Dollhouses of Death

Dolls, crime and drama: what's the connection?

Posted Oct 12, 2012

What’s with all the dead dolls? It seems as if a formerly obscure teaching technique has become a new source of literary and documentary inspiration. I was watching the Murdoch Mysteries series and noticed that the writers had devoted the episode “Dead End Street” to a dollhouse replication of a crime scene. And they’re not alone.

During its seventh season, the popular crime drama, CSI, devoted an entire story arc to the “Miniatures Killer,” who used dollhouse-type scenarios to set up a series of murders … in advance. Viewers loved it.

Now there’s news that Guillermo del Toro is developing a Hitchcock-style drama for HBO about a 1950s small-town housewife who becomes obsessed with solving brutal crimes. The twist: she creates dollhouses.

I’m happy to see that the original dollhouse creator, Frances Glessner Lee, is finally getting her long-overdue recognition. I first saw her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths” at the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore.

I didn’t know why a dollhouse would be on display in this place, but when I peeked through the tiny windows I saw a doll inside, posed as a murder victim. I then read a faded article about the woman who’d made this diorama, which introduced me to Lee. I immediately researched her (not easy at the time), put her in my book on forensic history, and wrote a profile on CourtTV’s website, the Crime Library.

Born into a wealthy family in 1878, in Chicago, “Fanny” was exposed to great minds. She hoped to go into law, but her father forbade it. That wasn’t for girls.

Well, it turns out that there’s nothing like resistance to fire up a passion! He did the world of law enforcement a big favor.

Lee’s brother went to Harvard and brought home a friend, George Burgess Magrath, who regaled the mesmerized girl with tales about legal medicine. He also confided the need for better training for death investigators. After Lee’s father died, she used her inherited wealth to establish and support a department at Harvard for teaching legal medicine.

She’d grown aware that investigators often made errors simply by missing clues. To address this, Lee envisioned a series of miniature crime tableaux as teaching devices, made to scale and inclusive of items found in actual crime scenes. She hired carpenters to make them.

While others crafted the scenes at her direction, Lee made each doll herself, using a cloth body stuffed with cotton BB gun pellets. Once the base doll was ready, Lee would decide how it should “die.” She’d then stick tiny knives in it, paint signs of decomposition on its skin, drown it in a tub, bludgeon it, or tie a noose around its neck and hang it. 

In “Burned Cabin,” for example, the model shows a meticulously built cabin after a fire had destroyed it. To achieve a sense of authenticity, this model was fully built before being incinerated with a blowtorch. One doll had made it out, fully clothed, but one doll had “died” inside. Suspicious!

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.

Lee made 19 scenarios and used them in weeklong seminars twice a year for selected police officers. She paid for everything. By 1949, some 2,000 doctors and 4,000 lawyers had been educated at the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, and several thousand state troopers, city detectives, coroners and district attorneys had attended the seminars. Many thanked her for the opportunity they might otherwise never have had.

In 1943, Lee received an honorary appointment as a captain of the New Hampshire State Police. Six years later, she was the first woman to be invited to the earliest meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In addition, she became the first female invited into the International Association of the Chiefs of Police. Finally, her eyesight failed and she had to give up.

I teach a course at DeSales University called “Psychological Sleuthing,” in which students learn to set up crime scenes for others to solve. One day, I received a call from documentary filmmaker Susan Marks. She had read my article about Lee, knew what I taught, and wondered if we could set up a life-size scenario based on one of Lee’s Nutshells.

We had an attic that perfectly replicated a scene involving a hanging victim, so the students went right to work. We rented antiques and made old-fashioned clothing for our manikin. Then we laid out all the clues, which included hand-penned love letters.

Susan arrived with her film crew to capture these students creating and investigating the final product. This segment ended up in her stunning documentary, Of Dolls and Murder.

Later, I asked Susan what had inspired her to pursue this story line, which was clearly a work of love.

“From the moment I first saw the Nutshells of Unexplained Death,” she said, “I was hooked—for life. These intricate, and dare I say beautiful, dollhouse crime scenes were like nothing I’d ever witnessed. I wanted to chase down the brilliance behind these miniature crime scenes, tell that story and share it with audiences that would fully appreciate the Nutshells for their art, creepy quotient, and deeper connection to the pursuit of justice.”

I know what she means.

The project took her three years, as she traveled to interview many different people involved in some aspect of crime scene investigation. “Every encounter at the morgue, medical examiners office, police station, museum, college, crime lab, crime scene, and yes, the Body Farm," she said, "left us in awe. The people we met along the way showed such generous and fierce devotion to the pursuit of justice that it was an honor to be in their presence.”

I’m glad that in this CSI-drenched era, Frances Glessner Lee is getting such widespread recognition. Each new form of inspiration confirms her innovative contribution to bettering our world.

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