Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

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The Red Bedroom Diorama

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are a series of eighteen intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), a pioneer in forensic science.[1][2] Glessner Lee used her inheritance to establish a department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School in 1936, and donated the first of the Nutshell Studies in 1946[3] for use in lectures on the subject of crime scene investigation. In 1966, the department was dissolved, and the dioramas went to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. where they are on permanent loan and still used for forensic seminars.[4][5]

The dioramas are detailed representations of death scenes that are composites of actual court cases, created by Glessner Lee on a 1-inch to 1 foot (1:12) scale.[6][4][5] Originally twenty in number,[7] each model cost about US$3,000–4,500 to create.[8] She attended autopsies to ensure accuracy,[6] and her attention to detail extended to having a wall calendar include the pages after the month of the incident, constructing openable windows, and wearing out-of-date clothing to obtain realistically worn fabric.[4] The dioramas show tawdry and, in many cases, disheveled living spaces very different from Glessner Lee's own background.[9] The dead include sex workers and victims of domestic violence.[4][10][11]

Glessner Lee called them the Nutshell Studies because the purpose of a forensic investigation is said to be to "convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell."[10] Students were instructed to study the scenes methodically—Glessner Lee suggested moving the eyes in a clockwise spiral—and draw conclusions from the visual evidence.[4][10] At conferences hosted by Glessner Lee, prominent crime-scene investigators were given 90 minutes to study each diorama.[10]


A complete set of the dioramas was exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC from 20 October 2017 to 28 January 2018.[12]

Answers and Solutions[edit]

The official answers to the dioramas are under lock and key as they are still used for forensic testing and education. However, on Harvard's website of Digital Exhibitions, there is a page with three files that appear to state a possible solution to the Nutshell, "Kitchen". Whether this is an official solution is not known.

Link to the Harvard page:


  1. ^ Stamp, Jimmy (6 March 2014), "How a Chicago Heiress Trained Homicide Detectives With an Unusual Tool: Dollhouses", Smithsonian Magazine,, retrieved 22 July 2016
  2. ^ Goldfarb, Bruce (2020). 18 Tiny Deaths: the untold story of the woman who invented modern forensics. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks. ISBN 9781492680475.
  3. ^ Hall, Dominic (13 October 2017). "Nutshell Studies Loaned to Renwick Gallery for Exhibition". Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library. Harvard University. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e Miller, Laura J. (September–October 2005), "Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962", Harvard Magazine
  5. ^ a b Respers, Lisa (24 February 1999), "Helping to Crack Cases: 'Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training", The Baltimore Sun
  6. ^ a b Monroe, Rachel (5 May 2010), "The Art of Murder", Baltimore City Paper, archived from the original on 13 January 2011
  7. ^ Jensen, Chris (11 July 2015). "Tiny Murder Scenes are the Legacy of N.H. Woman Known as 'The Mother of CSI'". New Hampshire Public Radio. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  8. ^ Nuwer, Rachel (9 June 2014). "Murder in Miniature". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 22 July 2016.
  9. ^ Botz, Corinne. "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," The Monacelli Press (2004).
  10. ^ a b c d "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death", American Medical News,, 17 August 1992, archived from the original on 25 July 2016, retrieved 22 July 2016
  11. ^ Botz, Corinne, "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Monacelli Press (2004).
  12. ^ "Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Renwick Gallery.

External links[edit]