CSI in a Nutshell

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.‭