“Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” - the Dioramas of Frances Glessner Lee

25 March 1878, the millionaire heiress Frances Glessner Lee, who revolutionised the study of crime scene investigation with her dioramas, was born in Chicago.

“It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.“ (Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue“)

The daughter of a Chicago millionaire who loved to read Sherlock Holmes stories as a girl and was fascinated by forensic pathology was about to line up with the thousands of other women who were discouraged by their families to pursue a scientific career, a fate that would have cut out medical jurisprudence from the general idea of detailed investigations of crime scenes to reconstruct the circumstances of an offence by a hair’s breadth. Or, at the very least, set back the current protocol of crime scene investigation for decades. Widowed at the age of 52 and a mother of three children, Frances plucked up the courage and finally pursued her own career, first by assisting a classmate of her brother, Boston’s chief medical examiner George Burgess Magrath who was responsible for replacing the traditional coroners with medical professionals, furthered the establishment of the first department of legal medicine in the US at Harvard in 1931 and finally began constructing her eighteen hauntingly beautiful dollhouse-style dioramas.

With an astonishing attention to detail, Frances reconstructed quite gruesome crime scenes on a 1 inch to 1 foot scale with dolls and dollhouses, re-evaluating little Victorian girls’ dreams of the world of adults into a nightmare of mayhem. She created 18 of these scenes, calling them “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, mostly scenes of domestic violence, presented at annual conferences. Professionals were given 90 minutes to study them and draw their conclusions to be presented during a banquet. What sounds like a quirky mystery writer’s folly was actually so detailed and realistic that her dioramas are still used for training purposes to this day. Frances died at the age of 84, a pioneer of forensic science and the first female (honorary) captain of the New Hampshire State Police.

Depicted above are, along with a contemporary picture showing Frances at work, two  photos of her astonishing dioramas, released in a press kit accompanying a documentary of her life and works, called “Of Dolls and Murder” – more on