Murder Downsized

New York Times, 2004



Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, provided for just about every creature comfort when she fashioned 19 dollhouse rooms during the 1940's. She stocked the larders with canned goods and placed half-peeled potatoes by the kitchen sink. Over a crib she pasted pink striped wallpaper.

But you might not want your dolls to live there.

Miniature corpses—bitten, hanged, shot, stabbed and poisoned—are slumped everywhere. The furnishings show signs of struggles and dissolute lives; liquor bottles and chairs have been overturned; ashtrays overflow.

Mrs. Lee, a volunteer police officer with an honorary captain's rank whose father was a founder of the International Harvester Company, used her ghoulish scenes to teach police recruits the art of observation.

She called her miniatures the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, after a saying she had heard from detectives: “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” At her thousand-acre estate in Bethlehem, N.H., she set up a workshop called the Nutshell Laboratories. The first woman to become a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, she noticed how often officers mishandled evidence and mistook accidents for murders and vice versa. After endowing a new department in legal medicine at Harvard, she created the Nutshells as classroom tools, packing them with tiny but detectable clues: lipstick smears on a pillowcase, a bullet embedded in a wall.

“The inspector may best examine them by imagining himself a trifle less than six inches tall,” she suggested in her curriculum notes.

The Nutshells now reside at the office of the Maryland state medical examiner in Baltimore, where they are still used in seminars. Miniaturists, artists, academics and set designers also flock to them.

Now they are going public. Corinne May Botz , a Brooklyn photographer, has taken some 500 close-ups of the crime scenes, and interviewed 19 people who knew Mrs. Lee. The resulting book, “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” (Monacelli Press), will be released on Oct. 14. On the same day an exhibit of her photos will open at the Bellwether Gallery in Manhattan.

Not surprisingly, John Waters, a Baltimore native, is an admirer of the sometimes blood-splattered dioramas. “When I saw these miniature crime scenes,” he said in an e-mail message on Tuesday, “I felt breathless over the devotion that went into their creation. Even the most depraved Barbie Doll collector couldn't top this.” A heavily used guest book is posted near the Nutshells like an evidence log. “Wonderful,” wrote David Byrne (another Baltimore celebrity) in his Nov. 9, 2001, entry.

And on May 14, 1997, Ms. Botz wrote, “Better than anything I've seen before.” Then a photography student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she was about to become obsessed. Ms. Botz, 27, says she never figured out why Mrs. Lee, a middle-aged divorcee, spent years looping nooses and painting blood smears on vignettes of working-class misery. “Lee and the Nutshells offered infinite stories and perspectives,” she writes in the book's preface, “entire volumes of stories inside stories, stories enough to eat you alive and stories enough to keep you alive.”

Staff members at the medical examiner's office have known Ms. Botz so long by now that they ask her how her summer went and whether she has changed her hairstyle. The Nutshells, fronted in clear plastic, line a darkened end of a corridor. A motion sensor flicks on their tiny lamps and ceiling fixtures whenever anyone walks by. The pint-size death scenes share the hall with enlarged copies of technical articles with headlines like “Suicide Using a Compound Bow and Arrow” and “Pathogenesis of Vertebral Artery Occlusion.”

During a tour last month, Ms. Botz noticed a few details for the first time. On the underside of a wooden ironing board, for instance, next to a fallen housewife, Ms. Botz spotted a pencil inscription: ''50 cents.''

Could Mrs. Lee have been trying to suggest that the couple had just bought a cheap ironing board, that poverty had something to do with the crime? Or did she just forget to erase a price tag? “It's odd,” Ms. Botz said, peering through the plastic. “What's that about? It's not like her to leave something like that showing.”

Mrs. Lee based her tableaus on true stories, but changed the names of victims, suspects and witnesses. The pseudonyms sound ominous: Homer Cregg, Wilby Jenks, Sergeant Moriarty. She also gave each diorama a creepy name: Burned Cabin, Unpapered Bedroom, Dark Bathroom. Some of the furniture was store-bought, made by companies like TynieToy. Other objects were fashioned by Mrs. Lee, who was adept at turning jewelry charms into tchotchkes and straight pins into knitting needles.

A carpenter built the dioramas, adding back stairwells and yards even though students would barely be able to see them. Keys turn in locks, a pencil writes, a whistle can be blown. Before contorting the dolls into their death throes, Mrs. Lee lovingly knitted stockings and beaded moccasins for them.

“There's something so safe and controlled” about the Nutshells, Ms. Botz said. “There's this unsettled quality, that these houses are under siege, yet there are neat and tidy solutions.”

Ms. Botz knows but does not reveal whodunit in the book, except for five cases now considered too confusing for students to unravel (including a death by brain hemorrhage). Mrs. Lee's own motivations are the subject of some speculation. Was she trying to subtly draw attention to domestic violence, then a neglected subject? Was she escaping the stifling conventions for wealthy women of her time?

Jennifer Doublet of Los Angeles, an architect who has written a scholarly essay on Mrs. Lee, said this week in an e-mail message: “For me there is perhaps nothing more satisfying in the Nutshells than the subversive pleasure of seeing the world of male detectiving blown wide apart by the macabre depiction of domestic violence in the precious, controlled, female space of a doll's house.”

Or was Mrs. Lee rebelling against the opulent interiors of her childhood? She grew up in a fortresslike Chicago mansion designed in the 1880's by the Romanesque Revival architect H. H. Richardson. It is now a museum called Glessner House. Her parents, John J. and Frances Macbeth Glessner, sent their son, George, to Harvard but wouldn't let their brilliant, imperious daughter attend college. In 1898, at age 20, Frances married a milquetoast law professor named Blewett Lee. Three children and 16 years later, they divorced. The future Captain Lee retreated to New Hampshire, where she dabbled in antiques dealing. George introduced her to a Harvard-trained medical examiner named George Burgess Magrath. His gruesome casework intrigued Mrs. Lee, who once wrote in a letter, “This has been a lonely and rather terrifying life.”

In addition to underwriting a department at Harvard that hired Dr. Magrath, Mrs. Lee organized lavish parties during its criminology seminars. An $8,000 set of dinnerware was set aside for this event at the Ritz-Carlton for crowds of adoring policemen, who gorged themselves on caviar, foie gras and filet mignon. “She gave hours of careful consideration to the seating arrangements, to the floral decorations and to the program,” wrote Erle Stanley Gardner, the author of the Perry Mason mysteries, in a 1962 obituary about Mrs. Lee.

Harvard lost interest in forensics after her death and shuttered the department. A former professor there, Dr. Russell Fisher, became Maryland's chief medical examiner and brought the Nutshells with him. Participants in police science seminars have been poring over the models ever since.

By 1992 Mrs. Lee's creations were disintegrating, and the Maryland Medical-Legal Foundation donated $50,000 for their restoration. The conservation team's report reads like a crime log: “The blood on the body was discolored and faded.”

Despite the dated decor and narratives, criminologists still swear by the Nutshells. “People take them as seriously as any other crime scene,” said Dr. David R. Fowler, the current chief medical examiner for Maryland. “I've never seen anybody make jokes, because of the degree of intricacy and detail. The quality is stunning. I have never seen any computer-generated programs that even come close.”

The office is planning a larger headquarters, with a Nutshells gallery off the lobby.

“I could get hired as the full-time curator,” Ms. Botz said, only half-joking. Then she recanted: “It's time to move on. It wouldn't be sort of healthy for me to stay with this any longer.”

Follow the Clues: The Living Room
Early on May 22, 1941, the body of Ruby Davis was found at the foot of the stairs—head first—by her husband, Reginald, after he said he awoke to find a vacancy on her side of the bed. Were her injuries consistent with a fall? Cigarette butts in the ashtray are identified as Lucky Strikes, a test for aspiring detectives.

Forensic Report: Blue Bedroom
Around midnight on Nov. 3, 1943, Charles Logan was shot dead following an argument with his wife, Caroline. She says she discovered her husband's body shortly after he retired to his private bedroom (in itself an indication of a strained relationship) and she heard a gunshot. She described the victim's state shortly before his death as ''typically drunk and quarrelsome.''

On the floor near the bed where Logan's body was found were trousers and a gun, a piece of string wrapped around the trigger, suggesting suicide; on the dresser, more string. The victim is positioned on his right side, but the gun is on the floor behind him. A chair is overturned. Blood is splattered on the headboard. In the shadow of the bed, a bottle, what investigators call an in-plain-sight clue.

Forensic Report: Kitchen
On April 11, 1944, an aproned Robin Barnes is found dead in her kitchen, midcuisine. The gas jets on the stove are open, her rosy hue indicates carbon monoxide poisoning, and the doors to the kitchen are locked, barring escape for a murderer. But would a suicidal housewife take the time to bake a cake? And why is the ironing board tagged “50 cents”? A beverage on the table and ice trays on the floor suggest that Mrs. Barnes could have had company.

A show of photographs by Corinne May Botz opens Oct. 14 at the Bellwether Gallery, 134 10th Avenue (18th Street; 212–929–5959). Viewings of the Nutshells are limited; requests may be addressed to Dr. David R. Fowler, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 111 Penn Street, Baltimore, Md. 21201.