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'Dollhouses of Death': NH woman's crime-scene dioramas have taught investigators

New Hampshire Sunday News

October 14. 2017 11:13PM
Lee had a full-time carpenter to help with her miniature crime scenes. Ralph Mosher built the cabin above, then scorched it with a blow torch to faithfully illustrate an arson scene. (SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM)

Frances Glessner Lee, seen above putting the final touches on one of her nutshell dioramas, created crime scenes using details from real-life crimes. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

BETHLEHEM -- Growing up in the late 19th century, Frances Glessner Lee was a typical young lady from a well-to-do family, but she had one rather unorthodox passion.

Murder was her hobby.

Lee's family lived in Chicago and summered at the family homestead in Bethlehem, called The Rocks Estate. And it was here, in the 1940s, that the adult Lee began crafting miniaturized death scenes that would revolutionize how crime investigators are trained - and earn Lee a reputation as the "godmother of forensic science."

Nineteen of Lee's grisly dioramas are featured in an exhibit that opens this week at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. "Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" runs Oct. 20 through Jan. 28, 2018.

Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said the exhibit highlights Lee's "genius for telling complex stories through the expressive potential of simple materials."

"These dollhouses of death are a fascinating synthesis of art and science," Stebich said.

They're no ordinary dollhouses. Using a magnifying glass and dental and jewelry tools, Lee created startlingly realistic crime scenes, with blood-spatter patterns on floors and furniture, victims in rigor mortis, and details such as real tobacco in miniature cigarette butts. Many of her "victims" were women.

Paul Tyre is executive director and curator of the Glessner House in Chicago, where Frances Glessner Lee grew up and where her personal papers are archived. He's giving a seminar at the Smithsonian about Lee's life on Saturday for the exhibit opening.

Lee's 1/12th-scale creations were remarkably authentic, Tyre said.

"It wasn't just putting a doll and some furniture off the shelf in a room and trying to tell a story," he said. "Every single piece of that room was very carefully thought out; many of the pieces were carefully crafted by her own hand."

An exhaustive journal kept by Lee's mother provides "a valuable record" of Frances' early life, Tyre said. "From the time she's a tiny child, clearly she has a brilliant mind," he said. "She never just accepted something. If a fact is presented to her, she wants to understand why."

Early on, Frances discovered a talent for making miniatures; she once made a model of the entire Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a gift for her mother, each of the musicians, instruments, and sheet music an exact replica of the real thing, Tyre said.

Later, when Lee's interests turned to crime-solving, she realized that the same tiny models could be used to train police to find clues at a crime scene.

A miniature gun lies beside the doll corpse in this detail from Frances Glessner Lee's diorama "Log Cabin." (SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM)

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In Lee's day, young women from wealthy families didn't go to college or have careers, Tyre said. Frances married at 19 and had three children, but got divorced after 16 years of marriage.

And by then, "She was really itching to do something," Tyre said. "I think the role of a traditional wife was just not a good fit."

So in 1936, using money inherited from an uncle, Lee endowed Harvard's first chair in legal medicine for a close family friend who had always shared his stories of death investigations with Lee, an eager pupil. She later donated a library dedicated to the field at the school.

By that time, Lee was living with her children in Bethlehem. And this is where she crafted her crime nutshells.

Lee began giving sought-after seminars at Harvard, using her miniature crime scenarios as teaching tools. A feature about her "nutshell studies" appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Lee also was appointed director of education for the New Hampshire State Police, according to Tyre. And in 1943, she was named an honorary state police captain, the first woman in the country to achieve that rank, he said.

That status allowed her regular access to crime scenes, Tyre said; it's likely that some details depicted in her nutshells came from crimes committed in New Hampshire.

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Nigel Manley, director of The Rocks Estate, is heading to Washington for the exhibit opening. Frances Lee's children donated the estate to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.

Manley said what motivated Lee to pursue her unorthodox field was her concern that in many communities, the constable who investigated crimes was elected and usually untrained. "She didn't like the idea that some people that were guilty would get away and some people that weren't would end up in prison," he said.

So she made the details of her miniature crime scenes painstakingly precise, Manley said. "She would go to these great lengths to represent what it was, and train investigators so they would go to a crime scene and do it correctly," he said.

Local carpenter Ralph Mosher and his son Alton helped Lee craft the tiny pieces of her scenes. When Manley met the younger Mosher a few years ago, Mosher shared a story about making a tiny replica of a rocking chair for one of the nutshells.

When Mosher gave her the piece, Lee counted how many times the real chair rocked on one push and compared it to the miniature version before deciding that it would do, Manley said.

A few years after Lee's death in 1962, Harvard closed its department of Legal Medicine. Maryland's chief medical examiner, who had attended Lee's seminars, got permission to bring 18 nutshells with him to Baltimore, where they've been used to train investigators ever since, Tyre said.

Elizabeth Carter of Bethlehem is Lee's great-great-niece, a descendant of Lee's brother George. She's traveling to Washington with her two children this week for the exhibit opening. "It's very exciting," she said.

Carter was unaware of Lee's renown in forensic circles until fairly recently. She did get to see the nutshells herself at the Baltimore medical examiner's office on a family trip there.

"I would have loved to have known her, now that I'm finding all this stuff out," she said.

As a child, Carter said, "I heard stories about her being rather formidable." In fact, some in the family referred to her aunt as "Tarantula," she recalled.

About 16 years ago, Manley was looking through a storage room at The Rocks and came across a wooden box. When he opened it, he realized they had found another of Lee's nutshells. That one will be displayed with the other 18 for the first time in more than 50 years at the Renwick Gallery.

The Rocks Estate still has another nutshell that's missing a description, as well as an unfinished scene that turned up a few years ago, Manley said.

Manley wonders what Lee would think about her work "being on display just for people to go look at them."

"Because that wasn't her intention; her intention was to train police officers with them so they would know what to do," he said.

But Tyre thinks Lee would be tickled by the renewed attention to her life's work. "I think what she would appreciate is the fact that displaying it as art and craft really focuses on ... how carefully it was created," he said.

"I think she would also be thrilled they're still being used as training models 70 years later."

Frances Glessner Lee chose to use her wealth, intelligence and creativity to make a difference in the world, Tyre said. And, he said, "I think she had the satisfaction of knowing, by the time she died, that she really had made a huge difference."

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