Murder in Miniature

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.

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‘The Barn,” or “The Hanging Farmer,”  a Nutshell Study created in about 1946.

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.”

From this information, as well as studying the death scene, students could deduce that the bucket Eben usually stood on during his suicide attempts had been taken from the barn for other purposes, and drag marks indicated he’d replaced it with a flimsy wooden crate. A logical conclusion would be that the farmer fell through the crate and accidentally made good on his long-stated suicide threats. But did he? Perhaps one of the reasons we remain fascinated with the Nutshell Studies is because the mysteries do not have answers. They were meticulously crafted to tease the minds of investigators.

“Every element of the dioramas—from the angle of miniscule bullet holes, the placement of latches on widows, the patterns of blood splatters, and the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses—challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction. The Nutshells are so effective that they are still used in training seminars today at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore,” noted the Renwick Gallery’s Curator Nora Atkinson.

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In the Nutshell study “The Dark Bathroom,” which Gleesner Lee created circa 1944, Maggie Wilson, an epileptic, was discovered dead in her tub. When police arrived they found the scene above: water pours from the faucet over Maggie’s face—although the tub stopper is not in place, which casts doubt on whether Maggie was drawing a bath at the time of her death. Her legs are stiffened by rigor mortis, indicating she may have died earlier than witness accounts suggest. A bottle and empty glass are knocked over on the bathroom rug—perhaps an indication that Maggie was “self-medicating” and slipped on her bath rug, fell backwards, and drowned under the running water?

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Robin Barnes has been discovered lying dead on the floor next to the refrigerator in the Nutshell Study, “Kitchen.” The door is open and the ice cube tray is on the floor next to her. A pie sits on the stove, all the gas jets are on, and Mrs. Barnes shows the tell-tale reddish coloration of death by asphyxiation. The doors to the room are locked and have newspaper stuffed around their edges. But was her death a suicide, an accident, or a staged homicide?

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In the “Red Bedroom” Nutshell Study, Marie Jones, a prostitute, was discovered dead by her landlady, Mrs. Shirley Flanagan, who gave the following statement: “On the morning of Thursday, June 29, 1944, she passed the open door of Marie’s room and called out ‘hello.’ When she did not receive a response, she looked in and found [Marie stabbed in the bedroom closet]. Jim Green, a boyfriend and client of Marie’s, had come in with Marie the afternoon before. Mrs. Flanagan didn’t know when he had left. As soon as she found Marie’s body she telephoned the police who later found Mr. Green and brought him in for questioning.”

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Mr. Green, when questioned, said, “He met Marie on the sidewalk the afternoon of June 28, and walked with her to a nearby package store where he bought two bottles of whiskey. They then went to her room where they sat smoking and drinking for some time. Marie, sitting in the big chair, got very drunk. Suddenly, without any warning, she grabbed his open jackknife which he had used to cut the string around the package containing the bottles. She ran into the closet and shut the door. When he opened the door he found her lying as represented by the model. He left the house immediately after that.”

By studying the crime scene above, trainees might agree that the booze bottles indicate hard drinking, but why is there blood on the wooden floor and the rug, if Maggie stabbed herself in the closet?

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In “Saloon and Jail,” created in about 1945, Frank Harris, a dock laborer, is discovered dead in a jail cell on the morning after a police officer found him unconscious on the pavement outside a public house.

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The deceased, Ruby Davis, is just visible, lying facedown at the foot of the stairs in this Nutshell Study, “Living Room.” According to her husband, Reginald, the couple “spent the previous evening, Thursday, May 21, quietly at home. His wife had gone upstairs to bed shortly before he had. This morning he awoke a little before 5:00 a.m. to find that his wife was not beside him in bed. After waiting a while, he got up to see where she was and found her dead body on the stairs. He at once called the family physician who, upon arrival, immediately notified the police.”

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The Nutshell Study “Sitting Room and Woodshed” was thought lost until its 2003 rediscovery in the attic of Glessner Lee’s former family estate.

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Richard Harvey, foreman in an ice-cream factory, was found dead by his mother in the “Striped Bedroom.” Mrs. Harvey gave the following statement: “On Saturday night, April 27, Richard came home for supper as usual and after supper went back to work. He always worked late Saturday nights to get ready for the Sunday trade. She didn’t know when he came in as she went to bed early.

“Sunday morning she let him sleep while she went to church and then, as usual, proceeded to her sister’s for the day. When she returned home Sunday evening, Richard wasn’t around so she opened his door and found the premises as represented by the model. Richard was married about a year ago and brought his wife home to live. She was a nice girl and they were very happy. His wife was away now visiting her parents for a few days in another state. Richard was a good boy but sometimes he had a little too much to drink, especially on Saturday nights. The dishpan belonged in the kitchen. She didn’t know how it came to be in Richard’s bedroom.”

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Here, Dorothy Dennison, who was missing, has been discovered dead on the floor of the “Parsonage Parlor.” There is a knife in her abdomen, her legs are slightly spread, and her dress is pulled up. A hammer rests not far from her head. Blood has saturated the floor. But why is the furniture covered and uncollected mail by the door? Where is the rector? And who left bite marks on Dorothy’s exposed chest?

39360613921_f5317ace4b_zThe body of Arthur Roberts, a local insurance salesman, was found by police who responded to a call from a friend of the victim, Mrs. Marian Chase. His body rests just inside the open door of the Nutshell Study “Log Cabin.”

Mrs. Chase was questioned and said, “She had met Arthur Roberts at the log cabin on Wednesday, October 21, 1942, at 5:15 p.m. They were in the habit of meeting there. Roberts was married and was living with his wife. Mrs. Chase was also married but was not living with her husband. Roberts had told her at this meeting that the affair between them was ended. There was no quarrel. Mrs. Chase and Mr. Roberts were standing at the foot of the bunk. He turned toward the door, took a package of cigarettes from his outside pocket, selected a cigarette, but dropped it. As he stooped over to pick it up—a shot was heard—he fell flat—a gun dropped beside him. Mrs. Chase said she picked up the gun but then replaced it. It did not belong to her. She then ran out of the door, jumped into her car and drove to summon the police.

“The gun was identified as belonging to Arthur Roberts. Mrs. Chase identified the handbag on the bunk as hers. A single bullet had passed entirely through Mr. Roberts’ chest from front to back and the powder around the entrance hole indicated that it had been fired at fairly close range.”

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Glessner Lee works on a Nutshell Study in the mid-1940s.

“Although the past century in forensic science had yielded many innovations, few women have been credited with advancing the field. A notable exception is Frances Glessner Lee,” wrote Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and prolific author.

“In written instructions, Lee urged those who were preparing to observe a scene to imagine themselves as less than half a foot tall. They must look at the entire scene, searching for clues that might not be obvious, such as a bullet caught in a ceiling, a weapon in an odd position, or evidence of behaviors that deflected a determination of suicide. They were urged to think carefully before they developed a theory.”

Those lucky enough to view the Nutshell Studies at the Renwick three-quarters of a century later were identically urged. Among the cheek-to-jowl crowd assembled on that frigid winter day were scores of young people, their parents in tow, enthusiastically searching for the clues in each diorama. Among these will be at least a few of criminal investigators and forensic scientists of the 21st Century. Frances Glessner Lee still teases minds today. By that, I think she would be well pleased. Ω

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In the Nutshell Study titled “Unpapered Bedroom,” an unknown woman has been discovered dead in a rooming house. The landlady said she and a man registered together as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. “He paid for the room up to six o’clock that evening and said not to disturb his wife, as she wanted to sleep late,” she told police. Under the pillow beside her is a large amount of blood.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

3 thoughts on “Murder in Miniature”

  1. When I was a child I remember going to a small museum in Shartlesville, PA that had something similar. I doubt they were authentic like these, but they had miniature scenes, including one of the last woman hung in the state. I have no idea what happened to them since but they were cool to look at.

    Liked by 1 person

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