In 1937, it was real. Somewhere in New England, the Judson family was found dead in their quaint home, three bottles of milk sitting outside the front door, three places carefully set at the kitchen table and no signs of forced entry. The tragedy became one of 20 crime scenes that Frances Glessner Lee subsequently converted into incredibly detailed dioramas, creating precise blood spatters and spent shells and horribly murdered three-inch dolls dressed and posed carefully to recapture their final moments. Lee intended the dioramas to be used for training purposes in the then-new field of forensic science. The dioramas have been carefully restored by the Smithsonian and are now on display for your own investigation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery through Jan. 28, in an exhibit called “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” They’re called “nutshell studies” because Lee said they presented the entire case “in a nutshell.”
But can they be useful for investigators in the modern world of DNA analysis and 3-D computer recreations? To find out, the True Crime blog gathered three forensic scientists and watched them visually scour the dioramas — no touching allowed, though the museum does provide flashlights. Renowned former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole and former police crime scene investigators Kim Rule and Emily Rancourt, all now teaching their craft in the forensic science program at George Mason University, toured the exhibition and spent close to two hours analyzing the remarkable work Lee did 70 years ago. Their conclusion? Well, we can’t give away the ending in the third paragraph.
To simply listen to their questions and analyses was a true education. Rule and Rancourt spent years working crime scenes and began listing items they would want tested or examined, while O’Toole focused more on the psychological clues that might either point to a suspect or explain a motive. Each diorama is accompanied by a brief explanation of who discovered the body and what the relevant witnesses told police.
We came upon “Barn,” also known as “The Case of the Hanging Farmer.” As you might expect, the scene featured a farmer hanging from a noose in a barn, his feet dangling through a broken crate. The explanation of the case said that Imelda Wallace told police that her husband, farmer Eben Wallace, was “hard to get along with” and often went to the barn and threatened suicide. One afternoon, “Mr. Wallace made his usual threats,” but Mrs. Wallace “didn’t follow him to the barn right away.” When she did go, she found him hanging. She said.
Rancourt and Rule wanted to know what the medical examiner would conclude about how Eben Wallace died. If he was hanged, Rancourt said, a V-shaped mark would be visible near the back of his neck where the noose converged. If he was asphyxiated and then placed in the noose, the trauma would be at the front of his neck, she said. They also wanted to see toxicology reports, to learn if he had been poisoned, or was drunk or high. They tried to see if there were any defensive wounds on Wallace, to see if he put up a struggle if he were forcibly hanged. “She could have staged it, to make it look like a suicide,” Rule said.
O’Toole checked to see if the farmer had been re-dressed, in the event that paraphilia occurred. Para-what? Abnormal or extreme sexual desires, O’Toole informed, as in auto-erotica and the chance that someone had a rope around their neck while engaged in a sex act, and was dressed after discovery to conceal any possible embarrassment. “I would go right after the sexual part,” O’Toole said, “but in a delicate way. ‘Is it possible it was an accident?’ ”
O’Toole, who worked the Unabomber, Columbine shootings and Green River killer among many cases in 28 years with the FBI, said, “The most important thing is victimology,” learning about the victim’s life and times, behavior and interactions with others, particularly his wife. “Repeated suicide threats would be taxing on the wife,” she said. Could that have pushed her to kill Wallace and make it look like a suicide?
All three investigators said it was important not to start forming opinions or launching theories of what happened. While other museum patrons jumped in with their explanations of who moved where and who shot whom at the various dioramas, Rancourt, Rule and O’Toole stood silent and nodded, not leaping to any conclusions.
“We don’t put out a theory,” O’Toole said. “Putting out a theory causes you to lock in one direction. You always have parallel tracks of investigation. A good detective keeps these open,” not closing off any possibility of how a crime unfolded.
The dioramas are to scale, but Lee often worked with little or no photographs, since it wasn’t always the practice of police investigators to photograph every inch of the crime scene. Lee instead used mostly investigators’ notes and diagrams, then crafted meticulous versions of newspapers left on the floor, a child’s blocks carefully scattered, a table slightly askew.
Now, everything is photographed. Rancourt recalled a case where she photographed every inch of a scene where the victim’s cause of death was not immediately obvious. When the toxicology results came in, the victim had been poisoned with antifreeze. The police returned to the scene, and the antifreeze was gone. But Rancourt had photographed it before the suspect took it away.
We moved to “Three-Room Dwelling,” which really doesn’t describe the grisly depiction of a three-person family suddenly slain. The description said that a neighbor discovered the Judson family about 8:15 a.m., after seeing no signs of activity and knowing that Mr. Judson had not gone to work. He was face down on the floor next to his bed, blood on the back of his legs, no wounds to the back. He could not be turned over to examine his chest or face without permission of the medical examiner, Rule said, regardless of what happens on TV. Mrs. Judson was lying in bed, covers up to her chest, an apparent wound to the face and blood spatter on the wall behind her. Baby Judson appeared to be shot to death in her crib in the next room.
In addition, there were small pools of blood in the kitchen and the baby’s room. There was a rifle on the kitchen floor, and a trail of blood to the bedroom. An empty box of shells was on a kitchen shelf. Two windows were open slightly, and there was no sign of forced entry. No lights were on.
The investigators had countless questions. Rancourt wanted to know how stiff the victims’ fingers were, as an early indication of how long rigor mortis had been setting in, which along with body temperature could give them a rough idea of when the family died. The blood throughout the scene had to be tested, both for type and DNA, particularly the two pools of blood, which Rule thought might be from the killer, standing wounded after a struggle or shootout. There were two spent shells on the kitchen floor and one in the baby’s room that needed to be tested ballistically. With crime labs frequently overwhelmed by police requests, the investigators must prioritize the information they need right away. Rule and Rancourt, who both spent years on the crime scene unit in Prince William County, Va., said they would ask for ballistics and blood tests first.
O’Toole noted there didn’t appear to be any ransacking or obvious signs of robbery, but missing valuables would have to be investigated. Whether the Judsons owned guns would have to be checked. Would a killer shoot the family and then leave the murder weapon on the kitchen floor? The clean kitchen table gave the impression the family hadn’t eaten, so an examination of their prior stomach contents would be important, O’Toole said. She also said Mrs. Judson would have to be examined for sexual assault, and whether her body had been moved after being shot. The windows, indeed all of the three rooms, would have to be swabbed for trace DNA as well as fingerprints. The walls would be sprayed to find any unseen blood spatter.
Rule noted that both the mother and baby appeared to be shot in the face. She previously worked a case where a man shot his family members in the face and later confessed that he was simply tired of all their talking. “When I look at these blood patterns,” Rule said, “I do wonder about the person who killed them. What was their intention?”
Again, other museum patrons offered their theories. Nora Atkinson, the exhibition’s curator, said when couples have examined this scene, “the wives always say the husband did it. The husbands always say no he didn’t.”
Lee provided answers to the cases, but those are kept strictly secret. The dioramas, originally built for a new criminal justice program at Harvard University, have been kept at the Maryland chief medical examiner’s office and used for police training seminars. This is the first time they’ve been seen outside those seminars. A documentary about Lee and the dioramas, “Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story,” will premiere Saturday at the gallery.
But in the high-tech 21st century, are the dioramas still useful? Absolutely, the three investigators agreed. “You don’t want your first time coming on a crime scene,” Rancourt said, “to be a real crime scene.” Rule said, “It goes to observational skills, the critical thinking. They need to learn first responding. It’s not about solving the case. It’s about knowing the systematic approach.”