Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature

Truth in a Nutshell

In 1943, Frances Glessner Lee received an honorary appointment as a captain of the New Hampshire State Police, which made her the first woman to hold such a position, and in 1949 she was also the first woman to be invited to the initial meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.  She attended the lectures during the second year of its existence.  In addition, she became the first female invited to join the International Association for the Chiefs of Police.

Yet even as some officers counted her as their patron saint, she took ridicule for her plain style.  She wore her hair clipped short and her dress tended to be black.  Her routine was rigid, her manner abrupt, and she did not flinch from bullying to get a job done the way she wanted it.  Since she enjoyed precision, it was natural that she would cultivate a scientific attitude.  Those who valued her contribution got along with her quite well, and even counted it a privilege to have known her.

Lee had noticed, largely thanks to Magrath, that police officers often made mistakes when trying to determine whether a death was the result of an accident, a natural event, a suicide, or a homicide.  Too often they simply missed clues.  She thought that something concrete and practical should be done to mitigate this, and she envisioned a series of crime tableaux as teaching devices.  They could be made to scale, she believed, and include all the items found in actual crime scenes.  From her domestic upper class training, she knew just what to do: she would replicate crime scenes in miniature.

Lee's first attempt to create a miniature was not, in fact, one of the Nutshells.  Instead, according to Botz, it was a replica of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a gift she made when she was 35 for her music-loving mother.  Lee spent two months crafting ninety tiny musicians, all fully garbed and each with musical scores and a specific instrument.  It was not uncommon during this era for women of means to make miniatures as a pastime, but Lee had been fully immersed in the project.  Her sense of perfection paid off.  Her mother was delighted.  Then she tried another one, but this project took two years.  This replica was also of musicians, but it was so minutely individualized that the four men on whom she had based it were astonished by the resemblance.  Thus, Lee was fully prepared to take on the Nutshells Studies.

Barn Scene
Barn Scene

Her motto, according to the NIH site, as she had heard from a detective, was "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell."  To put herself fully into the project, she set aside the second floor of her four-story mansion at the Rocks for a workshop, filling one room entirely with miniature furniture from which she could select whatever she needed.  To create each diorama, she blended several stories, sometimes going with police officers to crime scenes or the morgue, sometimes reading reports in the newspapers, sometimes interviewing witnesses, and sometimes utilizing fiction.  She apparently even attended autopsies.  She preferred enigmatic scenarios, where the answer was not obvious; One had to examine all the clues, including items that did not initially appear significant.  Always changing the names, she kept real scenes confidential.  At times, for her own delight, she included items or wallpaper patterns from her own household.

It wasn't long before Lee had everything she needed to put together some grisly scenes.  For her, these were not dollhouses or miniatures, but teaching tools.