At first glance, the grisly dioramas made by Frances Glessner Lee look like the creations of a disturbed child. A doll hangs from a noose, one shoe dangling off of her stockinged foot. Another doll rests in a bathtub, apparently drowned. A third lies in bed peacefully … except for her blood-splattered head.
There’s no need to call a psychiatrist, though — Lee created these works in the 1940s and ’50s as training tools for homicide investigators. Starting Friday, 19 of the dollhouse-size crime scenes will be on display in the Renwick Gallery exhibit “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”
Lee, who died in 1962, called her miniatures “nutshell studies” because the job of homicide investigators, according to a phrase she had picked up from detectives, is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell.”
“She became the first female police captain in the country, and she was regarded as an expert in the field of homicide investigation,” exhibit curator Nora Atkinson says.
When Lee was building her macabre miniatures, she was a wealthy heiress and grandmother in New Hampshire who had spent decades reading medical textbooks and attending autopsies. Police departments brought her in to consult on difficult cases, and she also taught forensic science seminars at Harvard Medical School, Atkinson says. Lee painstakingly constructed the dioramas for her seminars, basing them on real-life cases but altering details to protect the victims’ privacy.
“She was very particular about exactly how dolls ought to appear to express social status and the way [the victims] died,” Atkinson says. “If a doll has a specific discoloration, it’s scientifically accurate — she’s reproducing the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and positioning them based on when rigor mortis took effect.”
Tiny details in the scenes matter too. For example, fibers on one doll’s wounds match those on a nearby door frame. At the Renwick exhibit, visitors will be given magnifying glasses and flashlights to conduct their own homicide investigations, but don’t ask museum staff for help — the scenes are still used in annual training seminars, so their secrets are closely guarded.
Frances Glessner Lee built the miniature rooms pictured here, which together make up her piece “Three-Room Dwelling,” around 1944-46.
1. Lee used red nail polish to make pools and splatters of blood.
2. Lee crocheted this tiny teddy bear herself, so that future investigators might wonder how it landed in the middle of the floor.
3. The pattern on the floor of this room has faded over time, making the spent shotgun shell easier to find.
4. Lee knit this runner and sewed the toy chairs on it in this exact state of disarray.
5. The bedroom window is open. Could it be a sign of forced entry?
6. Lee would paint charms from bracelets to create some prop items. Others she bought from dollhouse manufacturers.
7. The table settings are sewn into place to indicate an orderly, prosperous family.
8. There’s one big clue in clear view in this room.
9. Lee sewed the clothes worn by her figurines, selecting fabrics that signified their social status and state of mind. In some cases, she even tailor-made underwear for them.
10. The doll heads and arms were antique German porcelain doll parts that were commercially available. Lee would create the bodies herself, often with lead shot in them.
11. How did blood end up all the way over here?
Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; Fri. through Jan. 28, free.