Death in a nutshell

11 March 2015

Our Forensics exhibition features an example of Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, small models still used to train police investigators today. Taryn Cain tells us more about these macabre “dolls’ houses of death” and the woman who made them. 

 Little girl cleans her dolls house.
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Little girl cleans her dolls house.

Dolls have been around for a long time. In fact, they are one of the most ancient toys known, with the oldest found being around 35,000 years old. When we think of dolls today we generally think of children playing with them, even though they have been used by both adults and children throughout history. Due to their resemblance to our own image, dolls have regularly been imbued with magical powers, religious significance and protective qualities.

Where you have dolls, doll houses soon follow, with the first modern doll house appearing almost 500 years ago. These houses cost more than your average wage per week and so were exclusively owned by wealthy adults. By the 19th century, parents were beginning to give their daughters grandiose doll houses, complete with furnishings and servants, in order to educate them in household management.

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Who isn’t scared of a ventriloquist’s doll?

Not everyone loves dolls, however. Where most of us are comfortable seeing faces in clouds or believing our cars have a personality (a process called anthropomorphism), some of us are terrified by this. Automatonophobia is the irrational fear of things which resemble, but aren’t, humans. This includes clowns, ventriloquist dummies and dolls. It’s not surprising then that all three began appearing in spooky children’s stories and horror films of the 20th century.

One 20th century woman who saw doll houses not as innocent places of play, but as macabre scenes of death, was Frances Glessner Lee. Born into wealth in 1878, Frances grew up in a house so beloved by her parents, that her father even wrote a book on it. Approaching adulthood, young Frances dreamed of studying medicine or nursing, a dream denied by her controlling and conservative father. Instead she was trained in domestic duties, such as knitting, interior design, metal work and painting.

 Frances Glessner Lee working on one of the nutshells.
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Frances Glessner Lee working on one of the nutshells.

In the early 1900s Frances was charmed by a man brought home one holiday by her brother, who then remained her friend for the rest of her life. That man, George Burgess Magrath, was one of the first pioneers in “legal medicine”; what we now know as forensics.

For most of her adult life Frances lived like a good upper class woman should: she got married, ran a household, raised three children, did her parents’ bidding and volunteered to help sailors during the war. In 1936 her father died and suddenly Frances was free to follow her own ambitions. After a conversation with her friend Magrath, Frances donated $250,000 to Harvard in order to set up The Department of Legal Medicine and continued to fund its development for the rest of her life.

 One of Frances' nutshells.
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One of Frances’ nutshells. Kitchen (Room From Afar) (c) Image courtesy of Corinne May Botz and Benrubi Gallery.

Back then, death wasn’t the science it is now: many coroners had no legal training, police officers would unknowingly contaminate crime scenes and people were literally getting away with murder. The new Legal Medicine department at Harvard sought to change that by training their students to be medical examiners. They also held a bi-annual week long seminar on Legal Medicine, funded by Frances, in which the invited experts and detectives would eat off $8,000 china plates.

It was from these seminars that the Nutshell Studies were born: 20 tiny houses, one inch to one foot, each representing a real world scenario recreated in miniature form. To complete each house Frances would attend crime scenes, visit morgues and attend autopsies. She had learned from her studies in forensics that officers often struggled to tell the difference between murder, a suicide or an accidental death, so each of her scenes was a mystery. It was up to the officers to seek tiny clues which could clear or convict a potential criminal.

Each house was made with incredible attention to detail. Windows really opened, keys turned in locks and hand-rolled tiny cigarettes lay on tables. The dead themselves were painted with mottled skin, bullet wounds and slit throats. Frances’ victims were all poor to middle class, white and mostly female.

One house, now missing, showed a woman sweeping up the evidence. Another unfinished house shows a man dead, possibly from alcohol poisoning, on his sofa. One set in a parlour shows a young girl bludgeoned to death next to a packet of rotting meat. Another shows a woman dead in a bath with no obvious signs of a struggle. A couple and their baby are all found dead in their beds in another house, the walls and floor splattered with blood. Another unlucky victim is dead in his bed inside a fire-ravaged cabin. Each gory domestic scene contains a secret twist to test the officers’ observational skills.

The nutshell houses all took months to create and were built using carpentry, a magnifying glass, purchased doll house furniture and jewellery/dental tools. Frances would hand-sew all the dolls clothing herself using tiny straight pins. Each house ultimately cost as much as a real life home at the time and only three could be produced per year.

 Frances Glessner Lee making some last minute adjustments to one of her nutshells.
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Frances Glessner Lee making some last minute adjustments to one of her nutshells.

Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962 and the Department of Legal Medicine in Harvard closed in 1966, when the majority of the houses were moved to the Medical Examiner’s office at the Baltimore city morgue, where they have lived ever since. For a long time they were allowed to fall into disrepair until 1992, when a $50,000 grant was given for their restoration.

Those 18 houses in Baltimore are still in use today. The one we currently have on display in our Forensics exhibition is unfinished; it’s the one Frances was working on at the time of her death. It found a home at the Bethlehem Heritage Society in New Hampshire, who have temporarily loaned it to Wellcome Collection.

You can explore the nutshells further here.

Corinne May Botz’s large scale portraits of the nutshells are on display in our Forensics exhibition.

Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.