A Granny, Mysterious Death + Crime Scene Science

By Kate Crane


Because it’s crazy that no-tech, dollhouse-size dioramas are still smart teachers for 21st-century crime fighters.

Less than a mile from Camden Yards in Baltimore, behind a series of locked doors, is a room that holds 18 closely guarded mysteries. They are miniature but true to life, or rather, death. Homicide, suicide, accident (maybe). This isn’t an autopsy facility — that’s two floors down. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are the legacy of a prickly great-grandmother who helped launch early forensic science. And every last one nearly met with an untimely end in a dumpster.

Born to a wealthy family in Chicago in 1878 and married at 19, Frances Glessner Lee should have been a model socialite. But in her early 50s, Lee, a mother of three who’d already bucked convention by getting divorced, pivoted in a peculiar direction. It all started with an inheritance, a friendship with medical examiner and Harvard professor George Burgess Magrath, and her interest in a very unladylike topic — crime. At the time, homicide investigations often got bungled. What’s more, coroners, often political appointees without medical training, were more common than medical examiners, who are doctors. In 1932, Lee donated $250,000 to Harvard to create a chair in legal medicine; in 1934, she hand-selected and donated a thousand-book library of legal medicine to Harvard; and in 1945, she launched the Seminar in Homicide Investigation for State Police, which trained the earliest generation of detectives.

In her disciplined re-creation of bleak spaces and their tenants, Lee became a quiet champion of society’s throwaway women.

Lee threw seminar attendees an elaborate banquet at the Ritz-Carlton each year — and nixed the booze if the crowd got rowdy. “She wanted homicide detectives to be an elite, to conduct themselves as respectable professionals,” says Bruce Goldfarb, public information officer for Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. “She sought to elevate the profession.” Core to her work were the Nutshells, which provided crime scenes for detectives-in-training to study. Famed author Erle Stanley Gardner dedicated a Perry Mason novel to her, saying he admired how her mind, “working with the accurate precision of a railroad watch,” conceived of training that helped make a police officer “as much a professional man as the doctor or lawyer.” By now the number of homicide detectives who have gone through the seminar runs into the thousands, says Goldfarb.

14 fgl making nutshells

Frances Glessner Lee, working on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death at the Rocks, her family’s New Hampshire estate. Lee endowed the country’s first department of legal medicine, at Harvard.

Source Glessner House Museum

A talented miniaturist, Lee spent months and between $3,000 and $6,500 (enough in those days to buy a house) on each Nutshell. Over the course of two decades, she made at least 20, with the help of father-son carpenters Ralph and Alton Mosher. She probably would have kept going, but her eyesight gave out. Although created using details from actual cases, the Nutshells aren’t meant to be solved. Rather, says Goldfarb, the Nutshells are about observing evidence. An obsessive person who slept little and read voraciously — receipts show she bought vast quantities of books — Lee ensured the scenes were as credible as possible. I’ve examined them closely; they are not toys. Blood spatter and lividity are carefully rendered. Lee hand-rolled tiny cigarettes for one Nutshell, and another one, later destroyed, contained a miniature pencil with real lead. There is a working mousetrap the size of an aspirin, and Lee knit doll-size women’s stockings.

But Lee left us something more subtle to detect. Susan Marks, director of documentary film Of Dolls and Murder, calls it a “subversive compassion.” Many of the Nutshells’ dead are women, mostly marginalized, who for the most part died at home, where they should have been safe. Lee did not have tea with prostitutes, nor did she ever summer in a seaside SRO. But she studied fiendishly. In her disciplined re-creation of bleak spaces and their tenants, Lee became a quiet champion of society’s throwaway women. “She’s making a definite statement,” says William Tyre, executive director and curator of the Glessner House Museum. In Lee’s work, he says, “nothing is coincidental. Nothing happens without careful thought.”

She herself has largely been forgotten. No, it didn’t help that she was a woman. But this renowned hostess, antiques dealer and head of a dairy farm may also have been short on charm. “She could be harsh with people. She was a tough person to work for,” says Marks. When Harvard closed the department of legal medicine after Lee’s death, it planned to throw out the Nutshells, which Russell Fisher, Maryland’s chief medical examiner from 1949 to 1982, rescued. (Harvard did not respond to requests for comment before publication.) 

The FGL Seminar in Homicide Investigation, conducted by the Maryland Medical Legal Foundation, still uses the Nutshells as training tools. “Technology may change, but the art of observation doesn’t,” says Marks. Lee, who died in 1962, was the first female police captain in the U.S., and she carried I.D. It was, wrote Laura J. Miller, “a hybrid of the calling card ubiquitous in the genteel society into which she was born, and the business card of the forensic visionary she became.” She had powers of arrest. Her legacy should be just as formidable.