Behind a locked door in Baltimore’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner building there rests a truly peculiar secret. Rows of macabre dollhouse dioramas filled with bloodied dolls, each depicting a different murder scene at a scale of one-inch-to-one-foot.
No, this isn’t a flashback to that one creepy kid from preschool. These are the astounding forensic constructions of Frances Glessner Lee – her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths.
Frances “Fanny” Glessner Lee was born in 1878 to wealthy industrialists from Chicago. As a child, she lived a safe but lonely life, with only her dolls to keep her company – and her stacks of Sherlock Holmes mysteries.
Lee’s official introduction to forensics came from a medical examiner friend out of Boston who regaled her with tales of murder scenes routinely ruined by careless detectives. While family expectations consigned her to a life of domesticity – miniature-making being an especially popular hobby for proper ladies of the day – Frances continued to nurture her fascination with criminal science. When her father passed in 1936, the 58-year-old heiress used her inheritance to establish a forensic pathology program at Harvard University, the first in the nation.
And it was at Harvard that she began work on her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. The dioramas were teaching tools, and Lee painstakingly reconstructed twenty of the most perplexing crime scenes to test the eyes and minds of budding detectives. In “The Pink Bathroom,” tiny rope fibers on a doorknob match those of the murder weapon; the brutalized doll corpse in “The Parsonage Parlor” displays the same amount of blood and bloat as that of the actual victim; shrunken keys unlock tiny doors; a teeny mousetrap snaps shut if you touch the trigger; there’s even a little rocking chair that rocks precisely three times, mirroring the human-sized seat at the scene of the crime.
Lee passed away in 1962 at the age of 83. Her contribution to forensics earned her an honorary title with the New Hampshire State Police and her Nutshell Studies are still in use today. In fact, each diorama of unexplained death has a solution hidden within the shrunken crime scenes – one that is revealed to you only if you’re clever enough to crack the case on your own.