Perhaps no one would expect to find inside an institute of forensic medicine, where violent homicide and suicide cases are investigated, pretty dollhouses accurate up to the details and perfectly on scale, and extremely realistic with the electicity, doors able to open up and close, carpets, newspapers and tiny books perfectly identical to the real ones, micro-cigarettes made out of real tobacco, garments hanging from the wardrobe.

Ruby Davis’ house

At first glance, the dolls might be mistakes for being part of a scene from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Baltimore, part of reconstructions of quiet familiar environments. All of this if it wasn’t for one simple creepy detail:

in each of them there is a corpse and, not even to say, extremely detailed in all its macabre aspects

Ruby Davis death, found on the stairs by her husband

19 in total, called by its creator Frances Glessner Lee “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.

The dioramas did not start as a hobby or to indulge some sort of macabre voyeurism;  instead it represented an innovative method of study in forensic investigation, ideated right by Glessner Lee herself, later renamed as “Mother of Forensic Science” and nominated as the 1st woman in the US as Captain of the State Police in New Hampshire.

Frances Glessner Lee


Above: picture by Glessner House Museum of Chigaco shared via Wikipedia – Creative Commons

Frances was not a girl anymore when she managed to work for her own passion: finding a correct method to analyse the crime scene or an unclear death to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell”.

Death of the student Dorothy Dennison

Right because she started her job at an advanced age, Frances Glessner Lee was considered by many as an odd grandma, with a peculiar interest for homicide. But her passion for crime started at an early stage, all the way back to her childhood, when she started reading the adventure of Sherlock Holmes and learned to appreciate that way of investigation free from contaminations and prejudices.

A passion that she cannot cultivate, because as a good girl born in 1878 from a wealthy family from Chicago, she had to follow the path chosen by her parents: a private education at home and no university, then wedding, not really for love, with a young lawyer at the age of 19. If it was for her, she would have gone to Harvard along with her brother, to study medicine.

Time goes by, Mrs Frances gave life to 3 children and in 1914 she divorced from her husband but even then she was free to follow her heart, which happened around her 60 years old. In the meantime she focus on handworks like sewing and embroidery, activities which came back in handy later on during the realisation of her dioramas.

Widow Rose Fishman, whose corpse was discovered a few days after her death

In 1931, after the death of her brother, the fortune of the family went all to Mrs.Frances, who decided to use the money to found the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, the first one in the US. in the following years she built a specialized library, original core of the subsequent Magrath Library of Legal Medicine.

the alleged suicide of Eben Wallace

The Glessner Lee contribution to the birth of forensic science does not end in her donations as hers was a personal interest that she develops by observing the courthouse, the investigation environment, and even the autopsy rooms, all places considered as non- suitable for a woman. Another inspiring personality for the woman was also the friend of her brother, George Burgess Magrath, chief medical examiner in the Suffolk county.

Thanks to him, she understands that it is the lack of method to compromise the result of the investigations: the agents of the police contaminated the crime scene before the arrival of the medical examiner, who by the way was not always trained to spot the cause of death.

Barbara Barnes death

The idea of the dioramas came out at this point, where they were supposed to recreate the crime scene or the unclear killing. The corpses were represented with extreme precision, from the bloodstains on the clothes, the skin tone (which would change if the death occurred, for example, due to carbon monoxide), the state of decomposition at the time of the discovery.

The highly expensive Nutshell (around 50,000 dollars each, today), realised with the help of a woodworker at a pace of 2 per year since the early 40’s, were used throughout the training of the police officers of the homicide section, not for solving a case but rather for teaching a method based on observation, interpretation, evaluation and development of critical thinking. At the end of the seminars, the only woman Frances Glessner Lee amongst about 40 men would offer a luxurious supper at the Ritz Carlton.

Despite her unusual career, she was still a woman of the high society

Glessner Lee (on the right) at a seminar in 1952

Above: picture by Renwick Gallery – Smithsonian American Art Museum

The dioramas are not perfect replica of the places where the victims had been recovered, but instead the scenography was result of the fantasy of Glessner Lee, or of her very personal experience: a book of Sherlock Holmes, a wallpaper similar to one known and so on. However her miniatures were very different from the rich middle class from where she came from. The environments were rather poor, and the victims were often women or outcasts of the society.

A precise choice, aiming at showing the importance of handling every investigation with the necessary rigour, despite the social background of the victim. The dioramas were also conveying a creepy message, suggesting the possible dark sides of the domestic life, the potential danger of those places considered as safe like the house and, in  a stretched sense, the family itself.

Charles Logan death

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962 and, without her fundings, the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine shut down in 1966. Her dioramas got transferred to Baltimore by one of the professors of the university, appointed as chief medical examiner of Maryland.

Morte di Maggie Wilson

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are still there, not on display or as a curiosity but used for the same purpose for which they had been realised: training investigators which take part in 6 days-long seminars, during which they have to observe the scene of the supposed crime and attempt to figure out what had happened.

Each diorama has a description which explains which clues to keep into account and why. Not a solution to the case but an interpretation of the crime scene. Such descriptions are “secret” and only the participants to the seminars can access them. In the era of virtual reality and 3D vision, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death still seem to be an interesting educational tool. Not too bad for someone who was considered as an odd grandma, a little peculiar, is it?

Lady Compton death

The question to ask by observing the dioramas in the picture above and below is the following: did the old lady commit suicide because oppressed by the sense of solitude and the burden of her memories, like the old letters scattered on the floor and the old objects gathered in the attic may suggest?

A challenge for all the detective stories lovers. We have no solution to it though.

All the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death pictures belong to Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons, shared with licence CC BY-SA 4.0

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