Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

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The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are a series of eighteen (twenty were originally constructed) intricately designed dollhouse-style dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), a pioneer in forensic science.[1] Glessner Lee used her inheritance to establish a department of legal medicine at Harvard University in 1936, and donated the Nutshell Studies 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, Maryland, U.S. where they are on permanent loan and still used for forensic seminars.[2][3]

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.[4][2][3] Each model cost about US$3,000-4,500 to create.[5] She attended autopsies to ensure accuracy,[4] 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to having a wall calendar include the pages after the month of the incident, constructing openable windows, and wearing out-of-date clothing to obtain realistically worn fabric.[2] The dioramas show tawdry and, in many cases, disheveled living spaces very different from Glessner Lee's own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][6]

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."[6] 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.[2][6] At conferences hosted by Glessner Lee, prominent crime-scene investigators were given 90 minutes to study each diorama.[6]

Partial List[edit]

(alphabetical by name given):

  • Attic (1946)
  • Barn (1939)
  • Blue Bedroom (1943)
  • Burned Cabin
  • Dark Bathroom (1896 Nov)
  • Kitchen (1944 Apr 11)
  • Log Cabin (1942)
  • Parsonage Parlor (1946 Aug 23)
  • Red Bedroom (1944 Jun 29)
  • Saloon & Jail (1944)
  • Three Room Dwelling (1937)
  • Unpapered Bedroom (1949)

In popular culture[edit]


  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. ^ a b c d e Miller, Laura J. (September–October 2005), "Frances Glessner Lee: Brief life of a forensic miniaturist: 1878–1962", Harvard Magazine 
  3. ^ a b Respers, Lisa (February 24, 1999), "Helping to Crack Cases: 'Nutshells': Miniature replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s are used in forensics training", The Baltimore Sun 
  4. ^ a b c d Monroe, Rachel (May 5, 2010), "The Art of Murder", Baltimore City Paper, archived from the original on 2011-01-13 
  5. ^ Nuwer, Rachel (9 June 2014). "Murder in Miniature". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 22 July 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c d "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death", American Medical News,, August 17, 1992, retrieved 22 July 2016 

External links[edit]