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Dollhouses for the Dead

Dollhouses are definitely a horror trope. If you’ve got one in your house after you’re age 7 you’re probably in for some sort of demonic haunting. ( I mean, have y’all seen the trailer for Hereditary yet?) One woman chose to embrace “dollhouses” and miniatures in her work late in life. Frances Glessner Lee’s work isn’t famous for any hauntings surrounding it, but instead for it’s subject matter. Murder scenes.

Lee’s works technically weren’t considered dollhouses but instead referred to as “nutshells”. Dioramas in a sense. 20 original pieces were created by hand to assist in actual homicide investigations. These were referred to as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. Lee went to painstaking measures to ensure the details of each scene were precise and accurate. When viewing the works you can even see some of the newspapers in scenes even have visible dates and headlines on them. Mind you, these are sometimes the size of a postage stamp. It was critical to Lee to get all of these details right since they’re primary purpose was to teach investigators how to fully examine all evidence at a crime scene. The scale of these is 1 inch per foot.

Frances’s backstory was a shared one with other ambitious women at the time. She grew up with her brother in Chicago. He ended up attended Harvard but an equally intelligent and ambitious Frances was not allowed to attend college. Instead she was to marry and tend to the home. She eventually met Blewett Lee, a wealthy lawyer, and they soon were wed. The duration of her marriage Lee was restless. After becoming friends with one of her brother’s classmates at Harvard, George Burgess Magrath, Frances began journeying into the subject of forensics and homicide investigation. Although, after expressing this interest to her husband and brother, she was discouraged from taking any steps forward when it came to education or research on the subject.

A young Frances “Fanny” Glessner. Photo from the Glessner House Museum.

After divorce from her husband and her brother’s death, Frances was free to pursue her passion. After inheriting a good amount of wealth from her family, she began finding ways to join the medical and forensic community. She was a generous philanthropist, donating $250,000 to the Harvard University to create a chair in Legal Medicine. She also founded the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. She was highly influential in the field, pushing police departments to move from dependence on coroners to actual medical investigators at crime scenes. She became known as the “Mother of Forensic Science.” At the time of her philanthropic work Frances was an older woman at the age of 52.

Lee working diligently on her miniatures in 1940, all painstakingly handcrafted. Photo from The Glessner House Museum.

Frances was only just starting her journey as a woman late into her life. At age 60 she began working on the now infamous nutshell scenes. A pioneer in the forensics field, she saw value in the study of these scenes. They were portable and accompanied her to many lectures across the country. The lecture series was the “Seminars in Homicide Investigation for State Police.” Each was set in a diorama which pictured a crime and asked the question, what truly happened to the victim?

Each depiction had working lights, doors, all the way down to food in fridges, mousetraps and kitchen utensils. No detail was too small to include since it could offer valuable information to investigators. Corpses were also placed in scenes in their exact positioning and stage of composition at the time they were found. Victims (or killers) ranged from women (the majority of the subjects), men, children, workers to farmers.

I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Renwick Gallery this past January. Visitors filed around these tiny dioramas, peering into each haunting and puzzling scene (sometimes with flashlights which were provided) to try and piece together the crime. It turns out I would make an abysmal investigator. The photos below are some shots I took during my time at the gallery.

 

What do you think about the nutshells? How badass is Frances? Would you be able to create something with so much detail? Are you a super sleuth who could solve all these crimes?

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