Nutshell dioramas of death: Frances Glessner Lee, forensic science, and training crime scene investigators.

These Gruesome Dollhouse Death Scenes Helped Create Forensic Science

These Gruesome Dollhouse Death Scenes Helped Create Forensic Science

The state of the universe.
June 9 2014 12:36 PM

Murder in Miniature

One woman’s ghastly dollhouse dioramas turned crime scene investigation into a science.

Bedroom view
Bedroom view, from the Nutshell Dioramas, created by Frances Glessner Lee.

Photo by Corinne May Botz

On Aug. 19, 1946, Dorothy Dennison left her house to walk to the local butcher’s shop. It was a Monday afternoon, and the high school student was on summer break. She arrived at the butcher’s shop around noon and purchased some hamburger steak, which her mom planned to fix for dinner that evening.

Hours passed, and Dorothy did not return home. Alarmed, her mother telephoned a neighbor and the butcher, but neither had any leads on where Dorothy could be. At 5:25 p.m., the mother phoned the police to report her daughter missing.  

Days passed, but no clues emerged. Finally, on Friday, Officer Patrick Sullivan found her in the darkened home of a church rector who was on vacation. Behind shuttered windows and amid covered furniture, Dorothy lay on her back, dead.


Her arms and legs were spread, and a knife stuck out of her gut. Her white dress had been pulled open, exposing her chest, and bite marks covered her body and legs. Blood had seeped from wounds on her head, haloing her brown hair in a dark pool. She was still wearing the red hair bow and matching ballet slippers that she had left the house in on Monday.

At Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, I look down at Dorothy’s crumpled body, exactly as it was when Officer Sullivan found her at 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1946. Dorothy’s tragic end has been preserved forever in a bizarre miniature diorama that captures each physical detail surrounding her death.

Dorothy’s deathscape—dubbed the Parsonage Parlor—is one of 20 dollhouse crime scenes built by a woman named Frances Glessner Lee, nicknamed “the mother of forensic investigation.” Lee’s murder miniatures and pioneering work in criminal sciences forever changed the course of death investigations.

Lee, who went by the name Fanny, was born in 1878 to millionaire parents who made their money selling agricultural equipment. She grew up in Chicago and later said she suffered from a sheltered, lonely childhood. When Lee was 4 years old, her mother—also named Frances—recorded in her diary that her daughter had stated, “I have no company but my doll baby and God.” Along with her older brother, she was home-schooled in a fortresslike house that one architect described as “pathologically private.” Lee learned feminine skills such as sewing, embroidery, painting, and the art of miniatures from her mother and aunts, but at the same time had a fondness for Sherlock Holmes stories and medical texts.

Lee’s parents were firm believers that a woman’s place was in the home, so after her brother left for Harvard University, Lee’s requests to also attend school were rebuffed. As her father liked to say, “A lady doesn’t go to school.”

Thus began several decades of mounting bitterness and regret. Although she continued to harbor dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse—of “doing something in my lifetime that should be of significant value to the community,” as she later wrote—shortly before her 21st birthday, she married Blewett Lee, a lawyer and professor at Northwestern University. The couple had three children, but things soon fell apart and they divorced in 1914, which was a scandalous turn of events at the time.

Despite being free of an unhappy marriage, years passed before Lee could truly come into her own. She was dependent on her family for financial support, but in 1929, that began to change. Her brother passed away, and a few years later her mother followed him to the grave. In 1936, her father died, passing on the family fortune to his daughter.

As her daughter-in-law later attested, Lee, meanwhile, had begun nursing a passion for forensics, inspired by one of her brother’s friends, George Burgess Magrath, who served as Boston’s medical examiner and was famously skilled at solving perplexing murder cases of the day. When Lee realized she was free to direct her energy and resources in whatever direction she chose, her thoughts immediately turned to the stories he had told, and to his complaints that murders too often went unsolved because detectives misinterpreted or tampered with evidence or coroners with no medical training botched autopsies. “Investigators used to do dumb things,” says Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesman for the Maryland medical examiner’s office. “They would walk through blood, move bodies, and put their fingers through bullet holes in clothing.”

Kitchen (from afar)
Kitchen (from afar).

Photo by Corinne May Botz

Lee decided to take it upon herself to reform the country’s legal medicine system. As a start, she donated money to Harvard to create a professorship for a legal medicine expert—which Magrath filled—and also created the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine, which was soon followed by the country’s first forensic pathology program. Although Magrath passed away two years later, through her own research and outreach, Lee became regarded as an expert in the field. She never forgot her source of inspiration, however. As she wrote in a letter in 1951: “I found that no one … knew exactly what legal medicine was supposed to mean. … But fortunately with the skill, knowledge and training of Dr. Magrath to guide me (he, in turn, really started from scratch), I have been able to accomplish a good deal.”

Despite these successes, however, Lee felt that more was needed to teach students the emerging art of evidence gathering. It was impossible to bring them to crime scenes, so Lee decided to create her own miniature crime scenes to use for training. She called her creations the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. “She came up with this idea, and then co-opted the feminine tradition of miniature-making to advance in this male-dominated field,” says Corinne May Botz, an artist and author of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. “Like Sherlock Holmes, she was setting a scene and creating something like a character study of the victims, and she went about doing this very much from a detached investigator’s point of view.”

The 20 models Lee created were based on actual crime scenes, and she chose only the most puzzling cases in order to test aspiring detectives’ powers of observation and logic. Moreover, many of the cases could not be solved by observing the crime scene alone, demonstrating the need to involve medical examiners and other scientific experts in the process of solving crimes. While some—like poor Dorothy Dennison—were most definitely the victims of foul play, others could have died of natural causes or suicide. It was up to the detectives to find out.

Lee spent $3,000 to $4,500 creating each model, and her obsessive attention to detail shows. Grime from countless unseen hands coats light switches and door handles in cheap motel rooms while contemporary 1940s and ’50s food products line kitchen shelves in more affluent homes. Calendars are turned to the correct month and year that victims died; tiny keys fit into doors that can actually be locked and unlocked; and even a fingernail-sized mousetrap works. A miniature rocking chair rocks exactly three times when it was pulled back to a 45-degree angle, to meet with specifications from the real-life crime scene. “She was nuts about the level of detail,” Goldfarb says.