Robert The Doll: The Tale Of A Frightening Friendship Between A Child And His Toy

Published February 1, 2018
Updated February 21, 2020
Published February 1, 2018
Updated February 21, 2020

Since 1904, Robert the Doll has been blamed for mischievous acts in Key West, Florida. From causing car accidents to breaking bones, the "haunted" toy has a long list of alleged crimes.

Robert The Doll In Florida

Susan Smith/FlickrRobert the Doll now lives at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida.

Do you believe in ghosts? What about allegedly cursed inanimate objects? If you answered “yes” to both of those questions, you may want to sit down for the strange story of Robert the Doll.

Robert isn’t your average toy doll. He’s a life-sized, vaguely-human-looking boy who’s dressed in his now-deceased owner’s clothing. As if that isn’t creepy enough, there’s an eerie-looking toy dog that sits on his lap.

Unlike most lapdogs, however, Robert’s pooch has big, bulging eyes, and a long tongue that hangs maniacally out of its mouth.

Legend has it, Robert the Doll isn’t just haunted. He’s supposedly malevolent and likes to wreak havoc on peoples’ lives. From allegedly breaking bones to causing car accidents, Robert the Doll has quite the rap sheet.

When Was Robert The Doll Made?

There’s a bit of debate surrounding Robert’s origins. Some claim Robert was given to his late owner Robert Eugene (Gene) Otto as a gift from his grandfather whereas locals swear the straw-filled toy was given to young Otto by one of the family’s maids as retaliation for wrongdoing.

After some digging, officials at the Fort West Martello Museum — where Robert resides today — deduced that Robert was actually never intended to be a doll in the first place.

Although they traced Robert’s origins to the Steiff Company — the same toy company that designed the very first teddy bear — a Steiff historian told the museum that he was most likely a part of a window display.

Even so, Robert’s “life” didn’t start until he met Gene Otto.

Robert The Doll And Gene Otto

Mispah And Gene Otto

Otto Family Collection/Florida Keys Public Library/FlickrMispah and Gene Otto. Gene is wearing the sailor’s suit worn by Robert the Doll. Otto Family Collection.

Before Robert the Doll became a spooky legend, he was little Gene Otto’s best friend. Young Otto was so enamored with the doll that he named it after himself, clothed it in his very own clothes, and carried it with him wherever he went.

Despite Robert the Doll’s awkwardly large size, the two went on to build an impenetrable friendship. Otto was so close to his new “friend” that his parents would often hear him whispering to Robert. This seemed totally normal — until one day they heard a deep voice answering back.

“What people really remember is what they would probably term as an unhealthy relationship with the doll,” said Cori Convertito, curator of the Fort West Martello Museum and Robert’s current caretaker in an interview with Atlas Obscura. “He brought it everywhere, he talked about it in the first person as if he weren’t a doll, he was Robert. As in he is a live entity.”

The Curse Of Robert The Doll

Ghosts Of East Martello

Susan Smith/FlickrEast Martello Museum, the official home of Robert the Doll.

Otto loved his doll so much that he built a special room for him in the attic, complete with furniture, toys, and even a teddy bear just for the doll.

Soon, however, strange things began happening around the Otto household. According to legend, Otto’s parents would wake up in the middle of the night only to find the poor boy screaming and surrounded by overturned furniture.

As Otto grew older, things got even weirder. Mutilated toys started appearing in their home. But young Otto would say: “Robert did it!”

After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, and the Art Students League in New York, Gene Otto went to the Parisian Sorbonne, where he met his wife, Anne.

Otto brought the doll back to his childhood home at 534 Eaton Street in Key West, Florida — and he called the home “The Artist House.” Today, the Victorian home is a haunted B&B.

Robert The Doll Gets Even Creepier

Artist Gene Otto

The Artist House Facebook Page A newspaper clipping about Gene Otto.

As he was no longer being carried around by Otto, Robert the Doll took up a permanent position in a chair facing out of an upstairs window, where he could be seen by passersby below.

Once, a plumber who had been hired to make repairs around Otto’s home claimed to hear children’s laughter, though Gene was not home at the time.

When he looked around the room, he noticed that Robert the Doll had moved from one side of the window to the other, seemingly on his own. What’s more, the plumber swore that objects that had been in Robert’s lap ended up on the other side of the room — as if he’d thrown them.

Though the placement was a playful one, people who passed soon avoided walking near the house altogether. Locals swore that the doll would disappear and then reappear facing another direction, or that his gaze would follow them as they passed.

Visitors of the Artist House also claimed that they could hear footsteps coming from the attic and that things would seem to move about the home on their own, with no explanation.

Robert The Doll Meets Myrtle Reuter

A Letter To Robert The Doll

YouTubeFans of Robert the Doll routinely send him letters.

After Otto died in 1974, a woman named Myrtle Reuter purchased the Artist House, which meant Robert the Doll had a brand-new caretaker.

Reuter lived with Robert for 20 years — it’s said she even took him with her when she moved to a new home in the 1980s.

Finally, she donated the creepy toy to the Fort East Martello Museum, claiming that the doll was indeed haunted.

Robert The Doll Finds A Permanent Home

The museum took accepted the doll and its baggage, assuming Reuter’s claims were, of course, nonsense. Almost immediately, numerous visitors were lining up to see Robert the Doll. Even stranger, letters addressed to Robert began arriving at the museum’s mailbox.

“He gets probably one to three letters every day,” says Convertito.

These letters, however, aren’t what you’d call typical fan letters. Oftentimes, they’re littered with apologies for failing to respect Robert during their visit. Some visitors write to ask for advice or to ask if he could place a curse on people who have wronged them.

Since his arrival, Robert has received nearly 1,000 letters. But that’s not all he receives. Visitors have also been known to leave candy, money, and sometimes even joints.

“It’s completely inappropriate,” says Convertito. “We are still a museum.”

Who would have thought a doll could have so much power? Even after 117 years, Robert seems to be as sharp as ever. To this day, visitors claim that cameras malfunction in his presence and electronic devices go haywire.

After learning the creepy story of Robert the Doll, check out Australia’s doll hospital. Then, read about the history of the teddy bear.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.