In 1878, Frances Glessner Lee was born into a wealthy family whose patriarch, like so many other Papas of the day, felt it unwise to fully educate his intelligent daughter. Following an unsatisfactory marriage, Lee remained financially dependent on her father until his death, at which point she was free, economically and emotionally, to use her mind as she pleased.
At 36, prior to her father’s death, she had made a scale model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, meticulously researching the details of the instruments and characteristics of the ninety musicians. Lee used the standard dollhouse scale of one inch to one foot: her recreated orchestra sat in stands that measured four by eight feet.
As it turned out, Lee’s imagination was not the sort to be satisfied by the genteel art of dollhouse collection and decoration. Nor, as it turned out, was building a scale model of an orchestra sufficient to the task. Unleashed from parental opprobrium and finally left to her own devices, Lee began to create miniature crime scenes, also in dollhouse scale, for the training and edification of police engaged in the new art of criminal detection. A previously fledgling interest in “legal medicine” blossomed once her father’s disapproving eye was laid to rest.
Eighteen of these criminal creations are featured in the book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, photographed (for the most part) by Corinne May Botz, who also provides text and commentary, along with descriptions of the lengths Lee went to in her attempts to make her crime scenes as realistic as possible.
The conceit was simple: Provide the physical manifestation of a crime scene drawn from composites of actual crimes, along with statements from witnesses, to use in training student detectives to question and evaluate forensic evidence. For modern readers, Botz annotates the rooms, indicating areas where something – carefully placed slippers, tractor marks, a guard rail misaligned – gives mute testimony to events not witnessed.
The rooms, down to the unfortunate victims, are utterly marvelous. Lee had both the financial wherewithal and the imagination to buy every kind of artifact required for the verisimilitude she demanded. Lee knit stockings and hairnets herself, using pins to get the tiny gauges required. Tins of food and common household artifacts abound. Blood splatters are lovingly arranged; fake water flows in a crystal stream onto the face of one hapless victim, whose feet are clad in (literally) hand-made, charming, pink slippers. These rooms are from a dollhouse of the damned, but a strangely compelling one, obviously created with no care, trouble, or expense spared.
Botz revels in this discordance. She writes, contrasting Lee’s model-making with traditional doll craft:
Lee’s models are more potentially subversive. They introduce threat and danger into the roles young girls emulate while at play and present the architecture of the home as a deadly terrain where prosaic objects have a secret life as murder weapons. The monstrous acts seem all the more horrible when they are contained in the dollhouse, a domain associated with childhood and innocence.
Botz’s take on Lee’s life and work is unapologetically feminist and cheerfully candid in its treatment of Lee. The Nutshell Studies is an eclectic treasure for readers with a legion of interests: crime buffs; criminal historians; armchair detectives; feminists who cherish the unsung tales of accomplished feminine forebears; obsessive crafters; dollhouse aficionados who have wondered, however slightly, if the traditional representations might be a bit lacking; everyone who is curious about what may lie behind a neighbor’s anonymous door; and those whose imagination is stimulated by a dark view of domesticity.
In 1931-32, Lee created a professorial chair for the study of legal medicine at Harvard University and later funded the Magrath library of Legal Medicine at the school. Shortly thereafter, Lee gave a quarter million dollar endowment for the study of Legal Medicine at Harvard. The department trained medical examiners, held conferences and seminars, and used Lee’s Nutshell Studies as training tools. In 1967, after Harvard closed the Department of Legal Medicine, the Nutshell models were permanently loaned to the Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore, Maryland. They can be viewed by appointment, or you can buy the book or both, as you wish.
If your particular perversion runs to a cross between CSI, Fifth Avenue, and fashion dolls, see the December 2008 issue of Haute Doll (who knew?), which features “Crimes of Fashion From the Police Files of the Sybarites”. Is is fashion? Is it humor? Is it sick? You be the judge – but it is a curious, po-mo (and, undoubtedly, completely unaware) take on the sincere, obsessively loving work of Frances Glessner Lee.