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These Extraordinarily Detailed Dioramas Help Solve Murders

The Nutshells, dioramas of homicides used to train criminologists, were created in the 1940s–by an heiress with a detective’s eye.

The pie’s just come out of the oven. The laundry is half folded. The potatoes are partially peeled. The doors and windows have been locked from the inside, with newspaper plugging the cracks. And there’s a woman dead on the floor. What happened?

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This is a fake crime scene used to train criminologists on how to examine evidence and form theories about homicides. But it’s not written in a textbook or even presented in pictures. Each painstaking detail has been captured in a miniature diorama. These models, called the Nutshells of Unexplained Death, were made during the 1940s and ’50s by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress who was fascinated by forensics and had a talent for miniatures. Nineteen dioramas, each of which shows a different crime scene based on real cases, will be on display for the first time collectively in an exhibition called Frances Glessner Lee: Murder Is Her Hobby at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., starting October 20.

The story of the Nutshells is truly the story of Lee, who became interested in criminology at a young age. As the heir to the International Harvester fortune, she was not permitted to study the topic because her parents felt it didn’t befit someone of her station. Instead, she took up needlework and miniature-making, for which she had a talent. But as she got older and her brother and parents passed away, Lee began to put her interest–and her money–to use. In her 50s, she began working with the local police department, which eventually gave her a badge and the title of “Captain,” making her the first female police captain in the country. She helped found the first Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard and donated her extensive collection of medical and criminology texts to the university.

Frances Glessner Lee at work on the Nutshells in the early 1940s. [Photo: courtesy Glessner House Museum, Chicago, IL/Smithsonian American Art Museum]
But Lee saw that there wasn’t a good way to train investigators, who often would arrive on a crime scene and, not knowing what to pay attention to, would botch the evidence. So at the ripe old age of 62 she began to create the Nutshells based on cases she consulted on and autopsies she attended.

“[The Nutshells] didn’t take a lot of real estate, you could use a control group of cases, they were really enigmatic interesting cases taken from real life, and you could use them again and again. They were in many ways a much better training tool than being on the scene or a textbook,” says Nora Atkinson, the curator of the exhibition. “Here she was taking this very feminine craft that no man in this field would have thought of, that was really the perfect solution to this problem.”

To ensure that no investigators would have seen or heard of the cases before, Lee would change details of the case, often adding in pieces of evidence from other cases she’d researched. The first Nutshell, based on a case where a man was found hanging from pipes in a basement, transformed into a farmer hanging from the rafters in a barn. To ensure the Nutshells were educational, she chose cases that had some kind of twist, with a crucial piece of evidence that would lead investigators to a solution. Others depict a woman who appears to have fallen down the stairs, a man lying dead in a small cabin, and a girl who was stabbed in a parsonage.

“In some of the Nutshells, the key piece is the rigor mortis of the corpse, because she was highly attentive to medical details. In others, maybe some evidence of emotional distress or lack thereof, based on how the house was in order or not,” says Atkinson. “The idea was wanting to have investigators take a methodical approach to each of these, consider medical, physical, and emotional evidence, and put together, not necessarily a solution, but enough ideas about what may have been going on to know what evidence would be important to test.”

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Aside from educating green investigators, each Nutshell was a work of art. Lee would reupholster doll furniture, darn tiny socks, roll itsy cigarettes by hand, and write on prescription bottles with a single-hair brush. She’d also use found objects–in one Nutshell, there’s a silver whisk hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Atkinson says that was originally a gold-colored bracelet charm that Lee painted to ensure it was accurate to the scene. Even the books and newspapers are miniaturized accurately–Atkinson and her team were able to look up certain headlines from the tiny newspapers and find their real equivalents.

Atkinson and her team also were able to restore many of the dioramas, some of which have not aged well. Pools of blood that were made of red nail polish had cracked over time, and the heat from incandescent lighting aged the fabrics and materials. Now, the nail polish has been repainted and the Nutshells are outfitted with LEDs of the same color and temperature as the old lighting.

Photograph of the Fourteenth Seminar in Homicide Investigation for State Police, November 17-22, 1952, Department of Legal Medicine, Harvard Medical School. [Photo: courtesy Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine/Smithsonian American Art Museum]
Lee taught the first seminar using the Nutshells to a room full of men in 1945–the same year that the first female students were accepted into Harvard Medical School. Today, she’s known as the mother of forensic science. Still, Atkinson found that many of the articles written about her at the time were condescending. “Grandma, Sleuth at 69” declares one magazine. “Grandma Knows Her Murders,” says another. The title of the exhibition, Murder Is Her Hobby, is taken from a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s.

“This woman broke all these boundaries in her time period,” Atkinson says. “On the one hand she was a formidable woman who knew all the ins and outs of being a society lady, and at the end of the seminars she’d throw these lavish parties at the Ritz Carlton on fine china. And on the other hand, she was this down-to-earth gritty criminologist who really enjoyed solving these crimes. She was working at these things against all odds, and it was her own doing that pushed these into the sphere where they are today.”

Once the exhibition is over, one of the Nutshells will return to the Bethlehem Heritage Society, where it is on loan from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and 18 of the Nutshells will go back to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where they are on long-term loan from Harvard Medical School.

As for the solutions to the murders? Because the Nutshells are still in use to this day, that remains a secret–except to the sharp-eyed observer.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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