Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a book about 18 crime scene dioramas, created in the 1940s, which are still used in forensic training today. The dollhouse death scenes are an unusual, but successful, way to display information, used for professional skill development and, now, morbid entertainment.

Frances Glessner Lee founded Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine in 1936 and was later appointed captain of the New Hampshire police. To assist detectives in developing skills to gather evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies. Based on real cases, the scenes could be accidents, suicides, or murders, depending on how the investigators interpreted the clues.

The scenes are fascinating and macabre, with many movable parts and a commendable attention to detail. Lee knit the stockings for one doll corpse with needles the size of straight pins. The dioramas are blandly domestic, until you discover the tiny blood spatters and corpse.

In "Kitchen," photographed on the cover, a housewife is killed in the middle of her domestic duties. Half-peeled potatoes, a baked cake, and other tasks are in various stages of completion. Was it suicide, as evidenced by the open gas jets and newspaper stuffed around the door? Or murder--who was drinking the glass on the kitchen table?

Read more about the Nutshell Studies here.

Read Harvard Magazine's biography on Frances Glessner Lee.

Visit a Nutshell Studies photo gallery.

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