A visit to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., to view the fiendishly intriguing Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962), regarded as the “mother” of forensic science, was also the first female U.S. police captain, although the title was honorary. In 1936, Glessner Lee came by a sizable inheritance—her father was cofounder of the International Harvester Company—and she used it to help build a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. It was during the decade afterward that Glessner Lee crafted many of the 20 known Nutshell murder dioramas.
Corine May Botz wrote in The Nutshell Murders of Unexplained Deaths that “[Lee] took a special interest in training police officers because, as the first to arrive on the scene of a crime, they had to recognize and preserve evidence critical to solving the case. At the time, most police officers inadvertently botched cases by touching, moving, or failing to identify evidence. Lee was also extremely interested in better integrating the work of, and communication among medical experts, police officers, forensic investigators and prosecutors.”
In the Nutshell Study above, farmer Eben Wallace was found hanged in his barn. His wife told police, “When things did not suit Eben he would go out into the barn, stand on a bucket, put a noose around his neck, and threaten suicide. I always talked him out of it. On this afternoon, he made the usual threats, but this time I did not follow him to the barn right away. When I did, I found him hanging there with his feet through a wooden crate.”
Continental Square in York, Pa. Courtesy of the York History Center.
The metallic reverberating sound of gongs repeatedly sounded throughout downtown York, Pa., in August of 1925. It was a sound people recognized as the alert on a fire truck. Somewhere in York, a fire was burning.
“During the disturbance patrons of theaters, hurriedly snatched their wraps and fled from the amusement places to ‘go to the fire.’ Others telephoned or went to their homes,” The York Dispatch reported.
People attending a municipal band concert at Farquhar Park heard the gongs over the music and streamed out of the park, seeking the fire or their homes to make sure that it wasn’t burning.
The problem was that there was no fire. “A callithumpian band mounted on a truck which also carried, despite their objections the bride and bridegroom, coursed about downtown streets for about an hour last evening,” The York…
“When old Francis died in 1913, Dad sent him off in a hearse pulled by four black horses followed by mutes carrying ostrich feather wands and a procession of friends and family in the deepest mourning possible.”—Barbara Nadel
“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe
This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.
The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.
Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.
The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.