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DOLL HOUSES with grisly murder scenes, constructed by a wealthy grandmother?  It sounds downright creepy—until you learn that Frances Glessner Lee also founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University in 1936. She called the dioramas her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths and used them to teach criminal investigators how to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”


Frances Glessner Lee, 1878 – 1962, heiress known for revolutionizing murder investigation through her construction of crime-scene dioramas. This and other images from Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Born into wealth (Frances Glessner Lee’s father was co-founder of International Harvester), she and her elder brother grew up in a strange environment, alternately characterized as pathologically private yet also full of civic and cultural interactions among Chicago’s elite.

Her father felt that women had no need of higher education, a fact that altered FGL’s life, including the failure of her marriage. During its complex 1913-1914 dissolution, she occupied herself by building her first diorama, a miniature version of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a birthday gift for her mother. The ninety dolls, each with a modeled instrument, developed into an all-absorbing and satisfying project.

FGL’s second diorama, of the Flonzaley Quartet, had figures so well rendered that the actual string quartet members amused each other with their modeled eccentricities.

Her brother’s Harvard med-school friend, George Burgess Magrath, encouraged FGL’s interest in medicine and the law. Her father objected when, in 1931-1932, she underwrote a Harvard professorship of legal medicine. Over the next several years, she established a library of legal medicine at Harvard as well as the George Burgess Magrath Endowment of Legal Medicine.

FGL’s father died in 1936; her friend Dr. Magrath, in 1938. Only then did her own career flourish.

During the 1940s and 1950s, FGL hosted a series of semi-annual Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Crime investigators were invited to week-long Harvard conferences where she and other speakers would offer instruction using intricately constructed 1/12-scale models of crime scenes. (Mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner was a personal friend and a frequent speaker at these conferences.) Investigators were given 90 minutes to study each diorama, followed by discussion and analysis: What had they observed?


Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, essays and photography by Corinne May Botz, Monacelli Press, 2004. An link: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Author/photographer Corinne May Botz offers documentation of FGL’s achievements. One section gives details of the crime-scene constructions, their realism including doors with operating hinges and locks, functioning window shades, accurately textured surfaces and the like.


Police investigators examine the Burned Cabin, one of 18 FGL crime scenes.

Another section of the book is a Forward to the Investigator, in which FGL cautions, “The Nutshell Studies are not presented as crimes to be solved—they are, rather, designed as exercises in observing and evaluating indirect evidence, especially that which may have medical importance.”

This, by the way, is in marked contrast to other 1/12-scale dioramas constructed by another Chicagoan of wealth, Narcissa Niblack Thorne. See for these miniature representations of historical decor.

Today, the FGL crime scenes reside in Baltimore’s Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, where they are on permanent loan and still used for seminars in forensics.


Author Corinne May Botz studies the Parsonage Parlor.

Background on the Parsonage Parlor: On Monday, August 19th, Mrs. Dennison sent her teenage daughter to buy hamburger at the market. She never returned and her body was found bludgeoned and stabbed in an unoccupied parsonage.


The Parsonage Parlor is analyzed.

Does symmetry (1) of the room suggest anything? Might the piano (2) contain bloodstains? Covered furniture (3) may explain the parsonage’s unoccupied status that summer. The hamburger (6) is placed on a chair, not tossed haphazardly. Details of the corpse (7, 8, 9) may be substantiated by post-mortem study. Note the hammer and knife.


A detail of the parsonage shows the artistry of FGL’s modeling.

Several of the book’s 18 crime scenes are given analyses by modern professionals in forensic science. FGL would be pleased that what’s stressed is observation, not just resolution.

For each reader, the game is still afoot. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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