Robert is one-of-a-kind, handmade by the Steiff Company of Germany around the turn of the century. Standing 40 inches tall and stuffed with wood wool known as excelsior, he is dressed in a sailor suit and once bore painted features not unlike those of a jester. His unusual size indicates he may have been fashioned in the image of his constant companion – a boy named Robert Eugene Otto. The doll took Robert as his name, while the boy simply went by ‘Gene’. Together they would go on to make history.
Gene and Robert were ‘best friends’ growing up. Legend speculates voodoo played a part in Robert’s formative years, while interviews with those close to the Otto family indicate a great deal of emotional energy was placed upon the doll during Eugene’s lifetime. It is said that young Gene would shift blame when he misbehaved as a child, pointing to the doll and saying, “I didn’t do it. Robert did it”.
Gene went on to become a prominent artist. He designed the gallery at the Fort East Martello Museum and had plans to make his own home a museum complete with a wax imprint of ‘the artist’s hands’ as a focal point. Though this dream was never realized, his home became known as the Artist House and stories of the doll’s strange behavior became commonplace with those who encountered him after Gene’s death in 1974. Tenants heard footsteps in the attic room above them. A plumber heard giggling and turned to find the doll had moved across the room on his own. Solares Hill reporter Malcolm Ross visited Robert and said:
“It was like a metal bar running down my back. At first when we walked through the door, the look on his face was like a little boy being punished. It was as if he was asking himself, ‘Who are these people in my room and what are they going to do to me?’
Ross’ friends told him Robert’s back-story and pointed out the children’s furniture. It was at this point Malcolm noticed a change in the doll’s expression as if he was following the conversation. One of the men made a comment about what an old fool Gene Otto must have been. Robert’s expression turned to one of disdain.
“There was some kind of intelligence there. The doll was listening to us.”
Myrtle Reuter purchased the Otto home in 1974. She became Robert’s companion and kept him when she moved to Von Phister Street six years later. In 1994 she donated Robert to the Fort East Martello Museum claiming ‘he moved around her house on his own and was haunted.’ Myrtle died a few months later, but Robert remained active.
Museum staff noticed a shift of energies at the Fort East Martello Museum. Though Robert was not initially on display, he started receiving visitors as word spread about his new residence. Once he was put on exhibit, cameras and electronic devices malfunctioned in his presence, and soon letters began arriving addressed to the doll offering apologies for disrespectful behavior or asking forgiveness.
Letters continue to arrive daily. Ghost hunters, TV shows, psychics, skeptics and believers visit Robert on a regular basis to witness first-hand the strange stories they have heard. Is Robert cursed by voodoo? Thriving on the energy placed upon him? A misunderstood doll with a playful spirit? Or perhaps just a doll joined by the spirit of his lifelong companion?