Miniatures of Murder and Mayhem

Frances Glessner Lee working on her miniatures of unexplained deaths.

Starting in the 1940s, and with the help of a skilled carpenter, she set about to make the dioramas, each based on an actual crime.

A wonderfully macabre exhibit is being presented now at the Renwick –Gallery in Washington, D. C. (Oct 20, 2017-January 28, 2018).  The nineteen dioramas are works of art, in and of themselves, before even considering the extensive educational benefit.  Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death—1/12 scale dioramas.

Frances was an unlikely creator of these miniature scenes of mayhem.

She was born to a wealthy Chicago family in 1878 and she and her brother were schooled at home.  When her brother went on to Harvard, her parents did not think it important to send the daughter.  She married a lawyer, then gave birth to three children.

It was after her later divorce, that Frances was able to come into her true self.  Through her friendship with the Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, George Burgess Magrath, she developed a strong interest in crime scene forensics.  She also became aware that the methods of crime-scene processing and training were severely lacking.

She learned that it was easy for crime scene investigators to develop a hunch, then try to select the evidence that supported the hunch and ignore all else.  Frances decided that keeping an open mind in the solving of homicides was imperative.

When Frances came into her inheritance, she went all out in studying about crime scene investigation and even went so far as to host frequent dinners for investigators to talk about their most important cases.  She took it all in, trying to decide what she could do—in addition to making monetary donations—to improve training.

Starting in the 1940s, and with the help of a skilled carpenter, she set about to make the dioramas, each based on an actual crime.  She made sure each detail was perfect, from the wallpaper to mini newspapers and family photos.  The doors and windows were functional down to the hardware and locks.  The victims, in various stages of decomposition, were represented by dolls.

She also put in some dolls that had died by accident or medical condition to see if it would stump the students of crime and keep them on their toes.  At seminars, students were given 90 minutes to study the dioramas and solve the case.  The true scenario was then explained.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of The Scavenger’s Song. Please click HERE to find the novel on Amazon.

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