Just what is a “Nutshell Study of Unexplained Death,” you ask? Good question.
They’re intricate, real dioramas made from 1940s and 1950s crime scenes – complete with the charred skeletons and pools of congealed blood.
Each “Nutshell Study” was made by Frances Glessner Lee for Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine and they capture a different crime scene down to the tiniest possible detail. They’re still used in criminologist training in Baltimore.
“I’m looking at the sidewalk and there are tiny cigarettes, three millimeters long, that she rolled by hand,” marvels Ariel O’Connor, the Smithsonian’s Conservator. “Her level of detail just astounds me daily.”
The dioramas will be on public display for the first time in the exhibition Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Lee was born into a wealthy family that refused to allow her to go to college, and she had to wait until later in life to pursue her interest in forensics. She made her mark on the field, however, is now recognized as the “mother of forensic science” and was named State Police Captain of New Hampshire in 1943. She created her dioramas in order to train homicide investigators to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”
And the dioramas leave no detail unfinished – there’s a tiny bullet stuck in rafters, rigor mortis in the legs of a female victim, and a million other tiny things that shouldn’t be missed by investigators. O’Connor is amazed by each and every one:
“It’s as if she’s created a world of virtual reality that could be complete from any angle. That includes elements the viewer cannot see in totality, like a poster in a saloon partially visible through a door, completely illustrated to advertise a boxing match. A bathroom has a view to a metal fireplace and bricks, and entire two-story room Lee added solely for that glimpse, and more.”
The details were meant to highlight – and distract – from clues that detectives could use to solve the murders, but some of them have aged enough to obscure the truth. For instance, bright red blood on a doll’s face has faded to purple that could be seen as decomposition, or lighting fixtures are off from the way Lee originally intended. O’Connor and others at the Smithsonian worked to restore them to their original glory before the exhibition opens.
O’Connor thinks that Lee would be pleased to have a new generation of people take a closer look at her tiny works of art.
“She was really concerned for victims on the fringes of society. They’re almost always poor or female or both; they’re prostitutes, drunkards, and people who are not mainstream, whose cases might not be taken seriously. She advocated that everyone, regardless of gender, regardless of income, was worth investigating.”
An admirable goal, to be sure. The exhibition is no longer on display, but if it comes around again anytime soon, it definitely seems like a sight to behold.