The Woman Who Built Dollhouse Murder Scenes

By Nolan Moore on Monday, September 29, 2014
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“The very creation of the models [the Nutshells] can be viewed as a continuation or perversion of her parents’ obsession with their home.” —Corrine May Botz, observing Frances Glessner Lee

In A Nutshell

Frances Glessner Lee wasn’t your typical millionaire heiress. Obsessed with forensic science and homicide investigation, this eccentric lady devoted her time and money to building elaborately detailed miniature murder scenes. Only this wasn’t just some macabre hobby. Glessner Lee used her grisly dollhouses to teach detectives and medical examiners how to search for clues.

The Whole Bushel

Frances Glessner Lee wasn’t your run-of-the-mill heiress. Sure, she lived in a Chicago mansion, her parents were millionaires, and she enjoyed planning extravagant dinner parties. But Glessner Lee was fascinated by a rather lowbrow, “unladylike” topic—murder. Born in 1878, Glessner Lee was obsessed with medical books and murder mysteries and hoped to go to Harvard and become a physician. Sadly, her dad crushed her dreams, insisting college was no place for a woman.

However, everything changed in 1936. Her parents were dead, and she’d divorced her husband in 1914. Suddenly, she was filthy rich and could do anything she wanted. Still fascinated by forensic science, Glessner Lee established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, a special school that trained future medical examiners. She also created the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine, named after the family friend and pathology professor who sparked her interest in criminology.

But Glessner Lee wasn’t content with just shilling out money. She wanted to get in on the action, and that’s when she had a rather brilliant idea. In addition to homicide investigation, Glessner Lee also enjoyed building miniature models. What if she were to combine her two passions? Inspired, Glessner Lee set to work on one of the most unique teaching tools in forensic pathology. Over the next several years, this Chicago socialite built 20 incredibly detailed dollhouses, each one complete with a dead body.

Dubbed “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” these dollhouses depicted actual crime scenes for detectives to investigate. Glessner Lee was worried that careless cops were destroying crime scenes, and really, it was a legitimate fear. In the early 20th century, there were quite a few detectives who didn’t know (or didn’t care) that it was a bad idea to walk all over a crime scene or handle evidence with their bare hands. By building intricate models based on actual cases, Glessner Lee hoped to train detectives how to properly read clues and observe evidence.

Each house cost between $3,000 and $4,500, and Glessner Lee analyzed crime reports and visited actual murder scenes to make sure her models were accurate. She had an amazing eye for detail, and her dollhouses were more than just teaching tools. They were art. You could actually lock the doors. There were little rolled-up cigarettes on the tabletops. She used wood from a 200-year-old barn to build her barn house murder scene, and she even took a blowtorch to one of her models to make it look like there’d been a fire.

But most important were the dolls. Each one was crafted by hand and wore clothes specially tailored by Glessner Lee herself. Most impressively, she paid special attention to the victims. If the bodies had been lying around a few days, they needed to look gross and swollen, and she painted the figures in such a way that they had that perfect corpse complexion. She then arranged them in grisly poses, perhaps drowned in a bathtub or sprawled out on the floor, covered in blood.

The dollhouses were then sent to Harvard where investigators practiced looking for clues. They searched for misplaced fibers or weapons hidden under furniture. They were taught to scan the room in a clockwise spiral so they wouldn’t miss anything. The real genius behind the “Nutshell Studies” was that sometimes, detectives had to consult with doctors or other scientists to learn what had happened. And from time to time, the dollhouses depicted a suicide or even a natural death.

What’s even cooler is that twice a year, Glessner Lee taught all these male doctors, detectives, and students herself. Even though she’d never attended a university or served with the police, she was considered an expert when it came to analyzing crimes. In fact, she was so good that she was made an honorary captain of the New Hampshire State Police. And after her seminars, she’d throw a banquet for all the detectives where they could eat dinner and swap murder stories.

Sadly, Frances Glessner Lee passed away in 1962, but her dollhouses live on. Today, they’re on display at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, and believe it or not, students are still studying them. And while you’ll probably never see one of her dollhouses in person, there’s a good chance this Sherlockian socialite has affected your life, especially if you’re a fan of TV crime dramas. As it turns out, Frances Glessner Lee was the inspiration for everybody’s favorite fictional female detective, Jessica Fletcher from “Murder, She Wrote.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Of Dolls and Murder (documentary)
Smithsonian: How a Chicago Heiress Trained Homicide Detectives With an Unusual Tool: Dollhouses
Slate: Murder in Miniature
Crime Library: Death in Miniature

  • Lisa 39

    Wow, what an awesome story! Another great article Nolan!

  • Hillyard

    Sounds like a cool lady.

  • lonelydisco

    I was expecting some kind of kinky nut, but I find myself in admiration.

  • Nemesis

    I want to attend a seminar!

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