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.
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.
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.
- 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.
“There is an extraordinary fascination and charm about smallness…a special satisfaction in creating a tiny replica of any object.” –Clifford Musgrave commenting on Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House in Windsor Castle
One of the added perks of working at the Main library is the fact that it is attached to both a Natural History Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Hypothetically, this means that I should be able to spend my lunch breaks learning all I can about artists like Paul Thek as well as dinosaurs and evolution. I rarely take advantage of these perks, but I do occasionally drop into the art museum when I need a pick-me-up, and I usually make a beeline for my favorite collection: the miniatures.
Tucked into a small hallway between the Hall of Sculpture and the Hall of Architecture, the miniatures collection feels like a tiny secret. It’s comprised of eleven scenes and includes dining rooms, sitting rooms, an entertaining parlour, each equipped with miniature minutiae—tiny lamps, telephones, books, board games, ashtrays, clocks, dishes and the like. According to an esteemed co-worker, these rooms were purposely ransacked for a past art exhibit, so that their tiny displays of aristocratic living were transformed into the ruins and excess of an all-night, binge drinking wild party night (I would like to see a picture of this, if anyone knows where to find one). Luckily, peace has been restored to the proper little rooms. According to the sign describing the collection, this “suite of miniatures opened to the public in 1969….The collection of approximately 350 objects on view were given to the museum by the estate of Sarah Mellon Scaife,” and some of the rooms are even modeled after rooms in Mrs. Scaife’s actual houses.
I have often marveled at the craftsmanship that goes into these tiny, abbreviated works of art and recently did a catalog search to see what sorts of books we carry on miniatures. I was delighted to find that not only do we have numerous books dedicated to the art of the miniature, but we also have an interesting collection of instructional books on everything from making dollhouse furniture to miniature birds, to tiny foods and cards. To use one of my favorite artists Alexander Calder’s words, making miniatures is like engaging in “a little private celebration.” If you need a break from words, I suggest taking a look at these delightful works of haiku in object form.
PS – This post is also partially inspired by one of my favorite characters on the television show The Wire, Lester Freamon, a homicide detective and dollhouse miniature maker extraordinaire.