Death in Miniature
While on business at the Medical Examiner's Office at the Baltimore city morgue, I happened to spot a series of tiny constructions sitting on shelves behind plastic. Curious, I took a closer look. They were dollhouses, but upon peeking inside I saw blood-splashed walls and tiny dolls lying face-up on kitchen floors, huddled under blankets, sprawled in bathtubs, or hanging from nooses. It was entirely incongruous: one does not expect to find dollhouses in the ME's office, nor bloody corpses inside dollhouses. But there they were. And nearby was a guestbook for people to make comments.
Gruesome as it was to look at these pint-sized "corpses" stabbed and brutalized (people with bizarre fantasies do such things), it was also quite fascinating. It's true that dolls are usually associated with children, to help them rehearse certain behaviors as well as be entertained, but for some people dolls also serve as fetish pieces and can even be transformed into frightening monsters. Their staring eyes can arouse considerable fear and aversion, and at least one serial killer became so fixated on artificial eyes that he cut real eyes from his victims. So these tiny "corpses," both cute and obscene as they lay perfectly still in their detailed dioramas, evoked conflicting feelings.
I asked about the models and learned that they'd been constructed during the 1940s to teach inexperienced police officers about different types of death scenes, and to encourage them to use careful observation to spot "indirect" evidence for crime reconstruction. I also learned about Frances Glessner Lee, the remarkable woman behind the project, who made each doll by hand — and who decided how each one would "die." I thought at the time that there should be a book on these creations, and even as it crossed my mind, someone was already on it: a photographer, Corinne May Botz. She, too, had encountered these scenarios at the ME's office and, haunted by them, wanted to create a legacy. She signed the guestbook and then came back for more.
While her publication, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is certainly the definitive account, there are other sources of information as well about Ms. Lee, notably an article written when she was alive, a 2004 piece in the New York Times, and a museum in Chicago based in the home where she grew up.
In addition, a new exhibition of forensic science, mounted by the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, includes Frances Glessner Lee as a key contributor to its history. Her obsession with crime and her determination to provide instruction for investigators, supported by her wealth, made her a unique individual indeed. It was she who named this series of 19 scenarios "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," so let's first find out who she was.