The Artist House located at 534 Eaton Street in Key West was the original home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto. They were the parents of a son who they referred to as “Gene”. The home was constructed somewhere between the years of 1890 and 1898. This beautiful structure was designed in an architectural style that was popular among the socially elite of the time. This style was referred to as “Colonial Queen Ann”.
Despite their best intentions to be ideal parents, it seemed that they were so caught up in their careers and personal pursuits that they lacked the time and devotion to focus on the physical and emotional needs of their young son. The Otto’s lived a luxurious lifestyle on the most part and had such a high level of wealth that it is said that they hired many different individuals to serve as the staff of the home that is today referred to as “The Artist House”. One of the individuals that they hired was to act as what was referred to at the turn of the century as a “Nurse”. This woman had the responsibility of taking care of young Gene while his parents worked and traveled. The woman would spend several hours a day with the young child. She really enjoyed his company and knew just how hard his parents were on him. She saw him as young and neglected and did her best to care for him. For her, it was more than just a job, it was a way of life. She enjoyed her position in the Otto home.
Gene, whose first name was really Robert, eventually had to say goodbye to the nurse that he grew to love. Rumor has it that one day the woman made Mrs. Otto extremely angry and as a result, the servant was immediately terminated from her position. The Ottos had a reputation for mistreating their servants. It was not until the day she had to leave that she provided little Gene with a gift that she had been working on in her spare time for him. It was a doll that was created to resemble him, complete with a beautiful little sewed on suit that reflected those that sailors wore. Now if you are interested in haunted dolls, this is where the story of Robert the Doll officially starts. Gene was only four at the time when she said her goodbyes to the little boy and headed out of his home and his life.
Since the nurse was now gone, the little boy immediately took to the doll and could be seen lugging the imperfectly designed toy around wherever he went. Gene gave the life-sized doll his first name and blamed it for his bad behavior and all his misfortunes. Gene began to have nightmares and would scream out into the night. When his parents would respond to Gene's cries, they often found furniture over turned and their child in a fright. As a rule they would find Robert the Doll at the foot of their sons bed with a glaring gaze on his face, with Gene shouting,"Robert Did It!"
At the time, the concept of haunted dolls had not yet received attention. Gene could be heard and seen playing and talking to the uniquely hand-sewn doll on a regular basis. Everywhere that he went his little doll went as well. According to stories passed down, unusual events started to transpire in the Otto home. Many individuals that overheard the young boy playing with the doll and expressed how, at times, they could hear fear and anger in the child’s voice. In some instances, they claimed that the voice that they heard from behind the closed doors where the little boy played was not his. The servants expressed their concern to Gene’s mother and also informed her that the nurse that provided the gift was an avid practitioner of Voodoo.
Eventually many different types of unusual phenomenon started to occur within the Otto home. It was not at all unusual for individuals in and around the home to hear the sound of unusual sinister laughter. Dishes would often be tossed about with no known explanation, and other items in the home would be messed up or destroyed in one way or another. In nearly all cases of these incidents, Gene and his little doll were found close by. Naturally, the parents felt as if Gene may be purposely causing the events to transpire out of a rebellion of some type. Being the harsh and stern parents that they were, they would consistently punish gene despite the fact that he was insistent that he had not done those things, but Robert the haunted doll did them. This explanation did nothing more than just infuriate Gene's parents. However, as the incidents became more frequent, the servants consulted with the Otto’s and explained that there seemed to be some sort of evil associated with Robert the haunted doll. The Otto’s did not put much faith in the concept of haunted dolls, but eventually shared this possibility with relatives.
One of the relatives, which happened to be Gene’s Great Aunt made a suggestion based on the fact that there could be such a thing as haunted dolls. She believed that if the doll was stored securely in the attic, then perhaps the issues experienced in the home would come to a stop. The Otto’s felt that this was an ideal plan. Despite the begging and pleading of Gene, they placed the doll in a tight secure box and left it upstairs in the attic. Now it could be coincidence, but the night after Robert the haunted doll was stored away, the Great Aunt passed away in her sleep. As Gene had such an issue with his loss, his parents let him have his toy back never considering the fact that if haunted dolls were in fact real, that it could have been responsible for the Great Aunt's death.
From that point forward the doll remained in Gene’s possession. Gene showed an unusual attachment to the doll even into his adult years. Servants continued to work in and around the home. However, many would quit after experiencing different types of paranormal activity. Though the rumors of haunted dolls was often laughed off at first, many servants started to believe the stories associated with Robert the haunted doll after they were subjected to sinister laughter, mysterious whispers, and other types of unexplained phenomenon. It was not at all unusual for many servants to quit on a daily basis. The stories of haunted dolls and Robert spread rapidly among those that believed that they experienced his evil spirit firsthand.
Gene eventually married a woman named Anne that he loved very much. When Gene's father died the Otto home was willed to Gene, and he decided that he and his new wife would move into his childhood home. He had become an artist in his adult life and felt the larger home would provide him and his wife a spacious place to live, plus the large turret room on the second floor would make a great studio for his painting.
Robert Eugene Otto was a famous artist, and his wife Anne would spend many hours entertaining the public in her own style. Her specialty was playing the piano. While she thoroughly enjoyed playing jazz, she also had the capability of playing concert music as well. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worst in the relationship. The new Mrs. Otto absolutely loved Gene but hated his unusual attachment to his doll. He continued to take it with him everywhere he went. It was even present whenever he and his wife traveled or spent time together. His wife grew to hate the doll and became tormented on a mental level. Eventually she was diagnosed as being officially “insane”. She remained in the marriage but passed away a very short time following her diagnosis.
Eventually, Gene grew into an old man and passed away as well. The Artist House was sold and the new owners moved in very excited about the beautiful home that they had acquired. They discovered the homemade doll and decided to just put it back in the attic. Unfortunately, this decision would haunt them regularly. They claim that unusual noises could be heard in and around the home, including the same ominous laughter that had been heard when the Otto family lived in the home. Soon the evil doll started to make an appearance at random locations through the home. No one moved the doll, but it seemed that it could move from one location to another on its own. Naturally, the home terrified the new owners and they immediately left. It seemed that the last straw was when the obviously possessed and evil doll was found standing at their bed with an evil gaze upon them while yielding a knife. The doll was eventually put up in the attic where it resided for many years.
While Robert the Doll now resides in Key West’s East Martello Museum, it is said that a ghost can still be found at his old address. It is believed to be the spirit of former resident Anne Otto who is trapped in the Victorian home and some guests say they have seen her walking down the staircase in her wedding dress.