The house now known as the “Artist House” was constructed between 1890 and 1898 at 534 Eaton Street in Key West. It was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Otto and their son, Robert Gene Otto. 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 and had such a high level of wealth that they hired many different individuals to serve as caretakers of the home and caregivers for young Robert. One woman was employed as what was referred to at the turn of the century as a “Nurse”. This woman had the responsibility of taking care of young Robert while his parents worked and traveled.
This nurse had a reputation for dabbling in voodoo. In her spare time she constructed a doll for Robert that was about 3 feet tall and stuffed with straw. It was created to resemble the boy, complete with a beautiful little sailor suit. Robert was only four when his parents fired this nurse but before she left she gave the doll to Robert and headed out of his home and his life.
The doll immediately became the constant companion of Robert. Very soon the child announced that he, himself, was no longer to be called Robert. He was to be called Gene, as the doll wished to be called Robert. From then on, the child was called Gene and the doll took the name Robert.
Gene could be seen lugging Robert, the imperfectly designed toy around wherever he went. Gene blamed Robert for his bad behavior and all his misfortunes. Gene began to have nightmares and would scream out into the night. When his parents responded 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 son’s bed with a glaring gaze on his face, with Gene shouting, "Robert Did It!"
Gene could be heard and seen playing and talking to the uniquely hand-sewn doll on a regular basis. Everywhere he went his little doll went as well. According to stories passed down, unusual events started to transpire in the Otto home. Many individuals overheard the young boy playing with the doll and expressed how they could sometimes 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 unusual for individuals in and around the home to hear the sound of sinister laughter. Dishes would often be tossed about and other items in the home would destroyed. Naturally, the parents felt as if Gene had been causing the events out of a rebellion. Being harsh and stern parents, they would consistently punish Gene despite the fact that he was insistent that he had not done those things, but that Robert did it. However, as the incidents became more frequent the servants explained to Gene’s parents that there seemed to be some sort of evil associated with Robert, that the doll was haunted. The Otto’s did not put much belief in the concept of haunted dolls, but eventually shared this possibility with relatives.
Gene’s Great Aunt believed the doll was possibly haunted but if the doll was stored securely in the attic, then perhaps the issues experienced in the home would come to a stop. Despite Gene’s begging and pleading, they placed the doll in a tight secure box upstairs in the attic. Now it could be coincidence, but the night Robert was stored away the Great Aunt passed away in her sleep. Gene had such an issue with his Great Aunt’s death that 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 his Great Aunt's death.
Gene showed an unusual attachment to the doll even into his adult years. Servants continued to work around the home but many would quit after experiencing different types of paranormal activity. Though the rumors of the haunted doll were often dismissed at first, many servants started to believe the stories associated with Robert after they were subjected to sinister laughter, whispers, and other types of unexplained phenomenon. It was not at all unusual for many servants to quit on a daily basis.
When Gene's father died the Otto home was willed to Gene, and he decided that he and his new wife, Anne, (whom he met and married in Paris) would move into the home. He had become a famous artist in his adult life and felt the larger home would provide them 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 and his wife spent many hours entertaining in their home. Anne was an accomplished pianist and 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.