Nutshell Studies: Intricate Crime Scene Miniatures

Imagine being born into a life of wealth and privilege, a young woman with a fine analytical and detail-oriented mind. You receive an exceptional education from home tutors, but the expectation of society is that you will marry, not go to college. You have a passion for law and for medicine that is therefore thwarted. What would you do? Frances Glessner Lee constructed the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She became the patron saint or godmother of that perfect blend of law and medicine, forensic science.

Preparation

Frances (Fanny) Glessner, born in 1878, was the daughter of John Glessner, cofounder of International Harvester. Frances, her brother George, and their parents lived in a fine home they’d had built on Prairie Avenue in Chicago. That home is now a museum, and an international architectural treasure.

Educated at home by private tutors, Frances became adept at the various ‘domestic arts.’ She learned to paint, knit, sew, crochet, and embroider. Frances also learned to make miniatures, a popular pastime for ladies of her era. She was good at it. Frances, at age 35, spent two months creating a miniature of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a gift for her mother’s birthday. It included every one of the orchestra’s ninety musicians, each with their instruments, instrument cases, sheet music, and stands.

Instead of becoming a lawyer, Frances married one. She married Blewett Lee, general counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad, when she was nineteen. They had three children together, but the marriage was not a happy one. After a lengthy separation, the couple divorced in 1914 when Frances was 36. She never remarried.

Synchronicity

Frances’ brother George attended Harvard University where he struck up a friendship with another George, George Burgess Magrath. Magrath, who would ultimately become a medical examiner, captivated Frances with his stories of real-life crimes. The two spent many hours over multiple years discussing and interpreting evidence from crime scenes. Frances further indulged her intellectual curiosity by investing in a significant library of forensic science texts.

It was through Magrath that Frances learned of the problems of police work in the early 1900’s. Because police were not trained in how to gather medical evidence, bodies would be moved, blood walked through, and vital clues missed. This lack of training extended to the morgue where bodies were examined by coroners, who are not required to have a medical degree, rather than by medical examiners who are.

As a result of the ignorance of police and coroners, too many crimes remained unsolved.

Inheritance

Frances came into a significant inheritance in the 1930’s from her uncle George Glessner. She endowed a department of legal medicine (forensic science) at Harvard University. The department existed until 1967, five years after Frances’ death, when it closed for financial reasons. Magrath, already a professor of pathology at Harvard, was named chair of the department, a position he held until his untimely death in 1938.

Frances also established the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine and donated her collection of more than one thousand titles, many of them rare.

Convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find truth in a nutshell.

Police Saying

Perhaps of greatest significance, Frances organized week-long seminars in homicide investigation. Beginning with the first seminar in 1945 and continuing to this day,  police officers of all ranks listened to experts lecture on everything from how to determine time of death to blood stain pattern analysis. In addition to providing excellent training, these seminars created camaraderie among officers from around the world. If a crime scene was especially puzzling, seminar students could now call someone else in HAPS, the Harvard Associates in Police Science.

There was just one problem with the seminars. It was impossible to guarantee a violent unexplained death during the seminar week. The Nutshell Studies were the logical response to the need for hands-on training in crime scene analysis.

Frances Glessner Lee working on miniatures for her Nutshell Studies
Photo Credit: Glessner House Museum

Miniatures

Did you play with a dollhouse as a child? I didn’t have one but when I was a teenager, my aunt, knowing my fascination with all things miniature, gave me a diorama of a hairdressing salon. An unknown student had constructed it for a school project. I was enthralled, even though toothpaste caps substituted for old-style hairdryers, and the cardboard sinks didn’t have any taps. If I had the talent, I would create exquisitely detailed miniature scenes from children’s books. Alas, I have the vision, but neither the skill nor the pocketbook to achieve my dream. Instead, I marvel at the work of Frances Glessner Lee.

Twenty Nutshell Studies were built. Eighteen remain. Each study took 3-4 months to complete and each cost the equivalent, at the time, of building a full-sized house.

These are not scenes where you can glance for a few minutes and figure out whodunit. Frances created the Nutshell Studies to help investigators learn to identify and collect medical evidence in a systematic fashion. To achieve that goal, the Nutshell Studies had to have so much authentic detail that investigators would be overwhelmed and unsure of what they should attend to, just as at a real crime scene.

Frances developed her Nutshell Studies by attending autopsies, visiting crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, reading newspaper reports, and borrowing clues from novels.

I don’t believe she has ever overlooked a detail in her life.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason

Exquisite Detail

The Nutshell Studies are built on a scale of 1 inch representing 1 foot. Frances used to tell investigators that they would do well to pretend that they were 6 inches tall.

Ralph Mosher and, later, his son, were Frances’ full-time carpenters. They built everything that was made of wood, while Frances did the rest, including all of the dolls.

Consider these details, compiled from various Nutshell Studies:

Keys turn in locks. Pencils write.
A tiny bullet is lodged in a beam. Books open and have printed pages.
A parcel of meat on a chair is coated in tiny spores of mould. Boards beneath a sink are water-stained.
Every sign, calendar, and medicine bottle label is painted, in detail, by hand. The faces of victims are painted to show the exact degree of decomposition.
A fingernail sized mousetrap snaps shut. The mouse is a bud from a pussy willow. A printer was contracted to create a miniscule edition of the exact newspaper found at a scene, all pages included.
Stockings for the characters were knit by Frances using a straight pin. There are linens in the cabinets and clothes in the wardrobes.
Frances wore a blue suit for a year to create the worn effect on a victim’s pants. There is a realistic burn mark on a tiny ironing board. Frances spent three days creating it.

Dr. David R. Fowler, Chief Medical Examiner for Maryland, in whose offices the Nutshell Studies are now housed, said, “The quality is stunning. I have never seen any computer-generated programs that even come close.”

The Process

The Nutshell Studies are still used in seminars today. The process is the same as it was seventy years ago when Frances began the seminars. Investigators, working in teams, examine a scene using only a flashlight and a magnifying glass.

Although there is an official, and closely guarded, solution for each of the eighteen Nutshell Studies, it often isn’t possible for police to solve the crimes. They don’t have access to autopsy results, and they can’t interview subjects. All that investigators have to go on is the scene and a witness statement that may, or may not, be credible.

Investigators are tasked with determining whether a scene is of a suicide, homicide, accident, or natural causes. That determination, plus a lengthy list of evidence analysis, counts as a major victory during the seminar week.

nutshell studies kitchen scene
Photo Credit: Erin Bush

Work a Scene

The Nutshell Studies are not open to the public, however, a doctoral student named Erin Bush was granted access and photographed several of the dioramas for a project in her History and New Media course. Erin graciously shared several of her photographs with me for use in this Wow Note. I highly recommend taking a look at her website, Death in Diorama.
One of the Nutshell Studies is a kitchen scene.

The witness statement accompanying this scene is from Fred Barnes, husband of the deceased housewife, Robin Barnes. Fred’s statement reads,

“I went downtown at four o’clock to run an errand for my wife. After about an hour and a half, I came back and found the outside door to the kitchen locked. It was propped open when I left. I knocked and called but got no answer. I tried the front door but it was also locked. I went to the kitchen window which was closed and locked. I looked in and saw her lying on the floor. I called the police, who forced open the kitchen door.”

miniature stove from Nutshell Studies kitchen scene
There is a pie just out of the oven. Additionally, all the gas jets are on. [The victim’s] face showed the tell-tale reddish color of death by asphyxiation.
Photo and Text Credit: Erin Bush
When you are on Erin’s site, you can move your mouse over the crime scene to see close-up photographs and text for various pieces of evidence. Just for fun, here is one close-up photograph that Erin sent to me, along with the accompanying text.

Honours

Frances Glessner Lee was named captain in eight police departments in the United States and Canada.

She was the first female police captain for New Hampshire State Police. Although Frances did have the power to enforce the law in her role as captain, there is no evidence that she did so.

Frances was the first woman invited into the International Association for Chiefs of Police.

Today

The HAPS seminars are still ongoing. They have been renamed the Frances Glessner Lee Seminars.

The Nutshell Studies are still being used in the seminars. Each Nutshell Study is insured for $100,000.

It is believed that Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote is based on Glessner Lee.

Thomas Mauriello, a professor of criminology at University of Maryland, taught his students with custom-made dioramas.

Author Patricia Cornwell gifted Baltimore’s Forensic Medical Centre with a life-sized nutshell called The Scarpetta House after her fictional forensic scientist, Kay Scarpetta.

An episode of CSI was based on Glessner Lee’s work.  “The Miniature Killer” featured scale models built by the killer to reflect each crime scene.

You can watch an hour-long documentary about The Nutshell Studies. It’s called Of Dolls and Murder.

I didn’t do a lick of work to deserve what I have. Therefore, I feel I have been left an obligation to do something that will benefit everybody.

Frances Glessner Lee

The definitive text on the Nutshell Studies is a coffee table book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz.

Artist Abigail Goldman makes strange little die-o-ramas. She say’s they make great conversation pieces and there is always a waiting list to buy them.

Visual artist and author, Cynthia von Buhler, built a dollhouse and wrote a book about her grandfather’s unsolved murder. Then she went several steps further and created an immersive theatre experience in a New York speakeasy. If you decide to attend, you will receive emails before the event containing police records, autopsy reports, and detailed historical information.

William Tyre, executive director and curator of Glessner House Museum gave me permission to use the photograph of Frances Glessner Lee. He also told me about a seminar about Frances that the museum is hosting on March 26th, the day after Frances Glessner Lee’s birthday. If you are in the Chicago area, it looks like it will be an excellent event.

Finally, at the Glessner House Museum, you will be able to view an amazing new project by artist Don Widmer. Fanny and the Doll Corpse consists of two books –a tunnel book that opens up into a three-dimensional scene, and a book that contains the story and details of the evidence in the scene.

Thoughts? Reactions? I look forward to your comments. 

10 comments

    1. Interesting that you say that, Anna. Frances Glessner Lee is often referred to as the “Mom of CSI.” I didn’t include that reference in the article because of what police refer to as the CSI Effect. Apparently we are all so accustomed to the incredible achievements on CSI that we truly believe that police can pull fingerprints from any surface and do all kinds of other amazing things with evidence. Glessner Lee was a stickler for accuracy. I doubt she would have approved of the show!

  1. I LOVED this article, Karen. 😀 My favorite show on TV when I had access to TV CSI: All Versions, but primarily the original. I liked watching Miami, N.Y. and other versions as well. I found the discipline of forensic sciences extremely interesting and had I been still in high school I might just have sought out a career in that field. I am very detail-oriented (as we discussed in your jigsaw puzzle post) and I think I could have been very good at it. In fact, “The Miniature Killer” was one of my favorites because it had Grissom stumped for the longest time. I believe it was actually Sarah Sidle that broke that case.

    Frances Glessner Lee sounds like she would have been someone I could have talked to, happily, for hours upon hours. I followed all the links you put in here and the amount of information I found and WOW moments I had were all wonderful. 🙂

    I think she would have been amazed at how far the field of forensic science has come since her day. Perhaps she would have liked the show CSI because it brought forensic science to the forefront and made it more accepted. I am sure I am not the only one who thought of studying to be a crime scene investigator because of the show. 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Susan. What an absolutely incredible woman. My fascination is with miniatures rather than forensics. I’m sure Frances Glessner Lee would have been far more interested in talking with you than with me! Miniatures were simply what she used to achieve her forensics goals, whereas for me, it’s all about marvelling at how to make a working mousetrap the size of a fingernail!
      I think you’re right that she would have been fascinated at how far forensics has progressed since her day. Nowhere near as far as CSI likes to suggest, but I imagine it has developed by leaps and bounds regardless.

      1. I agree forensic science is nowhere near as developed as CSI would like to suggest but I guess that is what makes it good television. Who knows one day they may get as far as they portray on CSI and it will amaze us all that the show was simply ahead of their time. 😉

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