Some grandmothers bake cookies. Others pinch your cheeks and ask when you're going to start pumping out those grandkids. Frances Glessner Lee was a grandmother who spent most of her time creating obsessively detailed dioramas that portrayed gruesome crime scenes and real life deaths. She also happened to be a wealthy heiress -- you know, back when the term heiress actually meant something and didn't involve sex tapes or tea cup dog breeds -- who founded Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine in 1936. It was there that she trained investigators in the forensic pathology program with her Nutshell Studies -- creating dollhouses viewable from every angle, that depicted crime scene details based on actual case studies. Lee used unexplained cases as the model for her artistic and educational creations, focusing on accidents, murders and suicides in order to teach detectives how to read evidence.
Keep in mind this was during a period in America's history when a coroner did not have to be medically trained, so Lee's invention was pretty revolutionary for the time. The 18 dioramas she created throughout the 30's and 40's resemble a scene from a horror film. And for those of you who thought that CSI episode about the Miniature Killer meant the show's writers had actually come up with an original idea -- think again. It's pretty clear that Glessner's work has influenced many far and wide.
Lee's fascinating realm of miniatures have transcended the classroom and have been compared to the works of other artists who have explored toy worlds, like Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal. Horror fans may also be reminded of the morbid but beautiful still photography sequence in the opening credits of Ginger Snaps. Not only are the dioramas well crafted, Lee's extreme attention to detail is evocative and really calls to mind the familiar spaces in which these poor souls died. There are lace curtains in the windows and blinds that can be manipulated, pencils on desks that actually write, granules of sugar on the kitchen floor and peeled potatoes in the kitchen sink. Of course, all the blood splatters aren't randomly placed. Like all of the case evidence, everything is modeled after crime scene photographs, statements and other information that was gathered on site -- frozen in time.
Even though Harvard's department was phased out in 1966, Lee's collection of dolls and murder were moved to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office. The collection will be moving again after July, but will remain in the same capable hands -- however, keep in mind that the Nutshell Studies are not publicly on display. The best way to view the collection is by purchasing a beautiful book put out by photographer Corinne May Botz. She discovered Lee's work while making a video about women who collect dollhouses and has been hooked ever since. The book details Lee's personal history which is compelling enough, but the full color photographs of her macabre studies are attractively laid out and the annotated line drawings highlight some of the evidence that was present in each case.
Check out some of the crime scene dioramas below. Let me know if these tiny terrors lure you in the same way they did me.
"I roomed in the same house as Maggie, but we only spoke when we met in the hall. I think she was subject to fits (seizures). A couple of male friends came to see her fairly regularly. Tonight, the men were in her room and there seemed to be a good deal of drinking going on. Sometime after they left, I heard the water still running in the bathroom, so I opened the door and found Maggie dead in the tub with water pouring down on her face."
-- Statement from Lizzie Miller taken on November 6, 1896 (taken from Corinne May Botz's book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death)
"Eben was hard to get along with. When he was irritated he would go out to the barn, stand up on a bucket, put a noose around his neck and threaten suicide. I always talked him out of it. This afternoon, July 14, about four o'clock, we had an argument and he made the usual threats but I didn't follow him to the barn right away. When I did I found him hanging there with his feet through a wooden crate. the bucket usually stood in the corner just inside the barn door, but yesterday I used it and left it out by the pump. The rope was always kept fastened to the beam just the way it was found -- it was part of the regular barn hoist."
--Statement from Mrs. Wallace reported on Saturday, July 15, 1939 (taken from Corinne May Botz's book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death)
"After Paul left I watched for Bob to come out. Finally about 8:15 A.M., seeing no signs of activity at the Judson house, I went over to their porch and tried the front door. It was locked. I knocked and called but got no answer. Then I walked around to the kitchen porch, but that door was also locked. I looked in through the glass, saw some blood and ran home and called the police."
--Statement from Sarah Abbott reported Monday, November 1, 1937 (taken from Corinne May Botz's book, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death)