Before forensics, DNA, and CSI we had dollhouses – an unimaginable collection of miniature crime scenes, known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Created in the 1930s and 1940s by a crime-fighting millionaire heiress grandmother Frances Glessner, the Nutshells helped homicide detectives hone their investigative skills. Despite all the advances in forensics, the Nutshells are still used today to train detectives
I don’t know why I find it so difficult to express my feelings to you. Even though we’re far apart I can see you as vividly as if you were here with me. I said I’ll miss you and I do. As Shakespeare more ably wrote my sentiment in Sonnet 47. “Thyself away art resent still with me; for thou not father than my thoughts canst move, and I am still with them and they with thee; or, if thy sleep, thy picture in my sight, awakes my heart to heart’s and eye’s delight.”
There’s a fascinating article on Slate entitled “Murder in Miniature - One woman’s ghastly dollhouse dioramas turned crime scene investigation into a science”.
It’s about Frances Glessner Lee, an American millionaire heiress born in 1878 whose intricate dioramas revolutionised crime scene investigation. She became interested in “legal medicine” as it was then but had been prevented from entering formal education by her father. Later in life she found an outlet for her interests and creative talents by designing and making miniatures of crime scenes - both real and adapted from fictional accounts. She called them “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” and they were used as teaching aids for medical examiners and detectives learning the new scientific process of criminal forensic examination at Harvard. Though they were made in the 1940s and 50s they are still used to teach forensics today.
The dioramas are bafflingly detailed and took months to make - the locks operate with tiny matching keys, all the lights work and cupboards open, she knitted or sewed all the tiny clothing herself, calendars and letters are all intricately hand-labelled and everything is weathered and aged to match the conditions of the crime scene - the better to prompt trainee investigators to ask themselves the right questions in determining appropriate lines of enquiry from the evidence at hand. Some of the photos above are borrowed from the Death in Diorama website where you can take a closer look at several of the surviving models along with extracts from the witness statements that accompany them.
As a bonus, Lee also reportedly inspired the creation of Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher. So you know she was a definite BAMF and deserves more recognition.