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The Tiny, Murderous World Of Frances Glessner Lee

How do you learn to solve a crime? Police detectives spend years learning on the job, sifting through evidence in real world crime scenes. But a new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. explores another approach — it's called Murder Is Her Hobby, and it showcases the work of one woman who was both a master craftswoman, and a pioneer in the field of forensic crime scene investigation. Her teaching tool? Tiny replica crime scenes.

And at first glance, there's something undeniably charming about the 19 dioramas on display. That is, of course, until you start to notice the macabre little details: an overturned chair, or a blood spattered comforter. And there's always a body — stabbed, drowned, shot — or something more mysterious.

Frances Glessner Lee, at work on the Nutshells in the early 1940s.
/ Courtesy of the Glessner House Museum,Chicago, Ill.
Courtesy of the Glessner House Museum,Chicago, Ill.
Frances Glessner Lee, at work on the Nutshells in the early 1940s.

The tiny cans of food in these model rooms, the newspapers printed with barely legible newsprint, the ashtrays overflowing with half-smoked cigarettes are all the creations of one woman, Frances Glessner Lee. "She's considered the godmother of forensic science today for a reason," says curator Nora Atkinson. "She really transformed the field."

Lee, was born into a wealthy family in Chicago in the late 1870s, and as a young woman, she got hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories — which sparked a lifelong fascination with crimes and the investigators who solved them. "She spent a lot of years sort of pining to be in this forensic field and hanging around with forensic investigators and learning about the field, but not able to pursue it," Atkinson says.

She couldn't pursue forensic investigation because the field was dominated by men — but Lee eventually found a way to make her mark.

In the early 1930s, Lee inherited control of her family fortune, and decided to use it to help start a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. Students there needed to learn how to read crime scenes without disturbing potential evidence, and Lee had an idea about how to do that: At the turn of the century, miniature model making was a popular hobby among wealthy women, Lee included. She used the techniques she'd mastered building dollhouses to make tiny crime scenes for the classroom, a series she called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

"They do something that no other medium can do. You can't do it with film, you really couldn't do it with still images. Even today I don't think there's a computer simulation that does what the nutshells can do," says Bruce Goldfarb. He oversees the collection at its permanent home at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Md. The models are so convincing that they're still being used to train criminal investigators from around the country. "She knew that she was dealing with hard-boiled homicide detectives and so there couldn't be anything remotely doll-like about them. They were not toys," Goldfarb says.

At the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, dozens of distinctly soft-boiled detectives are puzzling over the models. They use little flashlights to investigate each scene. Laura Manning is stooped over a three-room house, the site of what appears to be a triple homicide. "So there's like a splot of blood here and there," she notes, "but there's no footprints, and then the footprints really don't start until the bedroom, and that's the confusing part."

I think people do come here expecting that they're going to be able to look at these cases and solve them like some Agatha Christie novel. And when you look at them you realize how complicated a real crime scene is.

Nearby, Jonathan Dorst is peering into a bedroom with a single miniature doll corpse. "He is in bed, where he's found dead, and I clearly should not be a detective because I have no idea what could have happened," he laughs.

"I think people do come here expecting that they're going to be able to look at these cases and solve them like some Agatha Christie novel," says curator Nora Atkinson. "And when you look at them you realize how complicated a real crime scene is."

Bruce Goldfarb says that beyond training viewers to identify evidence, Frances Glessner Lee's choice of subjects for the Nutshell Studies contain a deeper message about her vision. "They're people who are sorta marginalized in many ways," he says. "They're prisoners and prostitutes. And these are people who don't usually have their lives documented in art. Frances felt that every death is important and every death deserves a thorough scientific investigation."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).