It was murder most foul in the parsonage. Detective Mark Titanski of the Worcester County, Md., Sheriff's Office switched on a flashlight and scanned the scene: The body of a high school student in a yellow dress lay faceup. A pool of blood had spread around her head. A hammer was on the floor nearby. A knife was stuck in her stomach, but little blood had flowed from that wound. Her legs were spread. Welts on her chest and neck looked like bite marks.
"Did she meet some young man here for a rendezvous?" Titanski asked his partner, Trooper 1st Class Stephen Hallman of the Maryland State Police.
"If somebody drug her in here, that wouldn't be sitting on the chair," said Hallman, indicating a wrapped package of Hamburg steak.
"The butcher said she bought the meat that day," Titanski said. "Unless the butcher killed her and brought her here and left the meat to look like she brought it." With the passage of time, he pointed out, "the meat would have maggots." Which it did: Titanski shined his light on rice-like specks clustered around the package. Yet the body seemed maggot-free.
Most curious of all, this crime scene had sat virtually undisturbed for more than 70 years — and the murder victim was a doll, situated inside an intricately crafted diorama. Titanski and Hallman couldn't touch the unfortunate figure, fixed in gory repose behind glass. But they were convinced that a close study of this vintage death diorama — packed with subtle clues, misdirections and extraordinarily lifelike minutiae of human existence — would make them better at their jobs. The modern forensics investigator may have marvelous technology at hand, yet "the basics are still the basics," Titanski told me. "It's amazing that even though these were made in the '40s, they're still useful to us today."
We were standing in Room 417 of the Maryland Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, an immaculate space dedicated to displaying 18 handcrafted, museum-quality murder scenes. Scaled at 1 inch to 1 foot, they depict shotgun slayings, hangings, bludgeonings, possible asphyxiations, all based on composites of actual murders, suicides or accidents, most from the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to the case of the "Parsonage Parlor," there are "Three-Room Dwelling," "Barn," "Burned Cabin," "Garage," "Pink Bathroom," "Attic," "Kitchen," "Living Room" and so on.
It was the fourth day of a week-long forensic science course called the Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation. Glessner Lee (1878-1962) was an heiress to the International Harvester fortune who became focused on the problem of old-school death investigators overlooking or disturbing evidence that science could unlock. She endowed a department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School in the 1930s and launched the Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation. And she crafted the death dioramas, which she called "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death." Her friend Erle Stanley Gardner, the writer who created Perry Mason, dedicated one of his Mason mysteries to her. He credited her with "helping to make the competent state police official as much a professional man as the doctor or lawyer." After Harvard's legal medicine department folded in the 1960s, an alumnus who was then the Maryland medical examiner brought the Nutshell Studies to Baltimore on long-term loan from Harvard. "She is the mother of forensic science," says Bruce Goldfarb, public information officer in the medical examiner's office, who is researching a biography of Glessner Lee. "She helped evolve the field to 'C.S.I.' and what people expect today."
On the first day of the seminar, 56 prosecutors and detectives from as far as China, Ontario and Colorado were assigned in groups to different Nutshell Studies. "Your job is not really to solve them as you would a puzzle," instructed Jerry Dziecichowicz, secretary-treasurer of Harvard Associates in Police Science, which helps put on the seminar, "but go in and observe. Record evidence you think would have medical importance" to explain cause and manner of death. Later, at the end of day four, they would have to present the most important clues they had gleaned. During the week, between lectures on 21st-century techniques for interpreting bloodstains, distinguishing varieties of gunshot wounds and determining time of death, the detectives ducked into Room 417 to do their homework, poring over the dolls.
Though not actual crime scene with real corpses, the dioramas, with their three-dimensionality and welter of detail, remain excellent tools for exercising powers of observation. Maybe the works would have lost some relevance if Glessner Lee had not gone to astonishing lengths to create a handmade virtual reality: According to Goldfarb, who has studied how the dioramas were constructed, the keys and doorknobs turn, and the gates open; tiny stubbed-out cigarettes contain real burned tobacco; mini newspapers are printed with actual front pages; shelves contain reproduction cans and cartons of groceries. Glessner Lee sewed the victims' clothes, carefully administered wear and tear to wallpaper and rugs, knitted the stitches inside a deceased wife's diminutive basket of yarn, threaded the needle on the sewing machine in a home where a family lies slain and hand-wrote love letters strewn in an attic beside a woman hanging from a beam. (If the victim committed suicide, how did one of her shoes end up around the corner and down the stairs?)
The epitome of Glessner Lee's obsession with verisimilitude was the way she extended this richly tragic world beyond what Nutshell viewers could possibly see. Inside a saloon is a poster for a boxing match that you can glimpse only if you're a six-inch-tall patron bellying up to the bar. "Real life is like that — real life is detailed," Goldfarb told me. "There's a lot to absorb. You don't know what the relevant information is. She said she wanted people to lose themselves and immerse themselves in this world."
"I think it was accidental," said Joseph Caputo, an investigator from Toronto, studying a corpse charred down to its skull, lying in a burned bed in the corner of a partially consumed cabin.
"So why is the chair on the floor?" asked Barbara Mitchell, a forensic technician with Baltimore County's Police Department.
"The gas can may be a red herring," Caputo said.
"Definitely get DNA from it," said a detective from Miami, who also noticed a pack of cigarettes and matches in the detritus. "We get a lot of cases like that, at least in Miami. People smoking a pipe or a cigar and they fall asleep."
Nearby, Detective David Crowell of the Wicomico County, Md., Sheriff's Office was saying, "I would interrogate the crap out of the mistress," to Detective Jesse Namdar of the Burlington, Vt., Police Department, as they examined an adulterous love nest — where one of the lovers was shot clean through his chest with his own gun. The detectives spotted the bullet lodged in the roof of the log cabin, almost directly above his body. How could the bullet have traveled at that angle? Could the mistress's story that the gun went off by accident be true?
In a Nutshell Study titled "Blue Bedroom," a man was lying in bed with the covers pulled up. A shotgun with string attached to the trigger was on the floor beside an overturned chair next to the bed. The blood from his head wound was splattered on the wall in the direction away from the shotgun. "I have a million-and-a-half questions," just as in a real death scene, said Detective Justin Reibly of the Caroline County, Md., Sheriff's Office. "You don't know what's relevant at the time until you investigate further. ... Could he have committed suicide and be in that same position? ... Or was he murdered and it was staged? ... I have issues with him being covered up."
The richly layered artistry of the dioramas that captivated the detectives also drew Nora Atkinson to Room 417, where she mingled with the homicide investigators. She is a curator at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian conservators planned to restore elements of the Nutshell Studies where decades have taken their toll. Then the dioramas will be featured Oct. 20 through Jan. 28 in an exhibit called "Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death." "Here was this woman who essentially was breaking the glass ceiling through this very feminine craft," Atkinson told me. There's a reason, she added, that old dioramas still have value today — to a police officer, to a curator, to any of us: "It's also about teaching people how to see. ... So much of our culture has gone digital, and that's where craft shines, because it's three-dimensional. You can't really understand it from the Internet, from a flat page; you have to investigate it fully in the round."
Finally it was time for the detectives to show how well they had investigated the Nutshell Studies. In a conference room, Dziecichowicz screened enlarged pictures of the doll-sized mayhem. Each group presented its findings, then Dziecichowicz revealed the correct interpretations of the cases as written by Glessner Lee. "Thank God it wasn't you guys who investigated this one — she'd still be in jail!" he cracked when one group saw murder where there had been only an accident. He praised investigators for noticing that the latch on a certain window would lock on the inside when closed from the outside, and he credited another group for spotting lividity on a body that suggested it had been moved. Out of 10 assigned Nutshell Studies, the detectives found the critical evidence in six. In four, certain clues eluded them, and they could not piece together the key details surrounding the fates of the doomed dolls.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine. Email us at email@example.com. For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine. Follow the Magazine on Twitter. Like us on Facebook.