Story of haunted and cursed doll known as Robert The Doll, currently on display (if you dare visit) in Key West, Florida. Written by Shaun Dex, with illustration by Janelle Jex.
Minnie Otto stood over the shattered vase; a mix of anger and trepidation churned in her stomach. This marked the tenth time in the last two months that little Gene destroyed something in the house. Thomas Otto, the boy’s father, was out of patience. If she could only reason with Gene and get him to explain why he was acting out. If only she didn’t have Robert to contend with.
Robert and Gene were inseparable. They played together, ate together, even slept together. Gene seemed to view Robert as more than a friend. He treated him like a fraternal twin, as though the two had been stitched together in the same womb. He adored Robert, and heaven forbid that she or Mr. Otto mention that Robert was just a doll.
Robert was given to Gene by his Grandfather. He was a large doll, and Gene dressed him in a sailor’s uniform and cap that he once wore. An impish grin creased the doll’s face and he sported two black beads for eyes. Gene was immediately taken with the toy, even christening it with his given name. From that day forward, Robert Eugene Otto and Robert the Doll lived their life in tandem.
At first, Minnie was charmed by his attachment to the doll. She helped when her son declared that Robert needed a room of his own. They built him a miniature bedroom in the attic, complete with furniture and a stuffed animal that Robert could hold when Gene was away.
Then things began to change. One evening she heard Gene talking to Robert. She stopped to listen and thought she heard a second voice. It was deep, with a tone and cadence that couldn’t belong to her son. She flung open the door in a panic, only to find Gene alone in the room with his doll.
“Who were you talking to?” she asked.’
“Robert,” Gene said. “He was telling me a story.”
A few nights later Minnie heard a commotion in her son’s room. When she opened the door she found several of Gene’s toys broken in pieces. Tears were streaming down her son’s face.
“What happened?” Minnie said. “Why did you break your toys?”
“I didn’t,” Gene said. “Robert did it.”
Minnie felt her breath catch in her chest, and then she felt an overwhelming sense of anger.
“Gene, don’t lie,” she said. “We do not tolerate lying in this house.”
“I’m not lying,” Gene said. “Robert got angry. He didn’t like me playing with other toys. So he broke them.”
Two night later, she heard the footsteps. She woke in the middle of the night to the sound of giggles and running feet. The noise woke Thomas as well. He stormed upstairs to discipline Gene, but found him fast asleep and snoring in his bed. For a moment, Minnie thought that Thomas meant to wake the boy and interrogate him. She placed a restraining hand on his arm that he brushed away before storming out of the room.
The scene replayed itself several times over the following weeks, as did instances of items around the house being broken. Each time they confronted Gene about it, he insisted that Robert was to blame. After one such denial, Thomas grew angry and gave Gene a violent shake. That night, Thomas and Minnie were startled awake by their bedroom door slamming. Both jumped out of bed, only to find Robert sitting on a chair in the corner of their room, his small beady eyes fixed firmly in their direction.
The combination of these events left the house in a constant state of tension. Thomas insisted that Gene was responsible for the mischief and persuaded Minnie to agree. He even convinced her to send Gene to a boarding school. The thought of losing her son terrified her, but she feared that worse might happen if he stayed at home. They informed Gene about the decision over dinner, telling him that he was leaving in the morning. The broken vase came a few hours later.
Minnie was making her way to Gene’s room to reprimand him, when she heard him cry out. A series of loud crashes came from his room and Gene’s voice rose to a shriek. Minnie sprinted the rest of the way to his room, where she found Gene hiding beneath his covers. Pictures were knocked off the walls, the end table by his bed was overturned, and several of his toys lay broken. Robert sat in the corner of the room unharmed. To Minnie, it appeared he was surveying the scene with a tranquil sense of self-satisfaction. For a brief moment, she even thought the doll seemed…amused.
“Enough is enough,” she said.
Striding across the room, Minnie snatched the doll up off the ground and made for the hallway. Gene leapt from his bed.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Putting Robert away,” she replied, “I’m locking him in the attic and he’s never coming back out.”
“But I want to take him with me to school,” Gene cried. “I need him!”
“You are going to school to get away from this damned doll,” Minnie said. “As far as I’m concerned he can stay locked in that attic forever.”
“Please, Mommy! No!” Gene said.
He cried and begged, grabbing onto Minnie in a desperate effort to slow her, but she merely shook him off and kept walking. He threw himself onto the floor and sobbed, rocking back and forth as he cried. A wild desire to tear the doll limb from limb seized Minnie, but she ignored the impulse.
“This is for your own good,” she said.
Thomas, drawn by the boy’s cries, stood at the head of the stairs and watched the scene unfold. Filled with disgust, he refused to look at the boy, keeping his gaze locked on Minnie as she stomped to the attic, hurled the doll inside and locked the door. When she finished, he turned without uttering a word and walked back to his study.
That night, the sound of knocking filled the house and Minnie couldn’t shake the feeling that Robert was trying to break out of his new prison.
“It’s just Gene trying to break in and rescue the doll,” Thomas said. “Let him knock all night and he’ll sleep tomorrow on his journey. Whatever you do, don’t go upstairs. We’ve entertained this foolishness long enough.”
She lay awake listening to the noise until the sun rose the next morning.
Minnie did not travel with her son to his new school. Thomas insisted that she stay at home. He would travel with the boy alone.
“You’re far too emotional,” he said. “Gene’s had too much of that. No doubt it has fed this little problem.”
She stood at the door and waved as the two departed, remembering Thomas’s command that she not ‘get hysterical.’ When she could no longer see them, she turned and walked into the living room, dabbing tears from her eyes.
To distract herself, she sat down and attempted to read, but before she’d read the first paragraph she heard the noise. There were footsteps coming from upstairs. Pacing. Anxious.
“He’s waiting for Gene to return,” she whispered.
Then, clear as a church bell, she heard the sound of laughter.
Author’s Note: Thomas Osgood Otto died in 1917 at the age of 51. Minnie Elizabeth Otto died in 1945 at the age of 77. She is said to have struggled with mental illness for a number of years after Thomas’s death. Eugene Robert Otto became a painter in Key West, where he lived with his wife Anne. Robert the Doll remained Eugene’s constant companion until his death in 1974 at the age of 73. Today, Robert can be seen at the Fort East Martello Museum. Eugene Otto’s house has also became a tourist destination known as The Artist House.