Tiny crime scenes

It may be that this is taught in American high schools as a matter of course. If so, my apologies. But when I read about a woman named Frances Glessner Lee and her tiny crime scenes, I felt sure it was something Homeless Monsters needed to hear about.

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Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy woman, a millionaire heiress in fact, born in 1848. Despite the fact that she was super-intelligent, being a lady in the 19th century meant she wasn’t going to university, no sirree. In fact, when Frances expressed an interest in learning about pathology, she was actively discouraged by family and friends.

But the death of her brother, and her own divorce, left Frances with fewer disapproving voices criticising her interests. So she was able to spend more time with one of her good friends, George Magrath, who studied at Harvard Medical School, and specialised in investigating causes of death.

It was Magrath, backed by Frances, who successfully lobbied to have coroners replaced by people with actual medical training. Frances used some of her fortune to fund a department of legal medicine at Harvard, as well as a national organisation for police science.

And here’s where it gets really interesting – and also, really pretty macabre. Because that national organisation was to hold an annual conference for officers to come and brush up on their crime-solving skills. How to do that? Using a set of dioramas created by Frances, and known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

* warning: they may be tiny, but some of these are pretty gruesome *

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With an incredible attention to detail, Frances built around 30 miniature crime scenes, all involving a death – and all based upon real, difficult to solve cases. Whether the death was suspicious or not, that was for the officers to find out. “The inspector may best examine them by imagining himself a trifle less than six inches tall,” said Frances. “He is seeking only the facts – the truth in a nutshell.”

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There was also a tiny bit of backstory, to help them out – the one above, for example, told officers: “The Judson’s innocent baby daughter was found shot to death in her crib. Whose blood is on the floor?”

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And the true culprits are a very closely guarded secret to this day. Why? Because the dioramas are still used, over 70 years on, to help with police training. You might think that modern forensic science has moved on so much, how could they be of any use? But the skills they promote, lateral thinking, looking for clues and evidence, never stop being of vital importance in solving crimes.

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One of these little scenes is being brought to the UK for an exhibition this year, but the rest are kept Baltimore, I believe, where you have to be able to demonstrate a proper professional interest to be able to see them. There’s a whole lot more in this article here.

Reading around Frances more, I learned that it wasn’t just horror scenes she created. She also made other miniatures – this orchestra, for example.

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She was obviously just an incredibly talented woman (with very steady hands!) who used the tools available to her to help others learn. The fact that police officers to this day are using her materials is testament to her skills, however creepy they may be in parts! It’s also said she was the inspiration for Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.

And by the way: there’s a Glessner House Museum, in Chicago, which has Tourism for Weirdos written all over it – maybe you’ve already been? Tell us about it!

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About gnidrah

Television, books, music, sports, cooking. I only get paid for one of them. (Update: two of them!)
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15 Responses to Tiny crime scenes

  1. summerestherson says:

    I LOVE THIS. You go, Frances. You know, this actually seems like a perfect topic for the “Stuff You Missed In History Class” podcast.

    • I used to listen to that podcast but had to stop due to the insufferable content to commercials ratio.

      • summerestherson says:

        Sadly, that is the way most podcasts are going these days. However, Stuff You Missed in History is a shorter podcast, so it’s much more noticeable. Podcasts are getting really bad about putting the ads in the middle now! But I guess that’s probably because the advertisers complained about people fast forwarding or just not listening if the ad’s at the end of the show.

  2. THIS IS SO COOL. And don’t worry, you can safely assume that anything that features the accomplishments of a woman other than Elizabeth I or Marie Curie wasn’t taught in American schools. They’re the only two woman who ever existed, according to our history textbooks. (Oh, and Rosa Parks. She gets, like, two lines.)

  3. artdorkgirl says:

    Murder, she sculpted.

  4. smacky says:

    There was a killer on the original “CSI” (Vegas) who would leave miniatures of the actual crime scene AT the scene where the killer committed the crime, meaning the person made the model first, then posed the victim and setting to match! (It was an ongoing storyline and I can’t remember who the killer was.)

  5. flanny says:

    Is this a good place to discuss The Dollhouse Murders and how they were super creepy and possibly scarred me for life?

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