Convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell.
— Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
|Title||The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death|
We take forensic pathology for granted, nowadays. While Sherlock Holmes' pithy observations might have been profound in an earlier time — protestations of how it was merely "elementary" to the contrary — they are so commonplace today as to be the subject of banal television dramas. But even as recently as the 1940s police procedure was an utter mess, and crime scene analysis was little better than the Victorian days when photographs of a victim's retinas were taken in a pointless effort to identify a killer. (Despite never having a single success, for obvious reasons, the Victorians earnestly believed that the eye was a camera.)
Modern forensics owes a debt to Frances Glessner Lee, a volunteer police officer, who devoted her life, and fortune, to improving police work.
It was back in the 1880s that murder and medicine first began to thrill the gentle, pigtailed Frances Glessner, who became today's powerful, iron-willed matriarch. For murder and medicine were the interests of George Burgess Magrath, her brother's studious chum who always appeared at "The Rocks" when the Glessner family arrived from Chicago for a summer vaction in the White Mountains.
For hours on end, Frances would listen to George's latest tales of unpunished or undetectable crimes; of unexpected clues that turned up in the autopsy room at medical school; of amateur coroners and old-fashioned police officers who knew little about crime-hunting; and about his own plans for a great career as a medical crime detective.
From one summer vacation to another, France's interest in murder and medicine grew, paralleling George's rise in his self-chosen profession. The promising young medical student became the brilliant young teacher of medicine, the famous professor of pathology, and eventually "America's real-life Sherlock Holmes," a pioneer of legal medicine.
But for Frances there was always the sobering return to the stodgy social routine of Chicago's upper set. Marriage, children and even grandchildren did not change her father's unwritten law that "a Glessner" could not possibly think of nurturing interest in a subject like crime. Thus, Mrs. Lee was well over 50 years old when her long-frustrated career in crime-detection began.
She was ill in Boston for months; and almost every night Magrath came to see her. He talked "cases" as enthusiastically as ever. But through all his stories ran a gnawing fear: what was to become of his young science of "crime doctoring" when he died? One day, Mrs. Lee asked what she could do to perpetuate his work. "Make it possible for Harvard to teach legal medicine," was his answer, "and to spread its use through education."
Mrs. Lee lost no more time: she went ahead. Magrath, who died in 1938, lived to build up the Harvard department which Mrs. Lee financed; to enjoy the use of the most modern equipment American industry could supply; to witness his name being given to the world's biggest library of Legal Medicine, collected by Mrs. Lee in years of searching at home and abroad; and to see the department permanently endowed by her."Grandma Knows Her Murders" by George Oswald, Coronet, December 1949
In order to educate and train police, she created dollhouses of death; miniature crime scenes, complete with victims and clues, ideally suited for instruction:
Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, provided for just about every creature comfort when she fashioned 19 dollhouse rooms during the 1940s. She stocked the larders with canned goods and placed half-peeled potatoes by the kitchen sink. Over a crib, she pasted pink striped wallpaper.
But you might not want your dolls to live there.
Miniature corpses -- bitten, hanged, shot, stabbed and poisoned -- are slumped everywhere. The furnishings show signs of struggles and dissolute lives; liquor bottles and chairs have been overturned; ashtrays overflow.
Lee, a volunteer police officer with an honorary captain's rank whose father was a founder of the International Harvester Co., used her ghoulish scenes to teach police recruits the art of observation.Bellwether Gallery
The text accompanying "Nutshell Study Number 7" provides a typical set of clues for the student:
Mrs. Rose Fishman, a widow, was found dead by Samuel Wiess, a janitor. He was questioned and gave the following statement: Several tenants complained of an odor and on March 30, he began looking for the source of the odor. Mrs. Fishman didn't answer her bell when he rang it, and when checking with other tenants he found that she had not been seen recently. Therefore, he looked into her mailbox and found that her mail had accumulated for several days. He entered Mrs. Fishman's apartment and found it in order but the odor was very strong. The bathroom door was closed, when he tried to open the door, he could only get it opened a little way, the odor was much stronger. He immediately went downstairs and climbed the fire escape to enter the bathroom through the window. He could not remember if he found the window opened or closed. The model however shows the premises as he found them.Nutshell Study Number 7
The Pink Bathroom
Based on an actual crime from March 31, 1942
The school soon became a mecca for those interested in learning proper policework:
Accounts by witnesses were typed and attached to each model. Each student was assigned two "nutshell studies" to review. The student's task was to search out the clues that were cleverly hidden in each model and prepare a detailed report of how the deaths occurred. Enrollment at the seminars was limited to two dozen students and police officials as far away as Scotland Yard jockeyed to be included on the list.
To have graduated from a seminar and thereby become a member of the Harvard Associates in Police Science was "a high honor in police circles." Erle Stanley Gardner, famed creator of the Perry Mason detective stories wrote that "invitations to the seminars were as sought after in police circles as bids to Hollywood by girls who aspire to be actresses.""Murders, She Wrought" by Roberta Bolduc, Magnetic North Magazine, Page 3
As shown in the photographs, the level of detail in the construction and the accuracy were simply amazing:
According to Alton Mosher, a local man who assisted in the construction of the models over a ten year period, Frances' reputation as a perfectionist was well deserved.
He recalls being instructed by Frances to "scale down" pieces of siding from a 100 year old barn to authenticate the detail of a crime scene. "She demanded precision in all phases of her work," recalls Mosher. Even the clothing made for the dolls in the models was fashioned to scale, knitted by Frances using common pins and unraveled thread."Murders, She Wrought" by Roberta Bolduc, Magnetic North Magazine, Page 3
While not intended as such, Lee's "blood-splattered dioramas" are delightful art:
Not surprisingly, John Waters, a Baltimore native, is an admirer of the sometimes blood-splattered dioramas. "When I saw these miniature crime scenes," he said recently, "I felt breathless over the devotion that went into their creation. Even the most depraved Barbie Doll collector couldn't top this.""Dollhouse detective", Eve Kahn, San Diego Union-Tribune
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962, aged 83, long before Dick Wolf turned forensics into entertainment. After her death these wonderful models were almost destroyed by neglect:
Harvard lost interest in forensics after her death and shuttered the department. A former professor there, Dr. Russell Fisher, became Maryland's chief medical examiner and brought the Nutshells with him. Participants in police science seminars have been poring over the models ever since.
By 1992, Lee's creations were disintegrating, and the Maryland Medical-Legal Foundation donated $50,000 for their restoration. Despite the dated decor and narratives, criminologists still swear by the Nutshells. "People take them as seriously as any other crime scene," said Dr. David R. Fowler, the current chief medical examiner for Maryland. "I've never seen anybody make jokes because of the degree of intricacy and detail. The quality is stunning. I have never seen any computer-generated programs that even come close.""Murder is merely child's play" by Eve Kahn, San Francisco Chronicle
Sources and further reading:
- "Murder downsized" by Eve Khan, New York Times (Warning - JPEG; see the San Francisco Chronicle or San Diego Union-Tribune stories for text versions)
- "Grandma Knows Her Murders" by George Oswald, Coronet, December 1949
- "Murders, She Wrought" by Roberta Bolduc, Magnetic North Magazine
- "Murder in the Dollhouse", by Jennifer Schuessler, Boston Globe
- "CSI in a Doll's House and the Contagion of Obsessiveness" by Vince Aletti, Village Voice
- "Murder is merely child's play" by Eve Kahn, San Francisco Chronicle (from NY Times)
- "Dollhouse detective", Eve Kahn, San Diego Union-Tribune (from NY Times)
Taceant colloquia. Effugiat risus.
Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae.
Let conversations cease. Let laughter flee.
This is the place where death delights to help the living.
— Autopsy room motto of Dr. Milton Helpern, Medical Examiner of New York City in 1960s