The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

By in Forensic Science on July 21, 2013

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The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death offers readers an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of a master criminal investigator. Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy grandmother, founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936 and was later appointed captain in the New Hampshire police. In the 1940s and 1950s she built dollhouse crime scenes based on real cases in order to train detectives to assess visual evidence. Still used in forensic training today, the eighteen Nutshell dioramas, on a scale of 1:12, display an astounding level of detail: pencils write, window shades move, whistles blow, and clues to the crimes are revealed to those who study the scenes carefully.

Corinne May Botz’s lush color photographs lure viewers into every crevice of Frances Lee’s models and breathe life into these deadly miniatures, which present the dark side of domestic life, unveiling tales of prostitution, alcoholism, and adultery. The accompanying line drawings, specially prepared for this volume, highlight the noteworthy forensic evidence in each case. Botz’s introductory essay, which draws on archival research and interviews with Lee’s family and police colleagues, presents a captivating portrait of Lee.Bizarre and utterly fascinating, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is a dark and disturbing photographic journey through criminal cases and the mind of Frances Glessner Lee–grandmother, dollhouse-maker, and master criminal investigator. Photographer Corinne May Botz stumbled across the “Nutshell Studies” while making a video about women who collect dollhouses. On the suggestion of a collector, she visited the Baltmore Medical Examiner’s Office, where Lee’s miniature reconstructions of crime scenes were on display. The macabre dioramas fascinated and repulsed her: “I was entranced by the details: the porcelain doll with a broken arm in the attic, the grains of sugar on the kitchen floor…I was also riveted by the miniature corpses. Shot in bed, collapsed in the bathtub, hung in the attic and stabbed in the closet; all were eternally frozen in miniature rooms that had become their tombs.”

A remarkable woman, Frances Glessner Lee established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936. At the time, innumerable murders went undetected because evidence was mishandled, or ignored. To train investigators of sudden and violent deaths to better assess visual evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies–dollhouses that students could study from every angle, with minute crime scenes details taken from actual cases. Lee created 18 dioramas, using only the most mysterious cases (cases that could have been ruled as accidents, murders, or suicides) to train detectives and challenge their ability to read evidence.

Botz reveals as much about the nature of obsession as she does about Frances Glessener Lee–each model is painstakingly photographed from multiple vantage points, allowing the reader to witness the astounding level of realism and precision in each case, as well as giving the reader unobstructed access to each eerie setting. All 18 studies include a brief synopsis of each case, as well as a key to each grisly floor plan. Perfect for amateur sleuths, aspiring medical examiners, and fans of CSI, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is grim and oh so bewitching. –Daphne Durham Content
Inside The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Case: “Living Room”

Case: “Three-Room Dwelling”

Case: “Dark Bathroom”

2 thoughts on “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

  1. E. H. Perry
    45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Wonderful concept, disappointing pictures, October 21, 2004
    E. H. Perry (CA USA) –

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    This review is from: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Hardcover)

    The story of the Nutshell Studies is wonderful and intriguing. The Studies themselves are also intriguing… I think. The problem is that the photographs in this book are artsily blurry. I couldn’t see the crime scenes clearly. An especial frustration is that there are line drawings of the crime scenes with clues marked — but there’s no corresponding photograph! It’s very annoying to be told, for instance, that a doll’s face is red from carbon monoxide when I can’t see that face in any of the pictures.

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  2. J. Ben Gaily
    15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    One of my new favorite books, October 25, 2004
    J. Ben Gaily (New York, NY) –

    This review is from: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Hardcover)

    I picked up a copy of this book last week at a Chelsea art opening of the author’s work. I think that the book is fabulous, both on the level that its subject matter is fascinating and in the quality and artistry of the photographs. I like the ambiguity of the pictures. The dioramas and stories are both intriguing and mysterious–there are no easy answers, which makes the book an intellectually interesting and challenging read. I notice new things each time I pick it up. All of the friends that I have shown the book to have loved it. Can’t recommend it highly enough!

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