1930. No, Robert wasn't the ring bearer, but he was still ever-present in Gene's life, to Anne's dismay.

Gene inherited his parents' home on Eaton Street after their death. He continued his artistic career from the house, which he named The Artist House, living with Robert all the while. Some say his wife, Anne, a concert and jazz pianist, asked for the doll to be locked in the attic; he made her uneasy. But Robert didn't take lightly to being sequestered in a dusty loft.

According to Schreckengost, there were reports that people strolling by the house clearly saw the sun-faded doll sitting in Gene's former bedroom window, though Gene had definitely locked him up in the attic. Gene would check the bedroom and, indeed, would find Robert sitting in a rocking chair beside the window. Gene moved him back to the attic several times only to find that, each time, he had returned to his preferred position by the window.

In 1974, Myrtle Reuter bought The Artist House after Gene's death. She kept Robert around for a time, too. Guests who visited the house claimed to hear footsteps and giggling through the floors above them. Some even say his expression would change. After six years, she moved out of the house but kept Robert; they lived like this for 20 years until she donated him to the Fort East Martello Museum in 1994, claiming ‘he moved around her house on his own and was haunted.’

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Life Continues for Robert at Fort East Martello Museum

Robert has resided at the museum since 1994, retired from children's play, but not from his mischievous antics. The East Martello Museum asks that visitors seek Robert’s permission before taking photographs; those unwilling to do so are supposedly met with horrible misfortune. Despite working for The Artist House for several years, it took Schreckengost a while to finally visit the doll. When she did, it was a moment she'll never forget. "I couldn't bring myself to ask a doll for its permission to take a photo. So, I didn't. I was using a digital camera and as soon as I left, I tried to look at my photos. Only the last few pictures I took were on it, and it wouldn't save any more pictures ever again," she says.

Most people are just curious about the century-old doll. "I think he has a charming side to him," says Schreckengost. "I believe that a lot of people have an attachment to him. He's not outright evil, he is more playful than anything."

Robt the Doll
Robert now lives in a display case at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)

At The Artist House, Robert isn't just a story. Guests, including ghosthunters, film crews and Robert groupies, come to stay a night in the infamous house. "People love the story. It's fascinating and they love being able to stay in Robert's room," says Schreckengost. "I believe that even if we didn't share the story, it would still be well known. We're part of the various ghost tours that feature the property nightly."

Abnormal activity continues in the house, even for Schreckengost. "We had a brand-new computer that worked great for three months. One day as I'm typing, the words all were typing backward," she explains. "I couldn't fix it with a new keyboard, mouse, computer reset, etc. The technician that came out was baffled and had no explanation."

Guests aren't spared from the paranormal either; they write about their experiences in the B&B's guest book. "We have guests that report strange incidences, nothing scary, that can't be reasonably explained. I have a logbook in which I ask guests who experience anything to share their stories," says Schreckengost.

Is Robert playing games from afar, just like old times? Or is he lurking in the shadows trying to find a comfy chair in a window? Others have speculated about Robert's intentions, and he was even the subject of a 2015 horror movie, appropriately titled "Robert." There have since been four sequels, "The Curse of Robert the Doll," in 2016, "The Toymaker," in 2017, "The Revenge of Robert the Doll," in 2018, and "Robert Reborn," in 2019.

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For the Love of Robert

To this day, people from all over the country write letters to Robert. The museum says he's gotten more than a thousand personal letters. Some are apologizing for disrespecting him in the past, hoping he'll stop wreaking havoc on their lives. Others want to visit the well-loved doll and say hello. "I think he's gotten better with age. The wear and tear become endearing," says Schreckengost. "I think Robert picks people that he wants to be close with, and there's a bond."

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