Murder in a Nutshell

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photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Frances Glessner Lee was a wealthy divorcee who used her money, her energy, her contacts, and her passion for crime investigation to jumpstart the field of forensic medicine in the United States some 80 years ago. One of this country’s first forensic pathologists, George Burgess Magrath, was a Boston friend, and his informal tutelage piqued her interest. Denied the chance to go to college and discouraged from pursuing her rather odd interest in murder, her career didn’t get going until she was in her 50s.

According to journalist Bruce Goldfarb, on staff at the prestigious Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Frances was the country’s only woman involved in the early development of forensic science. At a Renwick Gallery talk, he described how she gave funds to support lectures by leading European forensic medicine specialists at Harvard Medical School; donated her library of more than a thousand volumes on crime investigation; established training fellowships; endowed Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine (the first in the country); and promoted the training of police detectives in forensic methods.

Further, she lobbied her wealthy and powerful connections to replace the outdated system of coroners with one employing trained medical examiners, thus enabling, among other things, many entertaining seasons of CSI. Coroners, an office that still exists in many parts of the United States, are often elected officials and need have no particular forensic, medical, or legal knowledge. They were known to tromp through crime scenes, take a quick look at the body, and decide on the spot whether it was homicide, suicide, or death by misadventure. A list of “causes of death” extracted from coroners’ reports in New York included the enlightened conclusion “found dead.”

Back in the days before virtual reality, one of her educational activities was constructing highly detailed, dollhouse-sized dioramas of crime scenes. These “nutshell studies” were used to train homicide investigators in what to look for in cases of unexplained death. Nineteen of them still exist, and this winter they were gathered at Washington, D.C.’s Renwick Gallery for an immensely popular exhibit: “Murder Is Her Hobby,” which I saw in its last days.

You may recognize CSI’s slant homage to Lee in its “Miniature Killer” episodes (season 7; see trailer). Look for a copy of the film “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story” (trailer) or “Of Dolls and Murder” (trailer), both directed by Susan Marks. Apparently there’s a new book coming out, too, as the 2004 book by Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, is not readily available. “The Nutshells are essentially about teaching people how to see,” said Renwick curator Nora Atkinson.

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photo: Vicki Weisfeld