Thursday, November 30, 2017

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Michael - Thursday

The Nutshell Studies are amazingly carefully constructed miniatures, based on actual murder scenes, that were lovingly designed by Frances Lee in the first half of the twentieth century.  Since I came across their story a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the concept, and that these creations, more than sixty years old, are still used to train detectives today. I didn’t imagine that I would ever get to see them; they aren’t normally on public display, and all (except one) reside at the Harvard Medical School. But, at the end of our recent book tour to promote Dying to Live, while I was visiting a friend in Washington, I discovered that there was a special exhibition at the Renwick Gallery for three months. I had to see them, so I dragged my friend downtown. (He wasn’t impressed, pronouncing them ‘weird.’ Fortunately, the gallery, which specializes in modern crafts, had other wonderful exhibits for him to enjoy.)

Puzzling out the mysteries
I expected that the exhibition would be fairly lightly attended—many might think it weird—but it was a good thing we went early; it was soon packed. Although admiring the craftwomanship, the visitors were actually keener to solve the mysteries. Many suggestions flew about. When I was unmasked as a mystery writer, my opinion was eagerly sought. I could have sold a dozen books if I’d had them with me!

Frances Glessner Lee herself was just as interesting as her creations. She was a nineteenth century heiress with no formal post-school education, who became an expert and teacher of forensic crime investigation, who rose to be the first female police captain in a US police force, who is considered the “mother of forensic science,” and who helped to found the first Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University when the field of forensics was in its infancy. She had an international reputation, but 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.”

Lee 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 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 loved 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 – piqued 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 interest.  Then, with her substantial inheritance from her father’s International Harvester fortune, she endowed a department of legal medicine at Harvard.  Not content with that, she set up a seminar series for investigators that continues to this day.  She wasn’t just tolerated as a rich donor and heaped with formal honors.  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.

Barbara Barnes, housewife, found dead by police who responded to a call from her husband, Fred Barnes.
Mr. Barnes gave the following statement:
About 4 pm on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 11, he had gone downtown on an errand for his wife. He returned about an hour and a half later and found the outside door to the kitchen locked. It was standing open when he left. Mr. Barnes attempted knocking and calling but got no answer. He tried the front door but it was also locked. He then went to the kitchen window, which was closed and locked. He looked in and saw what appeared to be his wife lying on the floor. He then summoned the police.
The model shows the premises just before the police forced open the kitchen door.

At the time there was very little training for investigators, so they often overlooked or damaged key evidence, or contaminated the crime scene. Few had any medical training that would allow them to determine cause of death. As Lee and her colleagues at Harvard worked to change that, there was a need for real examples that the trainees could investigate using their new knowledge. That’s apparently what motivated her to create the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 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 Log Cabin

Lee said that her aim was to teach police detectives to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell,” but there must have been more to it than that. She must have enjoyed the physical creation process as well. She worked with a carpenter on the models, but also did many things herself—writing tiny letters with a pen consisting of a single paintbrush hair, knitting tiny socks by hand with two pins, rolling miniature cigarettes with real tobacco (and burning them down to relatively the right length). Everything is strictly to scale—one twelfth of the original size. The scenes are based on challenging real cases, and she was fixated on getting the details perfect. Her carpenter once made her a tiny rocking chair which she rejected because it didn’t stop after the same number of rocks as the original!


Not only has the museum made a set of pictures of the Nutshells available, but it also has a virtual reality option which allows you to explore them in 3D. These are HERE. And if you are in the Washington area, take a look for yourself and see how many you can solve!


  1. So much for giving doll houses for Christmas gifts when one can give a fully equipped murder scene! Thanks for the shopping hint.

  2. Creepy but somehow wonderful! Such attention to detail.

  3. Fascinating story and kudos to Frances for starting it all.