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The Robert Doll

Ghost Tales, 2021.

Many unusual things take place in the Universe, relatively few which we can understand.

Among the islands in the sum of Florida, the most infamous by far is Key West. No bucolic backwoods for ex-paths hiding from their ex-wives and the tax man here…

Key West is alive and well known to the international players set for its don’t-see, don’t-tell attitude and its succession from the rest of Florida by the conch-heads who reside here. Unknown to many is that Key West has a celebrated history in many naval battles, even before the Pirates of the Caribbean arrived on the scene. Early settlers discovered hacked-apart native bodies to be hanging in palm trees from myriad Indian nations fighting for possession of this fertile island. Cuban refugees have long searched out Key West, and brought their culture – food, cigars, and music – with them. Long before prohibition arrived to destroy the mainland, Key West was known as a destination for rum-runners of myriad contraband. During the high days of the 1980s, Key West was known for mounds of square groupers washing up on their shores, as Colombian drug mules threw their cargo of cocaine into the Caribbean to avoid DEA and other federal authorities’ capture. Festering under the surface was a storied reputation for quirky residents, necrophilia, grave-robbing, and vice. You still see the cutouts of select buildings showcasing carved hearts signifying the brothels, wine bottles signifying alcohol, and spades signifying poker games. All the while, the local police and politicians turned a blind eye to the not-so-subtle advertisements for nefarious business dealings.

Then, there is the rich history of ghosts and the paranormal. Among the most unusual stories is that of the Robert Doll, and boy, do I have a doozy of a story about ol’ Robert here. Robert the Doll is perhaps the most unique of the myriad inhabitants of Key West, of which there are many characters. Of course, you may suggest that as Robert is a three-foot-tall Doll, he cannot be an inhabitant. However, I promise you many people would disagree with that sentiment, including myself. You see, Robert resides in the East Montello Museum on Key West, which was a former military battlement, and has its share of ghosts. There are numerous signs posted around the Robert enclosure, some including from the then-governor of Florida, Jeb Bush. As Robert resides behind his glass, a la the Mona Lisa, people come to take his picture on a regular basis – but, perhaps, they should not.

You see, Robert was gifted to a little boy named Robert Otto by his servant, who detested the entire Otto family… According to legend, the doll has supernatural abilities that allow it to move, to change its facial expressions, and to make giggling sounds. Some versions of the legend claim that a young girl of Bahamian descent gave Otto the doll as a gift as a relationship for a wrong-doing. Now, you typically don’t think of the Bahamas being a hotbed for Voodoo, but that, indeed, is what this particular young lady practiced – and apparently, she practiced it quite well. Other stories claim that the doll moved Voodoo figures around the room and was aware of what went on around him at all times.

Robert Otto, the artist, married and moved to Paris. He was obsessed, though, with the reuniting with his doll. At one point, the family moved back to Key West, where the Robert Doll was kept waiting, and people reported seeing his image walking in the attic at night, pacing back and forth, waiting for his master to arrive. Robert Otto died in 1994, his wife two years later, and the Robert Doll was donated to the East Montello Museum. Still, other legends claim that the doll vanished after Otto’s house changed ownership a number of times after his death, or that young Robert Otto triggered the doll’s supernatural powers by blaming his childhood mishaps on that very doll. According to local folklore, the doll has caused car accidents, broken bones, job loss, divorce, and a cornucopia of other misfortunes. Museum visitors supposedly experience post-visit misfortunes for failing to respect Robert.

I had my own significant mishaps after taking pictures of Robert without asking permission. I received a gash in my forehead when only an ex-girlfriend was with me, and I was spurting blood throughout the entire museum. A little bit later in the day, on the way out of Key West, still bleeding, we came upon the bodily remains of Cuban raft people at the Bahia Honda Beach. We missed our flight back to Milwaukee, I had my head coshed in on a bus, I left my car keys and my glasses in a rental car, and upon returning home, I found my car in my driveway to have numerous flat tires.

My takeaway here is that there is something going on with Robert, something very profound of a supernatural presence, and that you should not lightly take his presence. You should not take his picture without asking permission. But, by all means, you should visit Robert, and you should enjoy. Cheers.

- Bob Weiss, Owner


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