Finding the Truth in a Nutshell

17 April 2015

We wrote about Frances Glessner Lee and her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” in a previous postErin N. Bush got the chance to visit the eighteen original Nutshells and has turned her photos of some of them into fascinating resource exploring these “dolls’ houses of death”. Erin tells us more.

You do not need forensic training to find an outlier amidst the register of pioneers in forensic science. The usual suspects – Cesare Lombroso, Alphonse Bertillon, Francis Galton, Mathieu Orfila, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler – were all men of scientific training or veterans of police work. Then there was Frances Glessner Lee.

A woman. Not just any woman, but the daughter of industrial fortune. Forbidden from attending medical school, she contributed to the art and science of detailed forensics-based detection by appropriating a pastime “proper” for a woman of her class and remaking it into a tool of great power. She repurposed a child’s plaything to give new insight into the darkest adult mysteries.

A skilled doll’s house maker, Glessner Lee created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”: intricate, yet macabre, dolls’ houses depicting the most mysterious of circumstances. They recreated the scenes of possible homicides, accidents and suicides; in modelling them, they taught investigators to notice the smallest of minutia. The Nutshells used miniaturisation to show the outsized significance of tiny details.

She did not make elaborate doll’s houses because they were pretty; she created functional miniatures that were useful for generations of police detectives. It was a very “improper” undertaking for a woman of her standing.

The fact that Glessner Lee subverted gender expectations and dared to participate in a career thought unsuitable for a 1940s woman attracted me to her. I was lucky enough to gain access to the eighteen original Nutshells, kept in Baltimore at the office of Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner. In his generosity, the examiner gave me free reign to visit and photograph them and I chose four of the most interesting to display in my project, Death in Diorama.

Erin photographing the Nutshells. (Image: Alexa D. Potter)

Erin photographing the Nutshells. (Image: Alexa D. Potter)

Since the dioramas are not open to the public, I thought I could best highlight both their intricacy and Glessner Lee’s attention to detail through a series of macro photographs. They were, after all, meant to be pored over and studied; difficult to do from a distance.

The more I researched Glessner Lee, and how she used these dolls’ houses, the more I began to appreciate the innovation of using a seemingly low-tech approach to forensics training.

Glessner Lee was convinced by criminological theory that crimes could be solved by detailed analysis of visual and material evidence and she drew upon her expertise in creating miniatures to develop dioramas that would help police detectives learn to identify and analyse forensic evidence. Material evidence at any given crime scene is overwhelming. But with the proper knowledge and techniques, she knew, investigators could be trained to identify, collect and analyse that evidence in a systematic fashion. Her point was not to solve the crime in the model, but to observe and notice important details and potential evidence; facts that could affect the investigation.

My favorite Nutshell, entitled, “Unpapered Bedroom,” illustrates this point nicely. It depicts a deceased woman, lying on her back in bed. Personal effects litter the room, every one potential evidence. Glessner Lee designed each one and placed it in its final position in the scene. This meant crafting the mundane, but also the out-of-place; if you lift up the pillow next to the body, you will find lipstick marks on the underside of the linen. It is a detail that may seem insignificant. But because women rarely go to bed wearing their makeup, it has huge implications.

Forensic science, by its very nature, is based on innovation and technology. Even in its nascent years, fingerprinting, toxicology, Bertillon identification and mug shots relied on and spawned other incredible advancements in forensic technology. What, then, is the innovation in a doll’s house?

Glessner Lee recognised that policemen needed a way to learn and practice forensic detection. Thus, the Nutshells provided a heuristic approach to training, which allowed detectives to investigate crime scenes with little risk of contaminating the scene. In the same way that dolls socialised little girls into motherhood, these dolls’ houses taught both hardened and new homicide detectives to be more attentive to the details at a crime scene.

What Glessner Lee produced may be the size of a doll’s house, but stature is no indication of significance. In our high-tech world of luminol, DNA, computer modeling, and CSI, “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” seem like low-tech forensic science. Yet, their importance can still be felt.

Twice a year, the Nutshells are put to work at the Harvard Associates in Police Science training seminars. Seven decades after Frances Glessner Lee carefully painted and placed a quarter-inch pillow with a centimetre-long lipstick stain, the next generation of homicide detectives still examines them and learns how to find the truth in a Nutshell.

Erin is a doctoral student at George Mason University studying United States history with a focus on crime, women and Gender Studies, and digital history.

Visit our Forensics exhibition for the chance to see one of Glessner Lee’s curious Nuthsells.