The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

There is a miniature community of horrors on the third floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office. A display of 18 exquisitely crafted models of actual crime scenes presents grisly vignettes of violent death.

The models were made in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy, eccentric Chicago woman who had been raised on Sherlock Holmes tales and had a lifelong fascination with sleuthing. Lee is reputedly the inspiration for the character of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.

In 1931, Lee gave $250,000 to establish the nation’s first department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School, and she created the models for use in its forensic pathology program.


Images from The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz, used with permission.

When Lee built her models, forensic pathology was in its infancy. In most parts of the country, a coroner did not have to be medically trained.

“It’s not necessary for [a coroner] to know a tibia from a tuba, a choked drain from a choked windpipe,” journalist Pete Martin wrote in the Saturday Evening Post of December 10, 1949. “The only skilled knowledge he may have is how to play ball with the local political bosses. About the facts of violent death he may know precisely nothing.”

Lee “felt that there should be better interaction between law enforcement and the medical community,” says Carl F. Flemke, Maryland’s chief death investigator. “Certain cases were falling through the cracks.”

She called her models the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, after the saying in forensic pathology that an investigation’s purpose is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell,” Flemke says.

The studies were based on actual crime scenes, reconstructed from photographs, sketches and statements by witnesses and police. Only names and revealing details were changed. The dollhouse-like models are designed on a scale of one foot to one inch, perfectly proportioned for an investigator six inches tall.

Some of the models could have been drawn from Norman Rockwell paintings. A kitchen lined with faded floral wallpaper is washed in warm sunlight filtering through lace-edged window curtains. A cake cools in the oven. Peeled potatoes sit in the sink. An ironing board and basket of laundry occupy in the center of the floor.

But one ghastly detail disturbs the coziness: The dead body of a 45-year-old woman, her hair pulled into a bun, supine on the floor in front of the open ice box. She wears a print dress and an apron, and stares blankly at the ceiling.

During training, an investigator is taught to methodically scan the room, starting at one point and sweeping in a clockwise direction. Every detail must be noted. All the gas jets on the stove are wide open. Both doors are locked from the inside. The windows are closed and secured with spring-loaded locks. Newspaper is stuffed in the gaps around the door; nearby is a stack of paper and a knife apparently used for this purpose.

Looks like suicide. But Maryland’s chief medical examiner John Smialek*, M.D, points out inconsistent details. The woman was in the midst of performing routine domestic chores. Would she bake a cake and iron the laundry while on the verge of suicide? A bench in front of a window is slightly askew in an otherwise tidy room. An ice cube tray is on the floor beside her body, as though she had been getting a cool drink for a visitor.

Was it suicide, or murder?

“Her estranged husband killed her, then tried to cover it by making it look like suicide,” Dr. Smialek explains.

Alcohol and lust are common themes portrayed in other models, such as “The Red Bedroom,” in which a prostitute is crumpled at the floor of her closet, with her throat sliced and wrists bound by rope. Two liquor bottles and a box of chocolates sit on the bedroom floor.

Some models depict accidental deaths. In “The Burned Cabin,” a body on the bed is charred beyond recognition.

Another model is a double-homicide/suicide, an intricate three-room tableau in which a man shot his wife and infant with a rifle as they slept, then put a bullet through his own head in the kitchen. Despite the lethal head wound, he had walked through the house, sitting for a while at the foot of his child’s crib, before lying on the bed next to his dead wife in their bedroom. Blood is spattered everywhere.

The models were used in the 1940s during seminars in forensic pathology at Harvard.

“They were invaluable as training tools,” Dr. Smialek says. “Today we can shoot video. “At the time, there was no other way to recreate a scene in such a way that it could be scored in a standardized way.”

Twice a year, Lee brought together forensic experts and homicide detectives from across the nation for intensive training sessions. The Nutshell Studies were the focal point of the week-long seminars, Flemke says. Participants were given 90 minutes to study each model, a grueling practice that requires intense concentration.

The most minute detail could be significant: the lividity of the skin, the knot in the rope around the wrists, the positions of the weapon and the victim, spatters of blood on walls and ceilings. At this scale, a mote-sized particle can be crucial. In one model, of a lover’s cabin, the bullet is literally a pinpoint wedged in a rafter.

“The bullet is very difficult to find,” says Flemke. “Hard as that is to see, you have to spend that type of time to scrutinize a scene that closely, because that cleared an innocent person in this case.”

Seminar participants were only allowed to observe, using tools that would be available at the scene of the crime, such as a flashlight and a magnifying glass. But no crime lab or autopsy results.

After forcing seminar attendees to strain their eyes for a week, Lee hosted an elaborate banquet at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where cops were feted with prime rib and cherries jubilee served on $8,000 gilt china. These banquets were “the social highlights of the seminars on homicide investigation,” wrote Perry Mason creator and longtime Lee friend Earle Stanley Gardner.

Lee commissioned craftsmen to fabricate furniture and certain pieces, but did most of the work on the models with her own hands. Scenes were flawlessly recreated. There are doors that close and drawers that open. Keys come out of keyholes. Lamps have working light bulbs.

Lee knitted a tiny sweater using straight pins as knitting needles. For another she hand-whittled minuscule clothes pins. Beer and liquor bottles, just fractions of an inch tall, have hand-painted labels. Several models have hand-rolled cigarettes less than a millimeter thick. And burned butts in the ashtrays.

She was neurotic about detail,” says curator Sian B. Jones, who refurbished and cleaned the models with her partner Margaret Craft.

The models contain details beyond the range of view, glimpsed through mirrors or discovered only by taking the displays apart. One scene includes a victim near the door of a tavern. Behind that door — even though you can’t see it — is an entire bar. In other models it would have been effective simply to paint the objects visible through windows, such as neighboring houses and backyards with gardens. But even the background details are three-dimensional models.

Each scene is a moment frozen in time. Calendars on the wall are turned to the date of the death. The top leaf of one calendar shows June 1942. The paper is curled slightly, and if you look just right you can see July beneath it – and the entire rest of the year. In another model, newspapers and magazines are strewn on a living room floor. There is a half-inch copy of Newsweek magazine, along with the Boston Herald, its main headline screaming “Huge Yank Forces Bomb Reich.”

Lee died in 1962 at age 83. She had continued to fund the Harvard forensic pathology program until her death, after which the program was discontinued. Russell Fisher, M.D., then Maryland’s chief medical examiner and a former instructor in the Harvard program, won permission from Lee’s family to move the Nutshell Studies to Baltimore, where they are on permanent loan.

For years, the models were displayed in a corridor of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office, gathering grime and falling into disrepair. Last year, the non-profit Maryland Medical-Legal Foundation spent $50,000 to have the pieces professionally restored.

“I’m not an expert on art by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can appreciate that there is some intrinsic art value” to the models, says Bert Morton, M.D., the foundation’s president. ‘Far more importantly, even though these scenarios are outdated, the concepts that they are teaching are unchanged. They are still good examples of problems encountered in forensic pathology.”

And the models are still used for education.

“We still do the seminars in homicide investigation,” Dr. Smialek says. Participants practice with the Nutshell Studies just as their counterparts did five decades ago. “There is a lot of interest in them.”

Tuesday night of the seminar is still reserved for a banquet that follows the traditional menu in honor of Lee. Some details have changed over the years, Health-conscious participants are given an alternative to red meat, and the courses are no longer served on priceless china.

From American Medical News, 8/17/92

*Smialek died in 2001 at age 57.


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22 Responses to “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”

  1. TeaAddict says:

    Amazing. I had no idea that this existed.

  2. […] can read more on Frances here. From this page … During training, an investigator is taught to methodically scan the room, […]

  3. […] The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death […]

  4. […] Holmes fanatic Frances Glessner Lee gave $250,000 to the Harvard Medical School to create the first department of legal medicine in the […]

  5. […] of the Studies is here.  Marks’ Web site (with information about the film) is here.  Corrine Botz’s […]

  6. […] just have to study it.” Perhaps my intrigue of the itty-bitty is mine alone, but I doubt it. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death In the 1940s Frances Glesner Lee created a series of crime scene dioramas. These tiny scenes were […]

  7. kim turner says:

    Literally lost in little land as I !

  8. edward hoffman says:

    is this the basis of the dollhouse killer episodes on “csi”?

  9. […] from a killer, but from a way real-life CSIs train new officers.  Frances Glessner Lee created the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death as a way to train Baltimore homicide detectives to notice details in crime scenes. It was called […]

  10. […] chosen.) If you’re curious to see more, you can find what you’re looking for here. For full effect, I recommend waiting for a dark and stormy night, though you can set the […]

  11. […] Goldfarb, Bruce. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. […]

  12. SpencersMom says:

    Netflix has an interesting documentary for streaming right now called “Of Dolls and Murder” about these nutshell studies and their creator. Very interesting!

  13. […] good essays online that offer greater insight into Ms. Lee and the Nutshell Studies, including this one and this […]

  14. […] The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death […]

  15. Laura Brown says:

    I learned about the Nutshell Studies after seeing one in the Wellcome Collection’s forensics exhibition in London. Thanks for posting the explanation of “Three Room Dwelling” – I knew it must be a murder-suicide, but couldn’t work out what the patterns of blood meant. This must surely be one of the more disturbing tableaux; I had nightmares after seeing pictures of it.

  16. […] early one Saturday morning we arrived at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for a tour of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. (Note to self – you should probably tell people why you are taking them to the ME’s […]

  17. Regina Minniss says:

    Do you have tours?

  18. Deborah Metzel says:

    Please reserve a ticket for me for July 13, Unexplained Deaths lecture.

    Thank you.

  19. […] get around the problem, Glessner Lee had an idea. What if she recreated actual murder and suicide scenes in the form of miniature […]

  20. […] on the fourth floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office with much of it told to me by Bruce Goldfarb, the executive assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland and overseer of the dioramas. […]

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