June 10, 2014

Murder miniatures, nutshell dioramas of death

Murder in Miniature by Rachel Nuwer in Slate
One woman’s ghastly dollhouse dioramas turned crime scene investigation into a science.

 Diorama Bedroom Crime Scene

Dorothy’s deathscape—dubbed the Parsonage Parlor—is one of 20 dollhouse crime scenes built by a woman named Frances Glessner Lee, nicknamed “the mother of forensic investigation.” Lee’s murder miniatures and pioneering work in criminal sciences forever changed the course of death investigations.

Lee, who went by the name Fanny, was born in 1878 to millionaire parents who made their money selling agricultural equipment. She grew up in Chicago and later said she suffered from a sheltered, lonely childhood. When Lee was 4 years old, her mother—also named Frances—recorded in her diary that her daughter had stated, “I have no company but my doll baby and God.” Along with her older brother, she was home-schooled in a fortresslike house that one architect described as “pathologically private.” Lee learned feminine skills such as sewing, embroidery, painting, and the art of miniatures from her mother and aunts, but at the same time had a fondness for Sherlock Holmes stories and medical texts….

After her brother left for Harvard University, Lee’s requests to also attend school were rebuffed. As her father liked to say, “A lady doesn’t go to school.”

She wasn't allowed to attend school …shortly before her 21st birthday, she married Blewett Lee, a lawyer and professor at Northwestern University. The couple had three children, but things soon fell apart and they divorced in 1914..
---
Despite being free of an unhappy marriage, years passed before Lee could truly come into her own. She was dependent on her family for financial support, but in 1929, that began to change. Her brother passed away, and a few years later her mother followed him to the grave. In 1936, her father died, passing on the family fortune to his daughter.

Lee, meanwhile, had begun nursing a passion for forensics, inspired by one of her brother’s friends, George Burgess Magrath, who served as Boston’s medical examiner and was famously skilled at solving perplexing murder cases of the day….

Lee decided to take it upon herself to reform the country’s legal medicine system. As a start, she donated money to Harvard to create a professorship for a legal medicine expert—which Magrath filled—and also created the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine, which was soon followed by the country’s first forensic pathology program….

Despite these successes, however, Lee felt that more was needed to teach students the emerging art of evidence gathering. It was impossible to bring them to crime scenes, so Lee decided to create her own miniature crime scenes to use for training. She called her creations the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. “She came up with this idea, and then co-opted the feminine tradition of miniature-making to advance in this male-dominated field,” ….

The 20 models Lee created were based on actual crime scenes, and she chose only the most puzzling cases in order to test aspiring detectives’ powers of observation and logic.

Posted by Jill Fallon at June 10, 2014 8:27 AM | Permalink