Marie Jones was dead, all five inches of her. She was a prostitute, and her client, Jim Green, swore he had nothing to do with how she was found: lying on the floor, covered in blood, her head resting on a miniature cardboard box.
Marie Jones was — is — a doll, and one with particularly bad luck, at that. Had she ended up in the hands of a little girl in the 1930s, she would have had a lovely life in a fine dollhouse, pouring tea and raising fake children and enduring the indignities of tangled hair. Instead, Marie ended up in the hands of Frances Glessner Lee, a woman with an entirely different appreciation for dollhouses.
Lee was considered “the mother of forensic science,” and her dollhouses were the stuff of nightmares: scenes, in miniature, with accurate blood splatter and signs of decomposition and macabre backstories of unsolved crimes. That’s how a perfectly nice doll met her gruesome end as a lady of the night, becoming another case number for a hardened detective.
But in a twisted way, that doll was lucky, too. Had she ended up with a little girl, Marie would have been used for a few years and then perhaps discarded. Instead, the figurine has helped train generations of detectives. She has helped solve crimes. And now, she’s on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, which is presenting the complete collection of Glessner Lee’s 19 dollhouses, called the Nutshell Studies, in the exhibition “Murder Is Her Hobby,” just in time for Halloween. It is the first time the haunting dioramas have ever been on public display.
For all outward appearances, Lee had the kind of life you would see in a dollhouse: Born in 1878, she grew up wealthy in Chicago, in a beautiful home, surrounded by art, with every opportunity available to her as a girl of her time, which meant she was expected to marry, produce a family and become a socialite. But Lee’s marriage was unhappy, and it ended in divorce. She had always wanted to become a scientist or doctor but, as a woman, had few avenues. Nevertheless, when Lee came into her inheritance in 1936, she used her family’s fortune to start a criminal justice program at Harvard University. The field had always fascinated her, thanks to a close friendship with George Burgess Magrath, Boston’s medical examiner.
Lee was dismayed to learn that many crimes went unsolved because police hadn’t been properly schooled in collecting evidence. So, in her 60s, she returned to a childhood hobby — miniatures — to create 20 dioramas (one was destroyed) that would be used to teach future detectives how to view crime scenes. And now, more than 70 years later, those dioramas are still being used in an annual seminar offered by the Maryland chief medical examiner’s office, even though their retro design and technology-free settings aren’t anything like what detectives would encounter in a contemporary crime scene.
The dioramas are about how to look for clues: What does it mean that an old woman hanging by a noose has an untied shoe halfway down the stairs, amid strewn letters and what appears to be a will? Or that there’s a footprint in the snow outside a garage where a man appears to have asphyxiated in his car? What are those stains on the floor of that bedroom? Why is that gun in the kitchen, far from two dolls lying in pools of their own blood in the bedroom?
Now, it’s time to train people to see the dioramas a different way: as art.
In the police training seminars, says the exhibition’s curator Nora Atkinson, “it’s really separated from the idea of an art piece. These are actual crime scenes to the investigators that are looking at them. This is the first time that they’ve ever been exhibited as art in a museum, or really in any context.”
Lee, who died in 1962, was not a trained artist, and miniature-making was not considered an art form until later in the 20th century.
“You see a lot of artistic decisions even though she probably wouldn’t have considered herself an artist,” Atkinson says.
The Nutshells were based on real cases, but Lee changed some details to protect victims’ identities. She worked more from written descriptions of the crime scenes than from photographs, so the aesthetics of each dollhouse — the style of the homes, the outfits the victims are wearing — come from her own creativity.
“One of my favorite details is in ‘Pink Bathroom.’ There’s this very fanciful, large, pink, goldfish-like wallpaper that’s throughout that scene, and the scene itself starts to look like this tiny little goldfish bowl,” Atkinson says. “It’s a really surreal-looking environment. The entire room is very pink, and this woman lies dead on the floor, and around her are these large, swimming fish.”
Lee was incredibly thorough, too. She spent between $3,000 to $6,000 to make each diorama, nearly the cost to build a full-size house in that era, and she would go to great lengths to make sure every object was realistic. You’ll see miniature reproductions of newspapers, canned food, even tiny, hand-knit socks. The museum helpfully provides flashlights so visitors can examine each scene in detail.
“She stitched every piece of clothing and made underwear even if you couldn’t see it,” the curator says. For one dollhouse that depicts the aftermath of a fire — was it an accident? Or arson to cover a crime? — Atkinson says Lee’s carpenter “built the entire cabin and then put a blowtorch to it to get the realistic effect that she wanted to achieve. She’d have him hand-fashion tiny little nails.”
Lee was undoubtedly ahead of her time. Miniature-making — and particularly, miniaturizing “dystopic scenes,” as Atkinson puts it — has had a revival in recent years. But in Lee’s time, there was no precedent for violent, ugly dollhouses. Instead, the quaint settings were used to prepare girls for lives as homemakers.
“You’re more used to seeing things in the midcentury that are a little more idealized,” Atkinson says.
Art such as that of Lori Nix, who builds miniature scenes from a post-apocalyptic world, and of Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, who make darkly humorous snow globes, has much in common with Lee’s work. Rick Araluce, whose installation “The Final Stop” is being presented concurrently with the Nutshells, was inspired by the dioramas. (“The Final Stop” transforms one room of the Renwick into an eerie abandoned subway stop.) Artisans in the fields of set and lighting design also use the Nutshells as a reference.
“They’re heavily known in artistic circles,” Atkinson says. “They’re often used by screenwriters. There’s a cult following around them.”
Now that the Renwick show has opened, perhaps there will be a broader cult following around Lee, too. She’s a lesser-known feminist icon: a woman who succeeded in a field dominated by men, who subverted arguably the most feminine form of craft to master a science. Taking a toy that taught girls how to be wives, she transformed it to something that now teaches them how to be detectives.
There are other dichotomies in Lee’s work: The home is supposed to be a safe haven, but that’s where some of the most brutal Nutshell crimes occur. Most dollhouses of the era were fine homes, but the Nutshells are messy and middle- or lower-class. There’s also a deliberate contrast between vice and virtue, as dioramas featuring prostitutes and drunks are next to dioramas featuring idealized innocence, like a girl murdered in her ballet slippers or a baby in a crib.
“There’s a leveling effect,” Atkinson says. “Regardless of how they were seen by outside society, the same fate ends up occurring to them all.”
Because the dollhouses are an art exhibition — and because they’re still used in training — the museum will not tell visitors who committed each crime. Who killed Marie Jones? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s peering into the diorama. And that’s okay with Atkinson.
“That frustration,” she says, “is kind of scrumptious, honestly.”
Renwick Gallery, 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-633-7970. americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.
Dates: Through Jan. 28.