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The Chilling Tale of Robert the Doll

by Ravenswing 9 days ago in history

And a brief look at the history of Halloween

This is a transcript for the We're All Stories podcast. You can listen to the original episode here: or on whichever podcast app you use. Want to listen on your smart speaker? Just say 'hey Alexa, play the We're All Stories podcast!'

It is October. The leaves are changing, there is a chill in the air and we are constantly bombarded with pumpkin spice everything while stores begin to set up their Christmas displays because after all, nothing says Halloween quite like a giant, inflatable Santa Claus greeting us in the aisles.

The ever earlier encroachment of Christmas aside, October is the time for Halloween. That time were our ancestors here in the west tell us the veil between our world and the next is at its thinnest, when the dead can cross back over, when magic is in the air and anything is possible.

According to popular belief, Halloween began as the pagan, Celtic celebration of Samhain, (SAW-win) one of the four Celtic holidays of the year which marked the seasons. These were Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa (LOO-na-sah) and of course Samhain. Samhain fell halfway between between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, marking the end of the harvest season and the transition to the dark days, when the days were shorter and colder, when night held supremacy over the light of day.

The festival is believed to have fallen on November 1 of the modern calendar and lasted for the next three day but celebrations began on the eve of Samhain, which would be the night of October 31. In this transition from light to dark, the boundaries between worlds was in flux. As such, this was considered an auspicious time when druids were said to be able to make their best, most accurate predictions, aided by the nearness of the spirits. This was a time when important decisions were made, assemblies were gathered, business decisions for the following year were decided and agreed upon, grievances were settled, debts were paid, judgements were meted out for particularly egregious crimes and kings were made. The end of the old year and the successful harvest was celebrated and people looked ahead to the future, leading many to consider this the ancient Celtic new year.

Since the ancient Celts did not trust the written word, preferring to rely on the vast memories of the druids, they had their ogham (OH-umm) alphabet of course but this was used more as a reminder, it might give the beginning of a story or list highlights,, kind of like a bulletpoint, to give directions, like a sign or waystone along a road may indicate where you were headed, and, of course, for spells. A druid or one with a gift for magic may carve a spell into an object such as a stick, granting the object power.. You can see mention pop up of Ogham wands being used, that is what it is referring to. A wand or switch carved with a spell in Ogham script. We saw this in the episode on the children of Lir a while back, when the jealous Aoife used an ogham wand to turn her step children into swans.

So since they didn't record their stories and traditions, much knowledge has been lost. As with many other ancient cultures around the world, what we know now is what little has survived the long centuries in the memories of the people, being passed down through the generations until modern people could commit them to writing.

This was often done by the monks, to whom we are grateful for allowing these bits of the old knowledge to survive. Unfortunately, since they were Christian monks, they sometimes seem to have turned some of the stories and traditions to have a more biblical message, or to involve the church. Sometimes the storytellers themselves may have made these changes too.

Now why would these people want to twist the stories and traditions of their ancestors to fall in accordance with the church?

A couple of reasons actually. For starters, the descendants of these ancient peoples may have become Christianized and wanted the beliefs of their ancestors to fall in line with their new faith. Sort of 'modernizing the old stories, making them more relevant to the time. Another answer is to protect them. You see, the church, or branches of it, have not always been very accepting of views contrary to their own, often trying to cover and/or destroy that which it does not agree with. So those trying to preserve the old ways would sometimes alter the original to include biblical messages or characters, or include saints, anything that would tie them to church in some way really, to make them more palatable and less likely to be destroyed.

Ireland came to be a repository of knowledge for the world, Irish monks dutifully learning and recording, preserving all sorts of knowledge from all over. It is theorized that much of the base of our modern understanding of things is thanks in large part to these Irish monks. Much of what was known came to be lost in the time known as the dark ages. But in this period where the rest of the world seems to have forgotten who it was, Ireland was a shining beacon of learning in the outer darkness.

Rather ironically, this pursuit of knowledge of theirs, while perhaps single handedly saving western civilization, also led the church to look down on them. Their dutiful recording of the old ways, caused much of the continent to consider them little better than heathens themselves. The old church scholars would study and rediscover their foundations while at the same time condemning those that recorded it. Picking and choosing those parts they liked, choosing to ignore and or condemn or destroy the parts they did not.

So that being said, what we believe we know now about these ancient Celts, their stories, practices and way of life may be vastly different from reality. So it should be understood that the information I give now is based on modern understanding and may or may not accurately reflect the beliefs of the ancients. Unless Oisinn or some other hero of old should return to grace us with his knowledge as he does in the tales, we will probably never know for sure.

According to tradition and later accounts, all fires would be extinguished the eve of Samhain. Think about it. Before electricity and natural gas, the only source of heat and light and security, the only barrier between our world and the dark unknown was fire. Without fire, the whole island was covered in black, cold. The druids would gather on hilltops and light a great fire where they would make sacrifices, the bones of which would thrown on the fire. People would would, lighting torches from these bone fires, where we get bonfire, taking this supernatural fire to their homes where they would use it to reignite their home fires, giving blessed light, warmth and protection for the winter to come.

As I have said, this was a time when the boundaries between worlds blurred together, exposing our world to the world of the dead and the world of the fae. The spirits of the dead were believed to return to visit loved ones and places would be set for them at mealtime so they could eat together as a family, just as they had in life.

With this thinning of barriers, the openings of tombs and portals to the fay were opened, allowing the Aos Sí, the faerie folk to walk among us. In more recent times,, at least. (this could be a relatively new evolution (I say relatively because while it is known to be quite old, in the vast span of time in prehistory,, a few hundred years is as nothing) or it could be a carryover from ancient days. Since writing was not used to record history or tradition among the Gael, we will likely never know the veracity of how and when and why traditions began.) Perhaps in the spirit of this crossing with the fae, children would dress up in costumes and go door to door collecting food and treats from their neighbours.

In similar fashion, in the Christian church, All Saints Day, a time to remember and honour the saints, martyrs and those of the faith who had gone before by, among other things, dressing as saints and visiting door to door the night before, on what was known as All Hallows Eve or Allhallowe'en, which how we get the name Halloween.

This tradition sound familiar? Because of these similar times and traditions, it is commonly believed that the church appropriated the pagan celebration, claiming it for its own, at once invalidating the old beliefs while making the new familiar and therefore more palatable to new, prospective converts, letting them keep their traditions by repurposing them to serve the church rather than the old gods.

In the spirit of Halloween, I have gathered ghoulishly good and creepy tales, based on feedback I received in last month's poll.

Travel with me now at this time between times, when the walls between our world and others is thin as we journey to the southern United States to Key West, Florida at the turn of the last century.

Florida, bright, sunny, palm trees, sand and surf. Popular tourist destination to many over the years, coming to take a break from the weariness of the day to day to bask in the happy warmth that embraces them but beneath this sunnily, smiling veneer, lies a darker, stranger past.

This story is rather frightening and is not for the young or faint of heart. Bank up the fire,, cuddle under a blanket, perhaps in the protective embrace of a loved one and prepare yourself to listen.

There are many versions of this story, while mostly similar, the details can be wildly varied. I have striven, as is my wont, to piece these together as best I can to provide as full a story possible so if you're familiar with a particular version of the story and you begin to think to yourself, 'wait a second, that's not how that goes…' just know that there is no one story but many and it is by looking at these various reports that a true story can be seen to emerge.

As I sit here writing this, it is October 25. Today in the year 1900, Robert Eugene Otto was born to parents Thomas Osgood Otto and Minnie Elizabeth Watkins-Otto.

No one can seem to agree where exactly the doll came from, but Robert received a large, one of a kind, doll as a gift, usually said to have been a birthday gift. The doll was stuffed, some say with hay, or a wool like stuffing made from wood. the features are believed to have been modeled after Robert himself and the hair on its head, according to legend, was clippings of the boy's own, real hair. They doll carried its own doll with it, what is variably described as a stuffed dog or lion. Some sources say his Grandfather purchased the doll from the Steiff toy company in Germany while travelling. Others that it was a gift from a household servant of Jamaican or perhaps Haitian origin. Still others say that it was given to him by a young girl who came from the Bahamas. The motivation behind the gift too is varied with some saying the girl or female servant (whichever story you subscribe to) loved Robert and gave the doll to him as a special. Others say that it was as punishment to get back at him and/or his parents for some wrongdoing or slight. They say she cast a voodoo curse on the doll, by way of explaining what would come next.

The most popular origin story is that the Ottos were abusive of the hired help and cruel to those who worked for them. As the story goes, a young maid was caught by Mrs. Otto performing a voodoo ritual on the grounds and the girl was promptly and unceremoniously fired, but she would have her revenge. She made the doll in young Robert's likeness, weaving the boy's hair into the doll's head to attach the curse she had placed on the doll to the unsuspecting child, and giving it power over the boy.

After extensive research, the most likely origin of the doll was that it was not intended to be a toy at all but that Steiff had made it as a window display, its face believed to have originally been painted as a jester or clown. While traveling abroad in Germany, Robert's Grandfather bought the doll for his grandson as a gift.

I have read one, very intriguing theory, not of Robert's origin, but of his possession.

See, that servant from the other versions, it was whispered was having an affair with Thomas Otto when she fell pregnant. There was a tragic miscarriage and, sadly, their child would never live to see the light of day. Not able to handle her grief, the girl performed a ritual, binding the spirit of her child to the doll.

Whatever the origin, Robert and the doll were inseparable, whether from actual attraction or a voodoo curse, we will never know. The boy even gave the doll his own name, from then on being called by his middle name Eugene, or Gene for short, while the doll was now Robert. Some say the boy did not give the doll his name at all, but that the doll took it for itself. The. clothes the doll is dressed in, a sailor outfit, is believed to have Gene's, which he gave to the doll to dress him in. It is said Gene also had a matching outfit and the two would go out together, dressed alike.

Often times, when his parents were yelling at the boy for doing something he shouldn't have, the boy would insist it was not him who had done it, but Robert. Perhaps that is what happened, or perhaps the boy was attempting to use the toy as a scapegoat to deflect the blame as children (and grownups!) so often do. Some say this constant shifting of the blame created negative energy around the doll so it would come to take on a life of its own, or perhaps attracting a spirit that would come to latch onto the doll.

The doll went everywhere with Gene and they did everything together. His parents would often find him off in some corner playing with the doll and talking to it. Uncertainty began to set in when his parent's would hear Gene talking to the doll and the doll would talk back, in a voice that was not the boy's. Robert was only just beginning.

This was not the end of the strange happenings around the doll. This was nowhere near the end.

The internet is full of all kinds of stories and it impossible to tell fact from fiction. over the past hundred years, the barriers between imagination and reality have blurred as time has gone on and, as with many such, stories fact and fiction have merged and blended to become one. An amalgam of the fantastic with the terrifying truth hiding in plain sight.

It is worth pointing out at this point, Eugene Otto grew up to be an artist as well as a writer. So far as I can find no one has connected his adult career with the stories of his boyhood friend. Whether or not that played a part in the sensational tales told, who can say. I will endeavour to tell this story as it is from here on out, leaving you to decide. Do you accept this offering as truth, or take it as a good story, but no more than that? That is for you to decide.

Whether the doll was revenge from a wronged servant or a gift from a loving grandfather or a maid. Whether it was a toy, made in a German toyshop, or as a window display, or was handmade by the gifter is immaterial. No matter the source, Robert was no ordinary doll.

As I said, it started with the talking. A boy innocently talking to his favourite toy. When it started responding back, Gene's parents where concerned, but random disembodied voices happen all the time, right? Boys will be boys after all.

The family and staff began noticing the sounds of childish laughter and small feet running about in places where no one else was present.

Then things begin to take a darker turn. It started small. Things moved from their place or broken, little, childish pranks or the product of juvenile shenanigans or simple accidents. When parents would become upset or ask 'who did this?' Gene would always insist it was Robert. Now, having been a kid once, as I'm sure, have many of you, and being around children, I have experienced firsthand. a broken cup or picture frame, keys not being where you left them when you're running late for work. when confronted with this, a child will often try to pin the blame on someone, or something else. A favourite doll perhaps?

Gene did have 3 siblings whom he could pin the blame on, being the youngest they were all older than him, making it harder to believably attach such happenings to. Leaving Gene to look to another source.

Things escalate from there. on several occasions, Gene's parents would be woken unceremoniously in the middle of the night by the boys screams of terror. they would rush over and throw open the door to find the boy cowering in his bed while the doll sat in the middle of a chaotic scene.

The contents of the room and its furnishing were thrown about the place, scattered as if some force had thrown them around the room. while the terrified boy was screaming, insisting it had been Robert.

Gene's parents decide enough is enough and close Robert up in the attic where he dwelt, seemingly happy to have his own domain and lay forgotten for some time.

The house sat quiet for a time, though passersby claim to sometimes see a figure looking out from the attic window. A small figure, probably about 3 feet tall. A figure wearing a child's sailor suit.

Time goes on and in their time, the Ottos die and the house falls to Gene. In the passage of time, free from Robert's influence, Gene left his family home in Florida studying art in New York and Paris. It is in Paris that he met Annette Parker, originally hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, and the two were married there in Paris. After his parents' deaths, Gene, now a man grown, an artist, architect and author with his new bride in tow, returns home to take ownership of the old house and be reunited with his childhood companion.

As with those old friends, long separated but when reunited years later are able to pick up right where they left off, as if not a day had passed. So it was with Robert and Eugene.

Gene brings Robert from the attic, and the two, as in childhood, are inseparable again. With Gene bringing the doll with him everywhere and even sitting him in a chair beside the bed while he and his wife sleep.

The new Mrs. Otto seems to have been less enchanted with her husband's companion. She put up with it for a while, but at some point she draws the line, as with the elder Ottos before, she has Robert put back in the attic where he lived in the tower room, which became Gene's art studio.

Most versions of the story have Anne going insane, likely driven to that point by Robert.

And dying, to be followed shortly after by Gene.

In fact, Eugene Otto died on June 24th, 1974 and is buried in Key West cemetery, Monroe County, Florida while Annette died on January 9th, 1979 in Concord Massachusetts, five years after the death of her husband.

After Gene's death, Annette sold the house and moved to Massachusetts to be with family.

You would think this was the end of the story, right? But you would be wrong.

The buyers of the house moved in and took possession of the house, and of Robert who was still locked away in the attic.

According to the stories, the new owners of the house were not made welcome in their new home.

It is said the new occupants would hear the sound of footsteps in the attic, and malicious laughter, emanating from the tower room where Robert resided. They would find objects moved from where they had left them and Robert would be found in various places around the house with no one having moved him. This all came to a head when the couple awoke in the middle of the night by the sound of childish giggling to find Robert sitting at the foot of their bed, a large kitchen knife in his hand.

The owners then moved to a new home, fleeing from the doll, living the house to sit vacant, save for Robert, until it was again sold.

Others hold that the new owners lived happily there with Robert, dressing him up for holidays and featuring him in Christmas photos. It was when they moved, bringing Robert with them, that trouble started. Robert seems not to have liked being taken from his home and began getting up to his old tricks, moving around the house, moving and/or breaking things, etc. When the frightened owner locked the doll in the attic, she was punished in turn, finding herself likewise trapped in a locked in a room, unable to escape.

Whichever version is true, Robert was donated to the local East Martello Museum in 1994, where he still resides to this day.

Employees of the museum tell tales of strange happenings in the museum after all the guests have left. Hearing laughter, finding lights which had been turned off the night before on when they arrive in the morning or Robert moved from his position of the night before with the dust of his nightly wandering on his feet.

Visitors to the museum talk of seeing him shift or move, changes in his expression, or to hear the sound of childish giggling coming from within the glass case wherein Robert sits on a chair.

The most popular story told by visitors is of the curse of Robert.

If you slight or disrespect Robert, beware! And if you come to visit him, you may take his picture, but you must ask his permission first. If he is in a photogenic mood, he will nod his acquiescence. If he does not, or if you fail to ask, be warned. Robert does not appreciate those who take his picture without his assent and makes his displeasure known.

Tales are told of those who took pictures of Robert without the doll's approval and the hapless visitor is met with all sorts of misfortune. Car accidents, injuries, including broken bones, job loss, and divorce are just some of the punishments meted out by Robert to those who earn his ire. You can see the collection of letters that come pouring into the museum addressed to Robert, apologizing and begging him to release the curse.

The Otto home itself can also still be seen and visited. It is now referred to as the Artist House, having been bought and restored as a guest house, serving visitors and giving them a cozy place to stay the night since 1978. You can even stay in the "Turret Suite" sleeping in the room where Robert was confined to for so long. Those that stay in the house talk of seeing Gene, or Annette, dressed in her wedding finery or of being visited by Robert himself.

It is said that the story of Robert, especially him being found that night with a knife was the inspiration behind the horror icon Chuck whose modus operandi is, of course, murdering his owners with a kitchen knife.

Is this true or is this all just a myth, an urban legend that has grown to legendary proportions? Who can say. The house is real, as are all the major players, and Robert himself, as I said before, is on display for all to see. but is there something sinister hiding behind those beady, black eyes of his? That is for you to decide. Though to all of those who have experienced the wrath of Robert over the years, to them, there is no doubt in their minds.

Don't forget to set a place for any ancestors who may come to visit. have a happy and safe all hallows eve! And if ever you happen to find yourself in Key West, feel free to pay Robert a visit yourself. just remember to be respectful and ask before taking his picture or you may end up a victim of the wrath of Robert.



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