Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature

Close Up

Botz was able to photograph all of the Nutshell Studies that Lee had completed, except for one.  "One of the Nutshells was lost or destroyed.  It was the best one for training purposes, actually.  Lee had used it for teaching, because it was a study of two scenes, a 'before' and 'after,' and you had to figure out how the police had botched the case.  It showed a model of a woman who killed her husband and she's sweeping up evidence while the detective is standing there with his notebook in his hand."

In general, Botz prefers the domestic scenes, particularly one called "Parsonage Parlor."  A young girl, "Dorothy Dennison," lay dead on the floor.  This crime was "reported" on Friday, August 23, 1946.  As the story goes, Dorothy had gone out to purchase meat for dinner four days before, and while people saw her at the market, she did not return home.  Her mother, Mrs. James Dennison, called the police late that afternoon and Detective Robert Peal responded. The police searched empty buildings in the area, and finally found the body, face up in the parsonage and seemingly posed.  Temperatures in the mid-80s and high humidity readings had influenced the degree of decomposition, and there were bite marks evident on her chest and legs.  A knife stuck out from the corpse's left side, beneath the ribs.  Except for the body, a hammer, a package of maggoty meat on a chair, and a lone lamp, everything in the room was perfectly paired.  A church rector who resided in the house had been absent for several months, as indicated by a pile of tiny pieces of mail by the door.  Clearly, the perpetrator realized the place was both furnished and devoid of potential witnesses.  But the body's condition does not square with the package of meat, which has been there longer. 

"It's one of the most violent scenes," Botz says.  "It's a scene of innocence destroyed, and there are so many amazing symbols.  She's dressed in a white dress with red ballet slippers, a red belt, and red bow in her hair.  There's a picture of the Virgin Mary and child on the wall, and we read about her mother's increasing panic in the police report.  With all these symbols, it's like an allegorical painting.  This case touches me the most."

The project of photographing the Nutshell Studies and learning about the woman who designed them had offered an unexpected dimension for Botz.  "I first saw them on my twentieth birthday, and I kind of grew up in the process of taking the pictures and writing the book.  During that time, I was in art school, where I learned a lot about photography and perspective, but a formative part of my education came from the unending hours I spent looking at the Nutshells.  I learned a lot about methods of seeing for training detectives, and the psychic and cultural power an object can hold.  It's interesting because now when I photograph life-size interiors, people often mistake them for miniature."

An interior room of the Glessner House Museum
An interior room of the Glessner House Museum

She has displayed the pictures in different galleries, from New York to Washington, D.C., but one of her favorite places was the Glessner Museum in Chicago, the home where Lee grew up.  "We showed the photographs in what was Frances Glessner Lee's former bedroom.  It was an empty room, and in the room next to it they displayed objects that had belonged to Lee, like childhood toys.  Everybody there had done research on her early life, and had read her mother's journals.  They were the most lively group people, and it was special because the exhibit brought everyone together in that space."

But Lee is not the only one to see the potential for learning from such miniatures.


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