Emeline Abbott and Eugene Otto (courtesy of Florida Keys History Center, Otto Collection).

As the medium entered the Artist House bed & breakfast, a sharp burst of heat ran the length of her spine. The smell of antiseptics and medicine overpowered her senses. “A little girl died here, and her spirit is still around. But there is something else with her. Something darker.” A chill filled the room, causing her glasses to fog, and an ominous shadow moved across the ceiling. “She’s not alone. We’re not alone.”

Legends of the Artist House, 534 Eaton St., Key West, abound from the time when it was the Otto family home. One such legend describes young Eugene Otto terrorizing the servants at his home, pushing them into a closet and holding the door so they could not escape. When confronted with the abuse, Eugene blamed his toy, Robert the Doll. It’s said that an angry nanny or servant constructed Robert the Doll to seek revenge, but research proves Robert’s origins started years earlier at the Steiff Co. factory in Germany. But as we know in Key West, truth is usually much stranger than fiction.

Otto family documents reveal Emeline Abbott and her husband William were servants for the Ottos; Emeline was a nanny to young Eugene. A 1924 legal notice in the Miami News reports Emeline Abbott sued the estate of Gene’s father, Dr. Thomas Otto — evidence that she was an angry nanny. Emeline shows no children in the 1900 census, but the 1910 records show she lost a child in the preceding decade.

We don’t know the details of the child’s death, but theories suggest Emeline brought her dying child to the home of Dr. Otto, and the child died in his office near the front of the house. But the child was not alone. Robert the Doll was in the room, and the child’s spirit entered Robert the Doll. Eugene Otto was in the room, too, but far from being a crazy kid playing with a doll, he was just a little boy who could see ghosts taking care of his friend. As the two aged together, Eugene never stopped taking care of his deceased playmate.

David L. Sloan holds Robert the Doll.

Psychics speculate Emeline blamed Dr. Otto for not saving her child and sought revenge with the help of a local voodoo practitioner. They cast a spell that opened a portal in the doll, creating a doorway for dozens or perhaps hundreds of vengeful spirits. The child spirit still resides in Robert the Doll, but today the child is more than 100 years old and is not a child in every way.

Robert the Doll lives at the Fort East Martello Museum now, but at the Artist House, guests encounter the spirit of a young girl sitting on the stairs. Sometimes she is angry, sometimes crying. In a 1992 interview, Poochie Myers said, “She sits all scrunched up in a little white, old-fashioned nightgown. She has long, light brown curls. She seems to be about five years old. She’s very angry about something. I think she may have been kept in the front room for punishment. I think if I had been a male, she would have been fierce or something. I’d just say, ‘Goodnight. See you later.’  

Could this be the restless spirit of Emeline Abbott’s dead daughter? Or is it the spirit of Robert the Doll? Perhaps they are one and the same. 

Goodnight. See you later. Happy hauntings. 

Haunted Artist House, Key West.
David Sloan researches intriguing stories from Key West's past to share island history people might not hear on the Conch Train.