For over 100 years, a number of people have feared the curse of an allegedly haunted doll, many more have been fascinated by its story, and a few have profited from featuring it in movies and on television or keeping it locked up for display in museums. That doll is Robert – a child’s toy said to be the most haunted doll in existence. The tales of its ability to change shapes, cause tragedies and occasionally disappear began in 1904 and continue to this day as yet another television special has made it to the airwaves and claims to have brought the “true” story of Robert to the public for the first time … including interviews with an alleged “victim” of Robert’s supernatural powers, and ‘amazing’ re-creations of past encounters. What’s old, what’s new and what’s true about Robert the Doll? Is he still haunted after all these years?
Let’s start with the old and generally accepted history of Robert. According to the Robert the Doll website maintained by the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida, where the doll is now located, Robert was a one-of-a-kind, handmade creation by the dollmakers at the Steiff Company of Giengen, Germany. Interestingly, Richard Steiff, the nephew of Margaret Steiff, the company founder, also designed the original teddy bear. A kind man, in 1903 he built a new factory called the Jungfrauenaquarium (Virgins' Aquarium) which allowed the workers inside to enjoy ample natural light, a first for its time, and equipped the building with a ramp so that his aunt could go everywhere in her wheelchair. In those years of the early 1900s, Richard Steiff also made a boy doll standing 40 inches tall and stuffed with excelsior (wood wool). The foll was purchased in 1904 by a tourist who took it to Key West in the U.S. and gave it to his grandson, Robert Gene Otto.
Robert (the doll was called Robert while the boy went by Gene) had a boy’s face – possibly looking like Gene at the request of his grandfather -- and was dressed in a sailor outfit said to be similar to one Gene liked to wear. Two family stories contribute to the ‘strangeness’ of Robert – they allegedly participated in voodoo and Gene often gave Robert human powers, blaming accidents and intentional trouble on the doll. Other than that, not much more of Robert’s hauntedness was recorded during Gene’s lifetime – he became an artist, designed the gallery at the Fort East Martello Museum and had planned to make his own home a museum. The doll remained there after Gene’s death in 1974 and that’s when others became experiencing the unexplained -- tenants heard footsteps in the attic and a plumber heard mysterious giggling and believed the doll moved around a room. A local reporter claimed he made a snide remark about the late Gene Otto and Robert’s facial expression changed to one of scorn. The reporter allegedly said:
“There was some kind of intelligence there. The doll was listening to us.”
Myrtle Reuter bought the house and Robert in 1974, took him with her when she moved to another home and in 1994 donated the doll to the Fort East Martello Museum with the warning that he moved around on his own and was haunted. That seemed to be verified by the museum staff and by visitors who claim bad things happen to them after seeing the doll in its protective display case and possibly showing it disrespect.
So, what’s new with Robert the Doll? For that, we turn to the Travel Channel and Discovery+, which recently showed “'Shock Docs': The Curse of Robert the Doll.” As reviewed by Higgypop, the documentary opens with an interview of Bonnie Randolph, who claims to have been victimized by the haunted doll. The emotional Randolph apologizes to the doll for whatever she did that caused him to – this is what she believes – break someone’s back and sink a boat. Speaking to the doll as if it were alive, she asks for “forgiveness.”
However, the biggest blockbuster revelations of the documentary concerns the origin of Robert’s cursed powers. One theory blames an alleged affair between Gene Otto’s father and the house maid. According to the narrators, after she was dumped by the father, the maid put a spell on the doll to curse him and the family. On the other hand, psychic medium Cindy Kaza sees the doll as a conduit for the thoughts of the person viewing it.
"I don't feel Robert the Doll is evil. I feel that there is a portal, there is an entry point, and it's the person's intentions coming towards the doll that create the outcome. How you approach Robert the Doll will determine you experience with the doll."
That doesn’t sound so bad … but the Travel Channel’s promotion for the special mentions that at least one death is connected to Robert. That person was a Key West ghost tour guide who had the face of Robert the Doll tattooed on his arm … shortly after it was finished, the guide was dead. Coincidence or curse? As the review points out, much of the documentary covers old beliefs about the doll – people claim to see Robert’s chest move as if he’s breathing; visitors feel something touching them; cameras pick up flying orbs around the doll. It is difficult to prove any of these occurrences are caused by Robert the Doll or by the power of suggestion … but nobody does documentaries on the power of suggestion.
That covers the old stories on Robert the Doll, and the new revelations in the special, “'Shock Docs': The Curse of Robert the Doll.” What is the truth? It’s hard to say. The folklore surrounding Robert – the many alleged accidents and mishaps to visitors, the cultish belief in the act of ‘disrespecting’ the doll and of following the proper procedure to approach it – clouds any controlled investigations of its movements or follow-ups to specific incidents of ‘disrespect’. Throw in the money-making ability of Robert – the museum, souvenirs, movies and TV specials, paranormal tours, etc. – and it’s easy to see why no one wants to rock the boat … or cause Robert to sink it.
For now, there are plenty of people who believe that Robert the Doll is still haunted after all these years.