Key West: Graves, Ghosts, Goblins and Ghouls

There are those in Key West who say ghosts haunt the tourist town. The statement is surely an attempt at shrouding the city in a tourist-friendly ghostly mystique. But the city's rich history - and a certain "demonic" doll - make a visit to the city's haunted haunts worthwhile.

Top image: insert, the famous epitaph of Pearl Roberts. Bottom image: the grave of the Dr. Joseph Otto family, their 5 Yorkies and their domesticated Key deer.

In 1846 a hurricane flooded the former Key West cemetery at Whitehead Point and washed out the bodies from the sand dune graves. A new cemetery was created in its present location a year later. It is now thought to hold about 100,000 bodies buried there in a city with a population of only 25,000. Some of the graves, as in New Orleans, are above ground for fear of flooding.

What TripAdvisor feels is important in travel is not necessarily important, though it’s interesting that the travel website ranks the cemetery number 36 out of 187 attractions in Key West! Spooky indeed! The cemetery closes daily at 3:30PM and, says the publication Florida Rambler, “The cemetery in Key West is a lot like the city itself: quirky, crowded, colorful and full of history.”

It does indeed have a history but perhaps all cemeteries do. Here lie local celebrities like the original Sloppy Joe Russell (the bartender). And Cubans. And 2 dozen sailors killed when the USS Maine exploded. And a woman who died in 1986 requesting her headstone be marked “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.” And a game warden killed by poachers. And the “famous 40-inch little person who died aged 76 requesting a full size grave.” Also here: A Dr. Daniel W. Whitehurst, who died in 1872 and had worked with Dr. Samuel Mudd during the yellow fever epidemic at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas; Dr. Joseph Yates Porter, who established hospitals to fight yellow fever; The Geigers, who built what is now called Audubon House; Shine Forbes, a sparring partner for Ernest Hemingway; Minnie Elizabeth Otto, whose epitaph ran, “Her life was a beautiful morning;” and nearby the rest of the family of Dr. Joseph Otto, of Prussia and the Artist House on Eaton Street, lying with their 3 Yorkshire terriers and “Elfina” a domesticated Key deer; and bar pilots and Cuban revolutionaries and poets and folk artists and nurses and shipbuilders and lighthouse keepers and spouses who committed murder then suicide and bootleggers and state legislators who were friends of Harry Truman and a Scotsman who, during the fire of 1859, blew up his own house to create a fire break. History!

And, of course, the grave of Pearl Roberts, born in 1929, whose grave is famously marked “I told you I was sick.”

A Civil War fortress, Cuban cigar desk. A Civil War statue that went on selling long after the end of the war and an evil doll that preceded Chucky.

Similarly there are those in Key West who say, “I told you it is haunted; there are ghosts there.” They are talking about places like the East Martello Tower, the brick-built fortress set up to defend Key West in the Civil War but which never saw action. The ghosts are harmless fun, a way of creating a pretend reality, and adding another dimension to tourism — and amusing and maybe scaring tourists. The tower has thick brick walls that echo your footsteps and remind you of the town’s past. Here are desks that Cuban cigar workers sat at. Here is a small statue that tells you again the story of honor: Wounded to the Rear, One More Shot, the tale by renowned sculptor John Rogers, where 2 wounded Union soldiers have been ordered to the rear during a battle but one of them loads up again to have one more shot before leaving for safety. It’s a statue that sold long after the end of the war.

And here is the strange story of Robert the Doll, a story eerily reminiscent of the 1988 horror movie character Chucky in the movie Child’s Play. No surprise there, as the movie was indeed inspired by the character of Robert the Doll.

It is of course preposterous. Yet there are people out there who believe haunting happens. Those same people believe vaccinations are dangerous, home schooling will help their kids’ social shyness, and that the detritus from liposuction truly is accurately described by their doctors as “liquid gold” and full of usable stem cells.

Robert the Doll really pales compared to the “Undying Love Key West Love Story” we will share with you at the end of this article.

The Ghosts and Gravestones Trolley Tour starts as it gets dark. It means going back to the East Martello Tower, but this time you’re the only persons in it and it’s darkened and different.

Your ghoulish guide takes you past the Artist’s House where the child who originally owned Robert the Doll “first noticed the doll’s disturbing behavior.” The guide draws our attention to the Audubon House as we go past a light “that’s just gone on in an upstairs haunted bedroom.”

And we end up being received by a night watchman at the East Martello Tower and huddle carefully around Robert the Doll.

The most fearsome event of the evening is having our guide on the bus tell us the unfortunately true tale of the Key Wes hospital X-Ray technician who believed he was a German nobleman and loved a woman dying with pulmonary tuberculosis. The guide shows us photographs of both persons and indicates books are on sale at the store where the bus ends tonight’s journey, one book being The Lost Diary of Count von Cosel.

And here is the synopsis from Amazon: “Count Carl von Cosel was brought before the courts in 1931 after the mummified remains of Elena Hoyos were discovered in his Key West home. Some called it a story of true love; others, the workings of a madman. In this chilling memoir, von Cosel reveals the spirits of ancestors who guided him, conversations with Elena's ghost, detailed accounts of his attempts to reconstruct and revive her and the truth about their postmortem wedding. This is the diary of Count Carl Von Cosel. His words, his thoughts and his secrets. His tale of love that extended beyond the grave.”

Maybe even the Sun-Sentinel shares in the madness of this story of a 56-year-old man who falls in love with a dead 22-year-old woman and lives with her dead body for 7 years. After all, the newspaper suggests, surely tongue-in-cheek, that the account has to it “even a sweet May-September romance!”

We have surely found some lunacy this lunar night in Key West.

And tomorrow we fly back to California where, we are told, all the nuts and fruits are found. And maybe they really are: The San Diego Union-Tribune of June 6 carries an editorial warning that a bill from state Senator Marty Block, D-San Diego, this week won Senate approval. Block wishes to expand the scope of practice for those who practice the oddity of naturopathy, “allowing them to prescribe prescription drugs, perform minor surgeries and order imaging studies.” Yes, we do have nuts and fruits in California. They are in the State Senate.

Photographs by Authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.