Bone and Blood: The Truth in a Nutshell

I love dollhouses. I’ve never cared much for dolls, not even as a little girl, but my fascination with tiny furniture has persisted well into adulthood. Readers of this column may have also picked up on some of my other interests, which include unusual museums and homicide. So when I learned about the existence of a collection of tiny dollhouse replicas of crime scenes, located right here in Charm City, I felt as giddy as a well-to-do child on Christmas Eve. What mad genius had read my dreams and translated them into reality?

This particular mad genius was one Frances (“Fanny”) Glessner Lee. A bored heiress to a Chicago manufacturing magnate, she had a lifelong obsession with criminology. She also had the misfortune to be a woman with decidedly unladylike ambitions in the turn of the 20th century. Her father forbade her from going to college, restricting her activities to the domestic realm: sewing, making miniatures, and marrying unhappily, all appropriate pastimes for a woman of her class. This fascinating and comprehensive Slate article goes into further detail about her background. Long story short, everyone awful in Glessner Lee’s life had the good grace to die and leave her with a sizeable inheritance, freeing her to explore her true calling – forensics.

In the olden days, criminal investigations were often hindered by the investigators themselves, blundering ineptly through blood splatters and other evidence, moving bodies around and either misinterpreting or missing clues altogether. Glessner Lee made it her mission to reform crime scene investigation and elevate it to the level of science. One of her greatest contributions to the field was this series of crime scene replicas, created to serve as instructional tools for current and future investigators.  She dubbed these the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” so-called because she designed these works to contain “the truth, in a nutshell.” 

The Nutshell Studies exist in this quasi-public space, as they are still in active use for training investigators. They are available to view by appointment only in a secured room in the Office of the Medical Examiner. Signing in, I noticed the “purpose for visit” listed on virtually all of the entries preceding mine was “autopsy.” The chief medical examiner’s assistant, a man named Bruce*, escorted me into the room and kept watch as I viewed the replicas, perhaps in case I decided to smuggle a bloody figurine into my purse. “If there were a sign advertising these nutshells, there’d be a line around the block,” said Bruce, but the office does not have enough manpower for that sort of traffic. Plus, that would distract from the main purpose of the Nutshell Studies.

There are eighteen Nutshell Studies. A few are free-standing and can be viewed from a 360 degree vantage point, but most are cutouts viewable through a single window. To say that these scenes are painstakingly detailed would be a vast understatement. They are, in essence, logic puzzles. Since every detail could potentially be of import, Glessner Lee was an absolute stickler with regard to construction. Chairs and carpets are positioned just so. Every stitch and frayed thread is intentional. Wood is cracked and warped with humidity, which gives a perceptive observer vital information about the environment in which the death took place. In one of the more prominent scenes, a parcel of meat rests on a chair, coated in tiny spores of mold. Literal spoiler alert – this fact is critical to determining the victim’s time of death. 

Even objects that seem ornamental and irrelevant (or are they?) are fashioned with absolute care, lest sloppiness lead investigators to neglect aspects of the scene. All the books have individual pages, for instance. The doors have knobs that turn, and working locks with tiny keys. Additionally, the level of complexity makes these scenes function as neat little slices of time, appealing to history geeks along with murder nerds. The oldest scene takes place in 1896, and it is chock full of historical elements. The doll victim lies prone in an era-appropriate clawfoot bathtub. In the back is a commode, next to which hangs individual sheets of toilet paper, attached like a calendar to the wall. In another scene, a beautifully painted vintage Sears-Roebuck catalog rests atop a counter, amidst the bloody footprints and overturned dishes. An unexplained death in a garage features a vintage car with delicate black snow chains wrapped around its tires. “Look at the hair,” said Bruce, calling my attention to a doll in another scene, splayed face down on a flight of stairs. “Those are individual pins in the curls in her wig, and a wire net over that. Incredible.” 

I asked Bruce about how the instructional process works. Investigators are brought in and assigned in pairs to a Nutshell, which they proceed to study for the course of an entire week. “Sure, you get a few laughs and wisecracks at first,” he said – one can imagine how the type of toughs who would work Baltimore City homicides might react to dollhouses – “but they quickly get into it. They spend as much time studying these as they would an actual crime scene.” The ‘solutions’ to the Nutshells are kept under lock and key somewhere in the medical examiner’s office. But the point is not necessarily to solve the cases and catch the murderer, nor is that really possible – one can’t send the doll corpses to the coroner for autopsy, say, or interrogate tiny suspects. Investigators are rated on the clues they perceive, follow-up actions they would take and the quality of their interpretations. 

I myself had budgeted a mere hour and a half to study these scenes, which I ended up finding to be highly inadequate. Given that my experience with crime scene investigation is limited to watching <em>The X-Files</em> a whole lot in high school, I can’t say that I came anywhere near close to “solving” any of these crimes. For most of the scenes, I could see several important clues that might, with some time and mulling, eventually lead to a solution. But one scene in particular bothered me; I stared and stared at it with absolutely no idea where to start. It is divided into two parts spanning a period of time. In the first half of the scene, you see a drunkard laying face down on the street next to a lunchbox and banana peel. The second part shows him hours later, still lying face down but now in a jail cell, dead. If this were a regular dollhouse scene and not one of the Nutshells, I would assume that the drunkard had simply died of alcohol poisoning. But of course, given the context, I know there are deeper clues to be analyzed. What was in the lunchbox? Did he slip and fall on the banana peel, braining himself in old-timey comedy fashion? Was he a victim of police brutality? Or tainted moonshine?  

As I became more and more engrossed in these Nutshells, gradually it dawned on me that these are more than mere novelty or quirky roadside attraction. Studying these Nutshells gives the investigator a unique god’s eye view of a crime scene: all the clues microscopically sized to scale in one field of vision, never changing (real crime scenes must be cleaned up eventually). Even high res photos and video don’t give the amount of spatial or textural information conveyed in the Nutshells. Eventually, perhaps, CSI hopefuls could practice studying crime scenes through Oculus Rift or some other means of virtual reality. Still, even if the technology develops to that extent, I can’t shake the feeling that there is something singularly unreplaceable about these Nutshells. 

All that time and effort Glessner Lee had been forced to expend making frilly feminine things? None of that was wasted. She employed these skills to maximum effect, breaking barriers in a traditionally male-dominated field. She is regarded as the “mother of forensic science,” helping advance the field to the level of rigorous study and discipline. She apparently served as the inspiration for Angela Lansbury’s character in Murder, She Wrote.  In addition to her contributions to the field of criminology, we have her to thank for Jessica Fletcher, as well as each and every variant of CSI: Peoria or what have you. 

Ever since my pilgrimage to the Nutshells, I can’t help but pay a heightened amount of attention to things I wouldn’t ordinarily attend to on my neighborhood walks. Could this crumpled up parking ticket on the ground play an important role in someone’s story? What about the way this glass bottle shattered? How long ago was this wad of gum chewed? Good po-lice understand that all the pieces matter.

*It wasn’t until much later that I realized that he was the Bruce Goldfarb who is quoted extensively in that Slate article I’d read to prep for this visit. My detective skills are not quite up to par; nevertheless, I am very grateful for his time and patient answers to silly questions.