Skip to content

The History of Fort East Martello

The city of Key West has a long and strange history. The lively town has a rich seafaring history and a vibrant community that dates back to Ernest Hemingway's 10-year residence. Over the years, the town has earned a reputation as an oasis for the otherworldly, with stories centered around ghost ships, blood-thirsty mutinous pirates, and some notoriously ghastly residents.

But, perhaps the most peculiar story in Key West is not of a person or a place but of a once-beloved object said to be responsible for a cornucopia of misfortunes to those who question its powers—from car accidents and broken bones to divorces.

Let's travel along the dark, narrow streets of Old Town and talk of a centuries-old fortress said to be the home of the most haunted thing in Key West.

A Tale Of The East Martello Civil War Fort

In 1822, the US Navy was looking to build a fort whose guns could command the harbor in Key West. Located along what is now South Roosevelt Boulevard, the East Martello Tower was designed to provide extra protection for Key West.

Structural plans included central citadels built in the shape of a square whose lower floors would include a kitchen, mess rooms, supply rooms, and sleeping accommodations for up to 60 soldiers.

The citadels' roofs had complex arched ceiling joints reminiscent of the construction techniques of the early Roman Empire. These joints would carry heavy artillery units.

Aside from the guns, the East Martello Fort tower called for four openings from which soldiers would fire small arms or pour hot oil onto invading armies.

The construction of the East Martello Fort was mired in unfortunate circumstances. When construction finally began forty years later, the United States was already embroiled in the Civil War. The East Martello Fort was meant to shield the town of Key West against the possibility of a Confederate sea assault. Even though the island town was Union-controlled during the entirety of the Civil War, most Key West residents were deeply pro-Confederate.

As a result, the fort's construction wrought tension in the island, which, when coupled with the rough environmental conditions of the Florida Keys, would severely impede construction on numerous occasions. To add to this, a yellow fever outbreak in July 1862 took a heavy toll on the workforce resulting in the carpenters having to pause work on the project to make coffins.

Further setbacks in the following years included another yellow fever outbreak and a devastating hurricane that would destroy parts of the fort and throw the remaining construction plans into limbo. And that’s the story of how Fort East Martello came to be abandoned.

East Martello Tower a Civil War era fort with a vast collection of unique sculptures

Ghostly Gatherings with Robert the Doll

In 1950, the Key West Art & Historical Society restored the East Martello Fort to serve a new purpose: preserving the old. The Fort East Martello Museum opened in 1950 to become the first museum of the Florida Keys. Due to its rich history, the museum was added to the US National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The East Martello Fort is now home to historical memorabilia, artifacts, Cuban folk art by Mario Sanchez, and sculptures by "junk" artist Stanley Papio. It's also a great place to go if you're in search of a paranormal encounter. Most individuals who have visited the museum claim that there's something in the air that can suddenly give you chills. A wounded, diseased energy that was left to fester for centuries.

And nowhere is this more apparent than when looking at Robert the Doll, an unnerving handmade doll that's almost as old as the fort itself. Said to inspire the 1988 movie Child's Play of a murderous doll named Chucky, Robert is a peculiar handmade doll gifted to the artist Eugene Otto as a boy. The boy loved the toy, but every adult who came across it would be left feeling uneasy.

Soon, stories went around that the doll was gifted to Eugene by one of his family's servant women who had a history of black magic. While the doll seemed normal at first, scars would appear on its face, and the Otto household would fall into disarray. Furniture would mysteriously move around the house, and a deep, dark voice would occasionally emanate from the walls.

The Otto family donated it to a young girl who later claimed the doll was alive. She'd wake up in the middle of the night screaming so often her parents just had to get rid of the doll. And that's how Robert found his way into the East Martello Fort.

Those sensitive to spiritual energies claim that there's a profound emotional energy surrounding the doll. Whether it's voodoo, spiritual possession, or a curse, no one knows. You can experience some of this energy yourself. Museum visitors have claimed to see the doll move, and cameras and video equipment have a tendency to malfunction when trying to capture his picture.

So, visit the East Martello Fort. You’ll definitely be in for a treat. But be sure to politely ask Robert for permission before taking his picture. He doesn’t take well to disrespect.

Find The Right Mortgage

For more than 20 years, Phil have been helping customers achieve their home purchase and refinance goals by providing them with invaluable resources and support.

Schedule a FREE Consultation
Phil Ganz

Subscribe to Get Your First Time Homebuyer Checklist

Sign up for the weekly newsletter to stay up to date on the latest real estate market trends, loan news, and so much more!