In the early half of the 20th century, forensic science was non-existent. Police coroners did not have to be medically trained and crime-scene investigation was minimal. All this would be changed, however, by an elderly Chicago socialite with a penchant for dollhouses and death.
Inspired by her brother’s classmate and future chief medical examiner of Suffolk County, George Burgess Magrath, Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee dedicated her life to the advancement of the forensic sciences and is allegedly the inspiration for Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. With Lee’s help, the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine was created in 1931, and through donations of manuscripts and money, it became the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine in 1934, an unprecedented compendium in the field of forensics.
Lee’s greatest contribution, however, was her 18 perfectly proportioned dioramas (based on real-life crime scenes) which she donated to the department in the 1940s. These painstakingly crafted dioramas include functioning locks and lights and details such as overturned cups, bullet-holes, and boxes of chocolates as well as miniature corpses in a variety of macabre positions.
Twice a year, Lee would hold week-long seminars where participants would scour the scenes for 90 minutes with only the aid of a flashlight and a magnifying glass, trying to deduce the details of the murders through the details of the dioramas.
After Lee’s death in 1962, the models were acquired by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office and underwent $50,000 in restorations in the 1990s. They are still used as training tools.
Update as of March 2020: The exhibit is no longer open to the public and available by appointment only.
The Atlas Obscura Podcast is a short, daily celebration of all the world’s strange and wondrous places. Check out this episode about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Know Before You Go
The Maryland Medical Examiner Office is open on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed on weekends. The Nutshell Studies are available by appointment only to those with clearance and not the general public.