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Frances Glessner Lee's dollhouses of death

The Red Bedroom Diorama
The Red Bedroom Diorama by Frances Glessner Lee | Image: Lorie Shaull

‘There's a darkness to it. You are looking into the soul of a crime scene. You can see the blood, you can see footprints through the blood, you can see shell casings on the floor where someone has been shot’

Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962) is known to this day as the patron saint of forensic investigation and science. This formidable lady born during the Victorian era was an unlikely contributor to the analysis of murder and mysterious deaths at a time when forensic science was in its infancy and inadequate, to the extent that many murders were left unsolved.

The heir to the international Harvester empire Lee began a career in legal medicine in the 1930s after divorcing her lawyer husband. Soon afterwards she developed an interest in assisting detectives on how to examine clues in cases of murder. Utilising her amazing skills at creating miniatures, Lee astounded the world of forensics with her superbly crafted, macabre ‘dollhouses of death’ that today are still used as training tools for detectives and examined by law enforcers to train and develop analytical capabilities. In today’s world of hi-tech science, Lee’s intricate 3D models replicating disturbing murders and mysterious deaths from the 1930s to 1950s are still seen as an important part of forensic investigative training. Besides the unique scientific aspect of the dollhouses and their value in training, the models invoke a morbid curiosity that's like peeping into a waxwork horror chamber but from a safe distance.

Lee’s Victorian upbringing in a wealthy and privileged Chicago home was typical of the middle-class and upper-class households that restricted the ambitions of intelligent, imaginative young women. Denied a university education and instead focusing on the kind of craft skills expected of Edwardian ladies, Lee’s talent for making miniatures was, unbeknown to her at the time, to change the world of forensic investigation. A passionate reader of the Sherlock Holmes stories helped equip the young Lee with an understanding of how the whodunits presented hidden clues overlooked by readers.

But the catalyst for firing Lee’s interest in detective work was when her brother brought home a doctor friend, George Burgess Magrath, who engaged Lee in conversations about f forensic investigation, and how mistakes in the field were literally letting felons get away with murder. Forging a close friendship with Magrath until his death in 1938 Lee recognised a gap in the training of forensic investigation and law enforcement and threw herself wholeheartedly into that process to make a difference.

Lee was in her early fifties when she delved into the miniature world of model making, creating nightmarish visions of a toy landscape normally associated with innocence and domestic bliss. Like the macabre Victorian ‘penny’ automatons of amusement arcades depicting executions and ghoulish peepshows, the difference with Lee’s work is that it depicted real-life atrocities that demanded answers in order for the dead to speak.

Miniature skills

As a young woman, Lee had learned craft skills creating miniature worlds with the most intricate details from dollhouse-sized furniture to the most intricate of household items such as crockery, domestic appliances and the kind of domestic ornaments seen in everyday homes. The macabre twist to applying these skills was setting the exquisite creations in sinister dioramas of death. Like a horror film set, Lee recreated exact copies of real murder scenes down to the most intricate detail including the slain bodies of unfortunate victims murdered.

Creating what became known as ‘Nutshell’ crime scenes required Lee to acquire new skills such as those required for the analysis of various forms of killing, from stabbing to shooting and strangulation and knowing how bodies would look in such blood-spattered circumstances.

Details in murder

Because Glessner Lee was recreating unsolved real-life murder cases in diorama form she was diligent in reconstructing these violent and disturbing dollhouse scenes of carnage as authentically as possible. Lee took it upon herself to go out to the morgues and talk to police officers and learn about such things as body decomposition and the colours needed for her murdered figurines. Unlike a little girl playing at dollhouses and creating homely settings of domestic bliss, Lee would decide how to kill each of her dolls, be it through stabbing, shooting or hanging, depending on the actual real-life case. The models had to replicate every detail of a crime scene so Lee had a carpenter build everything from working doors to locks, tiny keys and windows that would open and close with handles. Being a master craftsperson herself she would produce intimate details of domestic minutiae from sink dishcloths to even knitting socks for the dolls. The details, as can be seen, today, are breath-taking which include such subtleties as miniature kitchen knives, used newspapers and with equal precision, arranging the way the dolls are positioned, aping the exact final moments of the deceased victims.

Dollhouse detection

The macabre dioramas were presented by Lee as part of semi-annual seminars and conferences. She decided to call them ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ because the intricately detailed models were compact nutshells of clues indicating how a victim or victims died. In essence, they sought to look for the truth in a 'nutshell'. The dioramas are built on a one-inch to one-foot scale so that observers have to imagine themselves as six-inch investigators scrutinising every inch of the model scenes, be it the kitchens, dining rooms and bedrooms where the murders and unexplained deaths took place. The purpose is not to solve them but to look at the evidence in the scenes and come to an understanding of what may have happened along a timeline of indescribable violence.

The eighteen surviving models, now resident in the Smithsonian American Art Museum depict different kinds of murder scenes and are listed with varying oddball titles such as Dark Bathroom, Red Bedroom, Blue Bedroom, Three Room Dwelling and Log Cabin. Each crime scene has its social setting, distinctive layout, decor and type of murder. One of the dioramas depicts a gruesome stabbing of a woman in a bed, complete with bloodstains on the sheet while another crinoline dressed doll lays prostate with a knife in its back. Possibly the most disturbing is a scene in a three-roomed apartment of carnage where a couple and a baby have been shot to death.

Analysing clues

As part of today’s training, the gruesome diorama scenes are projected on a large screen for analysis by forensic investigators and detectives throughout various law enforcement agencies in America. The emphasis is always the observation of ‘clues’ which may involve detectives standing over the actual dollhouses with torches, examining every detail of the miniature crime scenes from discarded letters, upturned chairs and uneaten meals, to sinister instruments of violence such as a bloodied hammer. The goal is not to solve the cases but simply to recognise the overlooked clues that may lead to a better understanding of the deaths.

During one training programme students of the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS) seminars were given ninety minutes to observe a mysterious death scene and register clues that may have led to an understanding of how the victims died. They were given an initial witness statement (from the time of the original investigation), a flashlight and a magnifying glass. Afterwards, the students were asked to present their analysis of their observations and whether the witness statements were true and the case itself a result of homicide, suicide or accident.

The Real Murders

Some of the dioramas present more of a mystery than what appears to be straight forward murder. In Log Cabin 1942 the death of a male victim looks like an accident with a gun, but could, in reality, be hiding a far more sinister story. Likewise, other models that suggest suicide such as the apparent hanging of a male in a barn, or a married man found dead in bed with a shotgun, demand closer inspection of the miniature clues Lee has provided the onlooker.

Dark Bathroom 1896

A low-rent boarding house where ‘Maggie Wilson’ the victim, assumed to be a prostitute, suffered from epilepsy. The night she died her neighbour ‘Lizzie’ heard her entertaining in her room. But the sound of running water kept the neighbour awake. When she finally got up to turn it off she found Maggie, no longer the life of the party with her clothed body half hanging out of the bath after having been drowned. Was it murder or accidental drowning?

Kitchen 1944

While her cake was cooling ‘Robin Barnes’ decided to kill herself. She made the kitchen airtight by stuffing newspaper in the door cracks, turned on the stove and waited. According to her husband, she had been depressed for a long time. But how curious it seems that she decided to commit suicide in the middle of making dinner?

Blue Bedroom 1943

‘Charlie Logan’ worked long hours at the Box Factory. When he came home he was often drunk and looking for a fight. His wife would often persuade him to sleep it off in his bed. His wife, Caroline, told investigators that shortly after Charlie went to bed she heard movement and then a shot. She ran to the room and found a gun and her dead husband.

Murder or Accidents? The Barn Death

The main point of the Nutshell studies is to encourage students to observe details in a scene but more importantly to train the eye and observe seemingly insignificant details. An example of scrutinising the dioramas for clues is in Lee’s 1939 dollhouse Barn which appears to tell a straight forward story of one Evan Wallace, a married man prone to histrionics, who sometimes when upset would storm out to his barn and stand on an overturned bucket with a noose around his neck. Lee’s model eerily recreated the scene in perfect detail from the barn interiors to the figurine of Wallace hanging from the rafters, in what appears to have been an accident gone wrong. But did the unfortunate man end up hanging himself due to miscalculating the strength of a wooden packing case which gave way, or is the truth more sinister?

Lee’s exquisitely detailed barn model, complete with ashen faced figurine of the hanged man, presents the grisly scenario with some hidden clues. Why did Evans choose a packing case to stand on this particular fateful occasion? Did he choose it because he couldn’t find his familiar bucket? One theory by a recent investigator is that Evan’s wife motivated by a life insurance policy; deliberately hid the bucket and stage-managed an argument with her husband to encourage him to act out his ‘suicide’ stunt. Or the sad demise of Wallace could be a genuine accident after he missed seeing the bucket at the back of the barn (as depicted in Lee’s diorama) and used the nearby crate which failed to take his weight. Either way, through her eerie dollhouse reconstruction Lee presented the mystery with all its relevant jigsaw pieces. It is up to the detective to work out the how and why?

Frances Glessner Lee’s legacy

At the time Lee’s work was dismissed, partly because she was female in a man’s world of police work and crime investigation, and also because she was creating doll houses. And yet she was the first female of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences - the leading academy in the world - to be invited into the international Chiefs of Police Association and made an honoury captain. She put her own money into helping police officers to become better trained forensically – the dollhouse models cost between $3,000 to $5,000 to create – providing the police with something that at the time they didn't know they needed. Frances Glessner Lee is rightly acknowledged as the ‘mother of forensic science and medicine’ and there is no question that in more enlightened times she would have been a top detective, perhaps more Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect than Miss Marple?

Top Image: CC BY-SA 4.0