The nutshell studies – Frances Glessner Lee

Not all art starts out as art. Some pieces which we view today as amazingly creative pieces, started life with a much different purpose. Some get mistaken for trash…like in the case of Paul Branca, bless the cleaning lady that thought she was being helpful and threw out the $15,000 dollar trash installation. In the case of Glessner Lee, the doll house murder scenes started life as a way of teaching detectives the art of forensic science.

The doll house scenes are now displayed in the Renwick gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but when Glessner Lee created them, she used them in regular seminars.

Frances Glessner Lee was born in 1878. Her father was a wealthy industrialist and she and her brother were educated at home. Her brother went on to attend Harvard, but she was not permitted to go to college, and instead married a lawyer. Her marriage ended in divorce, and when she expressed an interest in forensic pathology some years after, she was discouraged in following that path. How little did the people discouraging her realise that she would later be dubbed ‘the mother of forensic science’.

Once after her brother died and she inherited her families fortune was she able to take her first steps in a career that she mastered. She was aged 52.

Lee showed exacting precision when creating her dioramas, which had some reflection on her family background. Her father had collected fine furniture and had adorned their house with it, he had also written books on the furniture he collected and family home is now a museum in its own right. Her fathers eye for detail obviously passed on to her, as the creations she made were perfect down to the smallest detail.

The above picture is one of the unexplained death of Daniel Perkins, who in 1943 want missing and was presumed dead. Glessner Lee took actual crime scenes and created the doll house sized replications with working doors, lights and windows. She created 20 of these and would give people attending her seminars 90 minutes to to review the scene. This was a test as part of her week long seminars to see if detectives could gather all the relevant evidence.

Each model cost between $3000 and $4500 to create.

18 of the models are still used today for training purposes by the Harvard Associates in Police Science.

For her ground breaking work, Glessner Lee was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State police in 1943 making her the first woman to join the international association of chief of police.

In popular culture Glessner Lee has provided inspiration to many, including being the woman behind the character of Jessica Fletcher in ‘Murder she wrote’.

The detail in each model is remarkable and made with almost a childlike enthusiasm, with such attention to detail that bullet holes and burn marks were made to the reports of each murder she recreated. A lot of the models centred around the death of middle class women which she championed the investigations of.

If you’re interested in more of her work you can see some of it here.


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