Annabelle and Beyond: The Dark History of Raggedy Ann Dolls

Fiona Dodwell
7 min readJun 18, 2021
  • Please note this article contains details of a crime that some may find upsetting

Created over 100 years ago, (1915, to be precise), the Raggedy Ann doll is one of the most famous and well-known vintage toys. With its cute triangle nose and thick, red hair, the doll was a hit amongst children from the very beginning. Many of us today, though, know a darker, creepier side to the loveable dolly. The Annabelle story and the subsequent movies may have told us a lot, but is there even more to the doll’s history?

To learn more, we have to travel back to New England in the 50s.

In Portland, Massachusetts, a 40 year old mother and her 12 year old daughter were brutally killed at the hands of the man they knew and loved as husband and father. Douglas P Adams, 37, had lived with his wife and their child Caroline in their New England home for many years — few who knew the family would have ever dreamt of the nightmare that would become a hard, cold reality when local news reports confirmed the gristly details.

According to a copy of The Boston Evening American newspaper of May 1953, Douglas P Adams used a carving knife to slice the throats of both his wife and daughter, in a violent attack that he later admitted had no cause or reason.

He told authorities at the time, “Legally I am guilty — but morally, that’s a different story.” Analysed in our modern times, that unusual statement struck some social media sleuths as strange; a few began wondering if the perpetrator could have been under spiritual influence of dark energy, or perhaps even possessed. That’s a big stretch for most people to get their heads around, but the reason for the leap in their conclusion? A life-sized Raggedy Ann doll was found sitting on a chair, looking down upon the body of the murdered child. This crime was a 17 years before the infamous Annabelle doll took centre stage — in the same region. (According to early stories about the Annabelle doll, the large toy was “inhabited” by the spirit of a young girl who had died tragically).

The Boston Evening American report stated, “The girl’s body was sprawled on the floor. At her feet was a mystery novel. A life-size Raggedy Ann sat on the chair facing her.”

In a confession by Douglas P Adams, the unemployed man said he had been planning the crime for a full three days before finally launching his brutal attack — and not even he understood why he wanted to harm his loved ones.

The doll caught people’s attention.

It may have seemed an odd thing to make note of in a news report. That the Raggedy Ann was present at the crime scene seems as unremarkable as if a pair of shoes or a box of tissues were around. Yet that one mention was enough to spark up interest, especially in light of the darker legends involving Raggedy Ann dolls.

Annabelle sits in the Occult Museum.


Ask most people about Annabelle the doll and the chances are, they will have heard of the demonic toy. In the year 1970, 25 year old nurse Dierdre Bernard was given the large Raggedy Ann doll from her mother as a quirky birthday gift. Bernard lived with her roommate Lara Clifton and Clifton’s partner, Cal Rendall. Soon after the toy was placed in the apartment shared by the three young nurses, they began to notice strange things, like the doll would be found in a different position to how they had left it. Soon, they began finding notes around their home too, written in child-like handwriting.

Soon, the three inhabitants decided to contact a medium to ask if there was something going on with the cute Raggedy Ann doll. A medium readily attended and confirmed there was a spirit attached to the doll — according to the spiritualist, a ghost of a child called Annabelle Higgins, aged 7, had died in the local area and wanted to ask if she could have permission to possess the doll.

The three nurses agreed, thinking the ghost of a child would be harmless, yet after the meeting with the medium, things went from strange to worse. Spots of red were found on the doll, that resembled blood. More troubling was the fact that Cal Rendall had been suffering nightmares about Annabelle and was physically attacked with severe scratches in an empty room of the apartment.

All of this led the troubled trio to contact a local Episcopal priest named Father Hegan, who in turn contacted his superior, Father Cooke. Cooke immediately got in touch with the famous and respected paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warren’s visited and examined the doll, confirming there was indeed an energy attached to the doll — but it was not a spirit of a young girl. It was a demonic spirit who was seeking to possess not the toy, but one of the people living at the apartment. The doll was merely a conduit to something darker and sinister.

The Warrens convinced Father Cooke to perform an exorcism on the apartment in order to cleanse the home. He also blessed the individuals who were there in attendance. At Deirdre’s request, the Warrens took the Raggedy Ann Doll with them when they departed. It remained in their possession until their deaths, after which it stayed in display at their Occult Museum which was passed on to family members.

The infamous Annabelle doll made its mark across the world — the story itself was shared publicly by the Warrens and it soon understandably made headlines. Yet over the ensuing years, the doll also inspired numerous blockbuster movies and books. Annabelle became a horror fan’s ultimate icon, and whether you’re a believer or a sceptic, she is certainly considered by many as one of the most dangerous and haunted items in the world.

Annabelle may have made her mark with her attachment to the Raggedy Ann doll, and the Douglas murders in the 50s may have been “witnessed” by the toy, but could there be even more to the vintage loveable dolly?

How could something as cute and innocent looking as the Raggedy Ann doll come from such a dark and foreboding history?

According to various online sources, the Raggedy Ann doll was designed by an individual called Johnny Gruelle in 1915. Here’s how the creepy account is described on his Wikipedia page:

Gruelle gave his daughter Marcella a dusty, faceless rag doll which she found in the attic. He drew a face on the doll and named her Raggedy Ann. Marcella played with the doll so much, Gruelle figured other children would like the doll too. Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann doll U.S Patent D47,789, was dated September 7, 1915. In 1918, the PF Volland Company published Raggedy Ann Stories. Gruelle then created a series of popular Raggedy Ann books and dolls.

Tragically, Marcella Gruelle contracted diphtheria and died at the age of 13. After this blow, family friends described Gruelle as “possessed, with a heavy countenance” and that the only thing he could bear to have near him as a reminder of his daughter was the Raggedy Ann doll.

The versions of this account vary, with website Snopes putting it like this:

In 1921, Johnny Gruelle’s 8 year old daughter was vaccinated in school
without her parents’ permission. Between the time she became ill from the
vaccination and her death a few months later, her body was completely
limp, like a rag doll. It was this sick vaccine-injured child that
inspired Gruelle to create the Raggedy Ann doll.

So the tales vary from source to source, but the core facts remain — Johnny Gruelle designed the Raggedy Ann doll, he made one for his young daughter, who sadly died shortly after. It seems that the Raggedy Ann doll was destined to be known for dark, sinister and incredibly sad reasons.

Raggedy Ann creator, Gruelle

Whatever your belief about haunted or cursed items is, few can deny the cultural impact that the Raggedy Ann doll has made over the years — not least because of the huge success of the books, movies and work of the Warrens, which have helped make her dark history very well-known. For many adults, that cute and colourful doll signifies much more than an innocent child’s play thing. I believe it always will.