KEY WEST, Fla. — Getting good and scared is one thing.
Getting a curse placed upon your head is quite another.
When I decided, on a whim, to take the Ghosts and Gravestones of Key West Tour late on my last evening in town, I expected a good scare. The curse? I wasn’t ready for that.
And things started off as I’d expected. Good fun, bad ghoul makeup and creepy legends as a trolley transported us past one haunted site after another.
Then we pulled into the parking lot of a huge, deserted fort, and got out. Our tour guide leads us through the moaning iron gate of this fort — a place where soldiers were left to die when it was a quarantine barracks for those with yellow fever.
A moment later, she has disappeared back through the gate, leaving three clueless thrill-seekers among the shadows. A figure, a stooped man with a white face and black sunken eyes emerged with a lantern. He says, in an accent straight out of Brooklyn, that he is a tormented soul, one of the undead who wanders around this fort most nights. He’s been here 150 years or so, and he’ll the guy who can show us around.
And as we follow him, he turns. He makes sure he has our attention.
We are being warned.
Warned about Robert.
Robert the Doll.
Robert, doll though he may be, is not to be toyed with.
Robert the Doll is the most haunted toy in, well, probably the world, but at the very least in America. He was the inspiration for Chucky. He’s been guest of honor at paranormal conventions, the subject of an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Mystery at the Museum,” has nearly 6,600 “likes” on his Facebook page, has his own line of Robert the Doll souvenirs — and has sent small children and grown curators running away in fear.
He is made of rags and stuffed with straw. The 4-foot fellow — he looks a little like Curious George, if he tilts his head a certain way — sports a sailor suit and hat. He has little stubs for hands and feet. Thanks to a siege of silverfish a few years ago, Robert looks like he has acne. (I probably shouldn’t have written that; Robert may have ways of finding out.)
Robert got his name from the little boy to whom he belonged (actually, it was the other way around, belonging-wise). Eugene Otto, a well-known Key West artist, was born Robert Eugene Otto. But shortly after he got the doll in 1906, he told his parents that it wanted his name. So once-Robert started calling himself Eugene.
The doll was given to the Artist Originally Known as Robert by his nanny shortly after she became the ex-nanny. A few days after the family fired her, she returned with a present for the Soon-To-Be-Called Eugene. A rag doll. A doll that, if you looked closely, had human hair — the little boy’s hair — stitched into it, just peeking from its sailor cap.
Voodoo. Who knew?
The Otto family soon knew something was … suspect. Robert the Doll began raising eyebrows. Mr. and Mrs. Otto would hear their little boy talking to someone in another room, and someone talking back. The other voice sounded nothing like Robert’s — Robert-the-boy’s — voice. The family heard creepy giggles. Schoolchildren would pass by and see the doll sitting in one window, then a moment later he’d be in another window. He might change facial expressions. Cross one rag leg over the other, then switch legs when no one was watching.
Things would go missing. Get broken. Be turned upside down. And always, when adults asked the little boy Robert (let’s just call him Eugene, OK?) what had happened, the boy would answer “Robert did it.”
Eventually, Robert was banished to the attic. When Eugene eventually inherited the house from his parents, he brought Robert back downstairs — some say to the dismay of his wife. The doll stayed in the house after Eugene, then his wife, Anne, died. After a brief interlude terrifying the 10-year-old daughter of the family that had moved into the Otto house, Robert was hustled off to — or, well, donated to — the Key West Art & Historical Society.
The society maintains a museum in the Civil War-era the Fort East Martello Museum and Gardens. It stored Robert in a room there with some other items for eventual display. Robert was apparently annoyed. A few employees reported seeing something white flying through the air, down a hallway, past an arch, up a corridor.
Robert’s life took a turn for the better when a new groundskeeper was hired. The man somehow understood that Robert just wanted attention, made him his own case, gave him a stuffed toy to feel superior to, and put up a bunch of spotlights to show Robert’s best sides. Robert now sits and gazes in what seems to be a semi-benign, if imperious, gaze at all who come to see him.
It’s not a matter of just looking, however. Not in the sense of the usual object at an exhibition. Robert requires … deference. Respect. Our guide warned us we needed to follow protocol in the doll’s presence if we wanted to take photographs.
n Introduce yourself.
n Take the photo.
n Thank Robert when you’re done.
If you don’t follow those steps, warned our guide, you’ll be sorry. The letters on the wall of his exhibition space were evidence of the consequences. Letters and cards, from kids and adults. Apologizing. Begging forgiveness. Outlining the perils that had befallen them since disrespecting the doll. Tales of woe, accidents, lost wallets, pestilence and disease and conked out cars and broken cameras. And the letters here were the tip of Robert’s iceberg of mayhem and pain. The truly harrowing letters, well, the museum didn’t really want to scare the kids.
Perhaps this all sounds like the stuff of your average ghost tour. Perhaps it was. But it was nearing on midnight, and the Martello was echoing and shadowy and, well, that doll was 107 years old and seemed to have a look in its dead eyes all of a sudden that I knew was malice. I may not have taken Robert’s curse-laying prowess all that seriously, but I wasn’t about to ignore it, either.
I’d noted a couple of official letters in the case with him. Though no one had pointed them out, they were quite official: From Gov. Jeb and President George Bush. Both were congratulating Robert on his 101st birthday. At the time I figured, no, these letters must have been to Robert the artist who gave up his name to the doll. Later I realized the artist died at age 74.
Both politicians had taken time out of their busy schedules to write to Robert the Doll.
There is an old African graveyard just beside the Martello, along with what was supposedly an amazing botanical garden established by the Key West Garden Club. So the next morning, before making tracks out of Key West back up to Miami, I headed back in that direction. Along the way, I took some shots of shacks in the morning sun. Then I parked and got out of my car and began taking images of African Cemetery on the beach adjacent to the fort, a memorial to nearly 300 Africans who, though they were rescued from a slave ship, perished once ashore in Key West because of the deplorable conditions at sea.
I paused momentarily to review the images. But there were none.
Every frame was perfectly, uniformly black.
I changed lenses. I changed shooting modes. I shot into the sky. Eventually, the shutter didn’t even click.
The aperture reading showed “0.” Zero. Goose egg. The shape of a mouth going “OOOOOOOOO noooooooo!!!” in terror.
Lenses don’t have a zero aperture. Except when Robert gets his rag doll hands on them.
Yeah, Robert did it.