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Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

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The following is a guest post by Alexander Salopek, a collection development specialist in the Collection Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. He previously wrote posts on Miranda and the Rights of Suspects, Fred Korematsu’s Drive for Justice, Fred Korematsu Winning Justice and What a Difference 17 Years Made.

Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are forensics models of crime that, at their inception, were revolutionary in their field of criminal investigation. A viewer looking at the nutshells sees a series of miniature model crime rather like a dollhouse, though these scenes are of death. As well as a staged death scene, testimony by a witness or bystander is often included. By reviewing the evidence presented in these scenes, an investigator could assess if the story held up or if the physical evidence pushed in a different direction. With unexplained deaths, the physical evidence can tell its own story.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a push to move from the medieval coroner-and-inquest model of investigating suspicious deaths, (a vestige of our once being a British colony) to the reformed model of the medical examiner. The coroner was a political position, either by appointment or by election, and would be responsible for both naming the cause of death and who was responsible for it, supported by vote of an inquest jury (Goldfarb, 6). The medical examiner model meant a doctor would be involved only in the “medical duties”; the other duties would be given over to the proper judicial authorities, (The Coroner and the Medical Examiner, 89).  In the midst of this reform movement, Frances Glessner Lee was having a conversation with her brother’s best friend from college, George Magrath (Goldfarb, 113). Magrath served as Boston’s second medical examiner and dreamed of creating a department of legal medicine, an idea he shared with Lee. He planted a seed in Lee’s mind that she carried with her for the next 30 years.

To honor the work of her friend George Magrath, Frances Glessner Lee used her inherited wealth to create both a department of legal medicine and a library devoted to such research and named them for Magrath after his death. She used her considerable collection of books and documents on the subject to fill the library’s shelves, and made herself a research associate of the department. She believed that there were three pillars needed to reform criminal investigation. One pillar was the training and establishment of medical examiners; the second pillar was the education of the police, so they learned not to spoil crime scenes; and the third pillar was a reformation of the criminal code (Goldfarb, 120). Later the department’s director made Lee the consultant for the department, and she started to envision how the department could work with police departments. At this time, there was no detective training for police officers, and Lee believed she could fill the educational gap. The issue was that crime scenes could not be viewed by students when they happened, and while photographs or videos might help point the students to the evidence they needed to see, but a miniature model would push the students to assess the scenes themselves (Goldfarb, 209).

Three-Room Dwelling 1 (Nutshells by Frances Glessner Lee), October 28, 2017. [Photo by Flickr user Amaury Laporte. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0.]
Lee thought that she could not show police officers substandard craftsmanship, so she spent large amounts of money and time creating the nutshells. She hired a carpenter, Ralph Mosher, to build the structures and the furniture, artists to paint the artwork and the backgrounds, and Lee herself made the  dolls of the untimely dead (Goldfarb, 213). By this time Lee was living full-time at her mountain vacation home called the Rocks, where she had converted the whole second floor into a workshop for her creations (Botz, 32). She created about three nutshells a year, and left no detail too small for her careful hands; an example of such detail was the figurines’ socks she knitted with needles the size of straight pins, only able to do a few rows at a time before she exhausted her eyes (Botz, 32). Lee used the nutshells for her Seminar on Homicide Investigation for State Police, in which officers would study the nutshells for 90 minutes under her watchful eye (Lee, 677). Lee did not design the nutshells to be “Whodunits”, but instead springboards for thought and discussion, specifically what needed to be tested, and who should be questioned. Police at the time had not received adequate training on how to deal with a crime scene and maintain its integrity (Lee, 677).

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, December 17, 2017. [Photo by Flickr user Allison Meier. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 ]
Officers were grateful for her resources and training. When they finished the seminar, each officer would receive membership in a non-profit called Harvard Associates in Police Science (Goldfarb, 219). The goal was to have them continue their collaboration throughout their careers and grow the field of criminal investigation using medical science and other scientific investigation techniques (Botz, 30). One famous attendee of the seminars was Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels. Lee felt by allowing him to attend would advance the cause of legal medicine, thus she was glad he attended, and ultimately, Gardner was enamored with Lee and dedicated the Case of the Dubious Bridegroom to her, (Goldfarb. 235). Lee continued the seminars for the rest of her life. After her death, the nutshells were transferred to the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office to continue her legacy (Botz, 31).

The Nutshells are currently not on public display, but they are digitally available to view on the on the Smithsonian of American Art Museum website here: Inside the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” – 360 VR | Smithsonian American Art Museum.


May Botz, Corinne. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Moncelli Press, 2004.

Goldfarb, Bruce. 18 Tiny Deaths : the untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. Sourcebooks, 2020.

Lee, Frances Glessner. Legal Medicine and at Harvard University. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science. Jan. – Feb., 1952 Vol. 42, No. 5. pp 674-678.

Schultz, Oscar T. and Morgan, Edmund Morris. The Coroner and the Medical Examiner. National Research Council Bulletin No. 64. Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, 1928.

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Comments (2)

  1. I got to see these in person when they were shown at the Renwick gallery. They were absolutely amazing. One could spend hours looking at the details and I’m sure they were invaluable to those learning how to look for clues at crime scenes.

  2. The Renwick exhibit of these was one of the most entertaining & interactive museum visits I’ve ever had!

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