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Impressions of Robert the Doll: A Projection of Us

On the far East Side of the Island of Key West pushed against the lapping waves of the sea stands the remains of the Fort East Martello. I say this not in jest, upon my visit of the fort to see the infamous Robert the Doll, one side of the fort was completely closed, sunk under several feet of water due to a small surge from Hurricane Dorian.

Robert the Doll, an over-sized doll stuffed with straw and clothed in a cute sailor suite, clutching a small tattered stuffed lion, sits in a glass case in the middle of the long corridor in the only open side of the fort. Random antique pieces, including old cemetery stones and a horse drawn hearse fill in every empty space and corners. None of the items in the museum are well preserved and exposed to the weather elements and humidity. No air conditioner was available to the building, much like the rest of Key West public spaces. Robert the Doll sits alone on his pedestal next to a change collections container. The haunted doll has become the main attraction for the museum to raise the much-needed funding for future restoration projects.

Alone with the doll in the middle of an empty, humid hallway, my first impressions of the hundred-year-old doll was unimpressive. Still, I felt the presence of a male entity in the room, but not coming from the doll. The doll, in fact, had no energy at all to it and sat quietly looking back at me through the glass. I setup some camera equipment and took a few dozen photos before wrapping up the session with the doll.

It was while taking a short break that I had any real experiences at all. I walked outside to the courtyard to cool down. It was a rather hot and humid day, even by Key West weather standards. The walls of the fort seemed to drip with humidity, everything felt damp, partly from the flooded hallways of the fort. Outside in the courtyard is where I felt the haunting was, not anywhere near the doll. I picked up more from the walls and grounds of the fort than around the casing of the doll. I had one experience in which my legs felt weak, felt that familiar heaviness around me, and chills tingled down my spine. A male figure was there around me, but was he part of the doll? He was a middle-aged man, and seemed to be displaced either by an event, an illness, or possibly both.

Moving back inside, I came to believe that the haunting was more centered around the fort. I did some quick research after that day and found that the fort was built in 1864 by the Union Army in anticipation of defending Key West from Confederate Attack. The Key West Port would reopen maritime supplies to the Confederates throughout the Southern Panhandle and possibly up the Atlantic East Coast if taken. Though that battle never happened, Fort East Martello was constructed and manned mainly by boy union soldiers. Isolated from the rest of the States during the Civil War, not much is mentioned regarding these soldiers other than many of them would fall from illness rather than from line of duty. It is reported that nearly half of the soldiers stationed at the fort would fall to Yellow Fever. Tropical heat and the isolation of being on an island and living in close quarters made the disease inescapable for the troops that resided there.

So, what is the story on the doll? As it turns out, most of the legends surrounding the doll are incorrect and just that, legend. Even the story of where the doll came from proved false. After interviewing a researcher at Florida State National Archives, the doll was given to Eugene Otto in 1904 by his late grandfather, Joseph Otto, MD who was well traveled and a physician who was specializing in treating tropical related diseases such as Yellow Fever and Malaria. The doll was a present during one of his many travels to study and treat tropical related diseases. Upon further research, no information is available to prove anything about the doll being haunted or having any place in Eugene’s later life, who inherited his family’s home on Eaton Street and lived out his days as an oil painter and garden designer. It was only after Eugene passed, and the house was sold did the doll resurface.

Stories reside about his wife’s relationship with the doll; however, no records indicate truth to any of these stories. There is one notable fact, however, and that is Eugene’s late wife Ann Parker is not buried in the family plot next to Eugene Otto. Annette Parker passed just two years after her marriage to Eugene. Further research is being done to find her whereabouts.

With these facts in mind, why would the paranormal community think the doll was haunted enough to be dubbed the largest voodoo doll in the nation? Lack of research on by ghost hunting groups plays a big factor in this, as well as paranormal thrill seekers looking for that otherworldly experience. As with any object that is visited time and again, and subject to rituals, seances, etc., energy is left over in the object from the handlers. People have projected themselves into this doll. It is my theory that the haunting of Robert the Doll is merely all the projections of all the accumulated ghost hunters and thrill seekers who have ever encountered the doll. If you are looking for ghosts in Key West, look into your own eyes with Robert the Doll. The haunting is a creation of all of us!

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