The Dollhouse Dioramas That Birthed a Forensic Science


Frances Glessner Lee[‘s] murder miniatures and pioneering work in criminal sciences forever changed the course of death investigations.

When Lee was 4 years old, her mother recorded in her diary that her daughter had stated, “I have no company but my doll baby and God”. [S]he 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 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”.

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. While some 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.

Three-Room Dwelling (baby’s crib).


In 1945, Harvard installed the first of Lee’s models, and she began delivering biannual, weeklong seminars that used them as training tools.

Lee once wrote herself, “The Nutshells Studies are not presented as crimes to be solved. Rather, they are designed as exercises in observing and evaluating indirect evidence, especially that which may have medical importance”.


By Rachel Nuwer via Slate for the full story and additional photos.
Additional photos via Smithsonian.

This entry was posted in Best of Pretty Awful, History, Science by Heretic. Bookmark the permalink.

About Heretic

I design video games for a living, write fiction, political theory and poetry for personal amusement, and train regularly in Western European 16th century swordwork. On frequent occasion I have been known to hunt for and explore abandoned graveyards, train tunnels and other interesting places wherever I may find them, but there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I am preparing to set off a zombie apocalypse. Nothing that will stand up in court, at least. I use paranthesis with distressing frequency, have a deep passion for history, anthropology and sociological theory, and really, really, really hate mayonnaise. But I wash my hands after the writing. Promise.

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