Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

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The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a series of eighteen intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee, a pioneer in forensic science.

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.[1][2][3][4] She attended autopsies to ensure accuracy,[1] 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to having a wall calendar include the pages after the month of the incident, constructing openable windows, and wearing out-of-date clothing to obtain realistically worn fabric.[2] She called them the Nutshell Studies because the purpose of a forensic investigation is said to be to "convict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."[3] Students were instructed to study the scene methodically—she suggested moving the eyes in a clockwise spiral—and draw conclusions from the visual evidence.[2][3] At conferences hosted by Glessner Lee, prominent crime-scene investigators were given 90 minutes to study each diorama.[3]

The dioramas show tawdry and in many cases disheveled living spaces very different from Glessner Lee's own background. The dead include prostitutes and victims of domestic violence.[2][3]

Glessner Lee used her inheritance to set up Harvard's department of legal medicine, and donated the Nutshell dioramas in 1945 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, where they are on permanent loan and still used for forensic seminars.[2][4]

In popular culture[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Rachel Monroe, "The Art of Murder," Baltimore City Paper, May 5, 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e Laura J. Miller, "Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962,", Harvard Magazine September-October 2005.
  3. ^ a b c d e "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," American Medical News, August 17, 1992, at Bruce
  4. ^ a b Lisa Respers, "Helping to Crack Cases: 'Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training," The Baltimore Sun February 24, 1999.

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