CSI dollhouse: the tiny, macabre models that transformed modern forensics

Disturbing dioramas created by an American millionairess revolutionised the art of forensics, finds Lucy Davies

Frances Glessner Lee's 'Kitchen' case, made in 1944-45
Frances Glessner Lee's 'Kitchen' case, made in 1944-45

On the afternoon of Tuesday April 11 1944, Fred Barnes returned from running an errand for his wife, Barbara, to find her dead on the kitchen floor. She was next to the fridge, which was open, as was their oven, a Bundt cake still baking inside. A tray of ice was melting under her shoulder.

Fred saw all this through the kitchen window, because the back and front doors had been locked. He had called the police immediately. The question for them was, murder, suicide or misadventure?

Police officers in America have puzzled over this question for 65 years, though there isn’t a right answer, exactly. The case is real enough, but details have been changed, in part to protect the Barnes family, but also to make those details deliberately more ambiguous.

The way that the officers encounter those details is altogether unique – and strangely beautiful. The Barnes case is one of 20 that were turned into miniature dioramas by the millionairess and amateur criminologist, Frances Glessner Lee, in the early Forties, for use as teaching aids at Harvard Medical School, which a childhood friend had attended. 

The Nutshell Models of Unexplained Death, as they are known, represent a set of facts – “the truth in a nutshell”, as Lee put it – rather than a mystery to be solved. Lee encouraged her students to think of them “as if a motion picture were stopped at such a point”. But they had a far more serious aim than movies in mind; namely, to eliminate the guesswork and bias (not to mention the backhanders) then blighting the country’s coroner system.

'Striped Bedroom' created 1944-5 Credit: Endeavour

Lee’s role in the Nutshell models, which revolutionised forensics and which are still in use today, has historically been relegated to that of eccentric grandma crafter, when a new account of her life makes clear that she was both the brains and the brawn behind the entire endeavour.

She also funded it. The daughter of Gilded Age aristocracy, Lee, who had aspired to medical school, but had been married off by her parents at 19 (she later divorced), had vast sums of money at her disposal.

Accordingly, her dioramas are astonishingly detailed: doors and dressers open, corks come out of bottles, belt buckles buckle. A pencil made from a toothpick has a tiny lead nib. Their scale is the 1:12 used in dollhouses (ie 1ft becomes 1in).  

'Saloon and Jail', crated 1944-46 Credit: Endeavour

For blood spatter, Lee used red nail varnish. To show lividity or the effects of carbon monoxide, she painted her dolls’ porcelain skin. Two seemingly identical rooms with a man sprawled on the floor have in fact more than 30 differences between them for the student to detect. 

“Far too often the investigator ‘has a hunch’ and looks for – and finds – only the evidence to support it, disregarding any other evidence that may be present,” Lee said, and recommended that students observe her dioramas methodically, beginning at one spot to their left and looking around the room in a clockwise direction.

Frances Glessner Lee, pictured left with pathologist Alan R Moritz Credit: Endeavour

Harvard closed Lee’s training course in 1966, when her bequest (she died in 1962) ran out. The boxes, though, were rescued by Baltimore state’s medical examiner, who had studied under Lee, and knew their incalculable worth. Mrs Barnes, then, is now in Maryland, and still on her linoleum kitchen floor, ice melting under her shoulder. The cause of her death remains, and always be, inconclusive. 

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb is published by Endeavour at £16.99