Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The body in the kitchen
When I first came across the Nutshell Studies a few years ago, I was fascinated by the concept and the amazingly detailed work that had gone into creating these miniature ‘crime scenes.’  Exploring a bit more for this blog, I became at least as intrigued by their creator – a nineteenth century heiress with no formal education who became an expert and teacher of forensic crime investigation.  She built an international reputation, yet modestly said of herself: “Luckily, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It gives me the time and money to follow my hobby of scientific crime detection.”  She became the first woman police chief in New Hampshire and she was the first woman invited to join the International Association for Chiefs of Police.

The body in the bath
Frances Glessner Lee was born in 1878, an heir to the International Harvester fortune. She was keen to study Law and Medicine and to join her brother at Harvard, but her family believed that it was inappropriate for a lady to go to college.  Her role, apparently, was to marry and bring up children in an appropriately created and managed domestic environment.  She had a go at this, but although she had three children with her husband, they separated and later divorced.

She was apparently a great lover of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and enjoyed solving murder puzzles.  She came to believe that studying a crime scene would enable a detective to make large strides towards solving the case by picking up appropriate clues – just as the fictional Holmes did.  A friend of her brother – later to become medical examiner of Boston – peeked her interest even more with his stories of crimes and their solutions.  However, her interest in forensics was even less acceptable than her desire to study at Harvard and she had to wait until her parents and brother had died in the 1930s before she could pursue her passion.  Then, with her substantial inheritance, she endowed a department of legal medicine at Harvard.  Not content with that, she set up a seminar series (Harvard Associates in Police Science) for investigators, which continues to this day.  

The week long HAPS seminars didn’t seem enough, and the attendance was limited.  So she decided to create a set of eighteen miniature crime scenes, loosely based on real cases.  The investigator has ninety minutes to study the crime scene, read the statements of witnesses, and consider the evidence.  Then he or she needs to make deductions and plan further investigations.  The miniatures are apparently beautifully and meticulously made to a strict scale of 1 inch to 1 foot.  Cupboards open, lights work, dolls represent the lifeless bodies.  But this is no dolls-house game.  The miniatures are still used as educational tools for detectives and forensic investigators. She called them the Nutshell Studies because the purpose of a forensic investigation is said to be to "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell."

The body in the bedroom

A beautiful collection of photographs of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death has been done by Corinne Boltz.  You can see examples of her work at Corinne May Bolz.  And there is much more about the history of this extraordinary lady and the Nutshell Studies at Death in Diorama, which allows you to study some of the crime scenes and analyze – or miss – the evidence.  

Click on this link to try out the kitchen murder for yourself. Don't scroll over the scene until you have thought about what's in it...

Michael - Thursday


  1. You distracted me so by all those links to fascinating Holmesian moments that I completely forgot what witty thing I was going to write. Amazing isn't it, Michael, how woman of Ms. Lee's time persevered in the face of such overwhelming gender prejudices to accomplish such phenomenal deeds.

  2. Indeed! And seemed to think she was lucky to have the chance to do so! Of course, she was in comparison to other women.

  3. Death in Diorama...or Death in Dior as I read it!

  4. Thank you so much for this information. I have always been intrigued by the miniature and have made a few dioramas myself. By miniaturizing the details, it would be like looking at them through a magnifying glass and noticing clues that one might have missed before. How brilliant. I am looking forward to reading all about Miss Lee.

  5. She had to outlive her family to do her work, but now her work, her legacy, and her brilliant reputation endure. Always wonderful to know the story of a woman who won out because she wouldn't give up. Thank you, Michael.

  6. The Maryland Chief Medical Examiner's Office has the collection and conducts a Frances Glessner Lee seminar.

  7. This is yet another story of an amazing, determined woman who kept on with her interests -- and was talented, at that.

    It's incredible that she made these dioramas of crime scenes for teaching purposes, no less.

    Glad to hear her work is used today.