Showing posts with label nutshell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label nutshell. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Here's my new hero, Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy self-taught crime scene investigator, a sort of forensic Miss Marple.  In the 40s and 50s she built dozens of dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence. The models are still in use today.  Lee founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard and was even made a captain in the New Hampshire police. 

Wow! She was good at this!  I wonder how many detectives picked up on the clues that are in this scene (above). A woman wearing only a bathrobe has died here. How? Murder? Suicide? An accident? 

There's no sign of violence, and the window is closed making it unlikely that someone entered that way.  The stool under the top light fixture could indicate electrocution, but the bulb is still screwed in. The window shade being up, exposing the interior to the neighborhood, might indicate the kind of disregard of convention that characterizes suicides.  Note also the the dry towel and the slippers facing the mirror. She may not have come here to take a bath. 

The woman's body is found collapsed near the door and the cord of her robe is tied in a knot around her neck. If she hung herself where would the cord have been tied? A possibility was that it was wedged into the top of the closed door causing the body to fall when the door was opened later on.  

Most of the dioramas aren't "whodunnits." The set-ups are crime scenes as they were when the police first arrived and all the relevant people in the case hadn't been interviewed yet. The viewer of the model knows only what what he can see and what the person who found the body had to say. That person may or may not have told the truth.

Sometimes first impressions are misleading. In this case (above) the inebriated victim appears to have accidentally fallen backward while sitting on the edge of a bathtub. A closer look reveals that the right leg is stiff at the knee, which should have been bent, indicating rigor mortis had already taken place before the fall. This woman died before she was placed in the tub.

As in real life, not every item seen is important. The presence of a magazine (above) might mean nothing at all.

There's a terrible poignancy to some of these models. Here's (above) a man's bedroom which is dominated by a green dresser. On the dresser we see artifacts of the dead man's life: a tie, a pocket watch, a whisk broom.

Writer Paul Auster comments: "There is nothing more terrible than having to face the objects of a dead man.  They have meaning only in function of the life that makes use of them. When that life ends...they are condemned to survive in a world they no longer belong to. What is one to think, for example, of a dozen empty tubes of hair coloring hidden away in a leather traveling case?

In themselves the things mean nothing, like the cooking utensils of some vanished civilization. And yet they say something to us, standing there not as objects but as remnants of thought, of consciousness, emblems of the solitude in which a man comes to make decisions about himself, like whether to color his hair, whether to live, whether to die. And the futility of it all once there is death."

Lee endowed The Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. Every graduating class was treated to a dinner party at the most posh restaurant in Boston.  She arranged for dinner jackets for all but instructed the wine steward to deny wine to anyone who spoke too loud...just what Miss Marple might have done!

BTW: I found out about all this in a book called "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" by Corinne May Botz.