Murder in Miniature

Frances Glessner Lee was an avid builder of dollhouses, which was a perfectly reasonable pastime a woman in her walk of life, born into a wealthy family and with no formal education or career. But her dollhouses were a bit different – each of the painstakingly detailed dioramas depicted a murder scene.

Fred Barnes went out to run an errand and returned to find his wife Robin dead on the kitchen floor. Image from the New York Times slideshow, “Visible Proofs: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

She created the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” in the 1930s – 1950s (no one’s really precise about the dates) as teaching tools for police detectives. But why dollhouses? Well, you can’t schedule training sessions around real murders, after all. And you certainly don’t want an entire class of budding detectives tromping through a crime scene and disturbing the evidence.

Farmer Eben Wallace’s wife found him hanging in the barn. Image from the New York Times slideshow, “ Visible Proofs: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Lee’s interest in crime and medicine was sparked by a meeting with her brother’s college friend Dr. George Magrath, who later became Harvard’s first professor of legal medicine (his salary was underwritten by her fortune). She even established a library in his name. It’s nice to have money like that.

Ms. Wilby Jenks was found dead in the woodman’s shack that she shared with two men. Image from the New York Times slideshow, “Visible Proofs: Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

  • For more photographs, a brief biography of Frances Gessner Lee, and further details about each murder scene, read The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz. We don’t have it in our county library system (yet), but it’s readily available through Interlibrary Loan. (Note: this book has the most awesome endpaper ever.)
  • While you’re waiting for your Interlibrary Loan to come in, be sure to visit Corrine May Botz’s website, which contains pictures not featured in her book. Maggie Wilson’s corpse, found in the bathtub of her rooming house, is particularly creepy.
  • Still need more pictures? Visit the Bellwether Gallery to see a 2004 exhibition of Botz’s photographs.
  • We’ve also recently ordered a DVD called Of Dolls and Murder, which is all about the Nutshell Studies. It’s not available for checkout yet (alas), but you can still request it. You’ll have to get in line behind me, though. (Here’s the film’s website, if you can’t stand the suspense.)
  • There’s a lengthy essay about Lee and her work in tru TV’s crime library. Not really a source that I’d quote in a research paper, but it does at least contain a pretty decent bibliography.
  • For something a bit more concise (and probably a bit more accurate), try this piece from Harvard Magazine.
  • Finally, you can visit the blog of the Glessner House Museum, Frances Glessner Lee’s childhood home. When you read through it, you’ll see many of the names and places that Corrine May Botz references in her book.

– Amy


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4 responses to “Murder in Miniature

  1. thanks for sharing this. those pictures are pretty cool! it’s interesting how there are people out there who do this.

  2. Maria

    Fascinating! Who knew?!

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