Before we had CSI or DNA, we had dolls – an unimaginable collection of dollhouse crime scenes known at the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. The dioramas were created into the 1930s and 1940 by wealthy heiress, Frances Glessner Lee.
Lee created the dollhouses of death to help train detectives to become better at catching criminals. And, as an added bonus, every single one of the 18 Nutshells just happens to be stunning works of art.
The Nutshells – which are still used today for training – are home to violent murder, prostitution, mental illness, adultery and more often than not, alcoholism. Each dollhouse has corpse dolls representing actual murder victims.
In one puzzling case, a beautiful woman lays shot to death in her bed, her clean-cut, pajama-clad husband lies next to the bed, also fatally shot. Their little baby was shot as she slept in her crib. Blood is spattered everywhere. And all the doors are locked from the inside, meaning the case is likely a double homicide/suicide. But something isn’t right. The murder weapon is nowhere near the doll corpses – instead the gun is in another room.
Not knowing the answer to this Nutshell is what led me to make a documentary film about these unimaginable dollhouses and their connection to modern day crime fighting. My journey making this film has been nothing short of incredible. Not only have I filmed the Nutshells on numerous occasions, but I’ve also attended homicide detective seminars and engaged in countless conversations with men and women devoted to finding justice.
I’ve also filmed a ride along with a homicide detective on a death call. You can see some of it in the movie trailer. I spent one unforgettable day filming at the Body Farm – a forensic anthropological site in Tennessee. Additionally, I’ve spent hours in morgues, cemeteries, crime labs, police stations and pathology labs. And I can say that I’m lucky enough to have interviewed a CSI producer and CSI’s in training at DeSales University. Suffice to say, I’ve come away with a deep respect for anyone – professional or otherwise – who speaks for the dead.
If my film sounds like your cup of forensics, I hope you will be on the look out as Of Dolls and Murder makes its way to select film festivals and cool art house theaters around the world. Most recently, Of Dolls and Murder was chosen as a Director’s Top Pick at the Revelation International Film Festival in Perth, Australia.
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And if you would like to read more about Frances Glessner Lee – the Patron Saint of Forensic Medicine: by all accounts Captain Frances Glessner Lee was a genius, an artist, a scientist, and light years ahead of her time. As the heiress to the International Harvester fortune, Lee spent much of her life stymied by societal pressures and family expectations. Yet she was able to contribute greatly to the scientific and criminal justice realms in an extremely captivating and eloquent way.
Born in Chicago in 1878, Lee grew up on 1800 South Prairie Avenue. Her house is now a historic house museum. Lee’s parents, John and Frances Glessner, forbade their only daughter from attending college. Lee’s brother, George, however, attended Harvard. This injustice didn’t waylay Lee’s ambitions, it just postponed them.
George introduced Lee to his Harvard classmate, George MaGrath, who became close with the Glessner family. MaGrath, in turn, introduced Lee to the concept that police detectives weren’t properly trained to process crime scenes for medical evidence. At the time, in the 1890s, forensics was called Legal Medicine and it was a very new concept. Lee and MaGrath would eventually join forces to popularize forensics in the United States.
At age 20, Lee married Blewett Lee – an attorney. The marriage was an unhappy one. While three children resulted from their union, the couple separated for many years and ultimately divorced.
While raising her children, Lee also nurtured an interest in creating miniatures, which was considered an acceptable pastime for socialites. By the time Lee was a grandmother, she had combined her pastime with her passion for murder mystery into creating the Nutshells Studies of Unexplained Death. She also donated $250,000 to establish a Legal Medicine program at Harvard in 1932. She literally paid for her friend George MaGrath’s salary as department chair. Her continued interest led to a donation of over 1,000 books and manuscripts, which became the MaGrath Library of Legal Medicine.
The Nutshells were used in a popular seminar series Lee founded, the Harvard Associates of Police Science (HAPS), to help train detectives to sharpen their investigative skills.
For her contributions to forensics, Lee was appointed State Police Captain in New Hampshire in 1943. She was an honorary captain at first, but then she went on to get all the rights and privileges of a police captain. Lee was the first female member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which is the leading forensic science organization in the world. She was also the first woman invited into the International Chiefs of Police Association.
Throughout the 1940 and 1950s, Lee continued with her well-attended HAPS seminars where she earned the respect of the attendees for her dedication to the pursuit of justice.
Author Erle Stanley Gardner attended Lee’s HAPS seminars for research with his Perry Mason novels. To show his appreciation, he dedicated his novel The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, to Lee.
When Lee died in 1962, hundreds of mourners, including several hundred police officers and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, attended her funeral.
The film Of Dolls and Murder is dedicated to her memory.