How dollhouse crime scenes schooled 1940s cops

Frances Glessner Lee’s dioramas helped bring a scientific approach to forensic science

Diorama of a crime scene

DOLLHOUSE CSI This miniature portrayal of Maggie Wilson’s death in 1896 is the handiwork of self-taught criminologist Frances Glessner Lee. Lee’s dioramas trained investigators to look at crime scenes through a scientific lens. 

Bruce Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland

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In November 1896, Lizzie Miller stumbled upon a shocking sight: The discolored body of her neighbor Maggie Wilson half-submerged in a bathtub, legs precariously dangling over the side. How did she die and who killed her?

Wilson’s murder is fiction, though inspired by the work of an early 20th century British serial killer. The scene comes from the mind of self-taught criminologist and Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee. In the 1940s, Lee created this and 17 other macabre murder scenes using dolls and miniature furniture, designed to teach investigators how to approach a crime scene. While future forensic scientists may draw clues from microbes and odors (SN: 9/5/15, p. 22), Lee’s quirky, low-tech methods still influence modern forensic science.

“She’s the mother of modern CSI,” says Bruce Goldfarb of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, where the dioramas are currently on display.

Conversations with family friend and pathologist George Burgess Magrath piqued Lee’s interest in forensics and medicine. Unable to pursue the career herself, she helped found and finance a legal medicine department at Harvard in 1934.

Early 20th century coroners received little training; some didn’t even have medical degrees. Investigators at crime scenes sometimes traipsed through pools of blood and even moved bodies around without regard for evidence preservation or contamination. To the ire of medical examiners like Magrath, many officers didn’t pick up clues that could differentiate similar causes of death or hint at the presence of different poisons.

An avid dollhouse enthusiast, Lee came up with a solution: Create tiny practice crime scenes to help coroners and police officers learn the ropes of forensics. Drawing from real case files, court records and crime scene visits, Lee began making the dioramas and using them in seminars at Harvard in the 1940s. “Frances had a very particular style of observation,” says Goldfarb. “They’re not necessarily meant to be whodunits.” Instead, students took a more data-driven tack, assessing small details — the position of the corpse, coloration of the skin, or the presence of a weapon — plus witness statements to discern cause of death and learn all they could from the scene of the crime. Lee dubbed her 18 dioramas “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Lee’s dollhouse approach might seem old school and low-tech. Yet her emphasis on crime scene integrity and surveying a room in a clockwise spiral toward the body remain standard protocol for modern day investigators. Her dioramas are still used in annual training workshops in Baltimore.

Thomas Mauriello, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, drew inspiration from Lee’s work and designed his own murder dioramas in the 1990s. Mauriello has transitioned from using dollhouses for teaching CSI basics to a regular-sized house. He stages bodies in one of the house’s many rooms or in the trunk of a car. Students must collect hair and tissue samples from the scene, analyze fingerprints, run full ballistics tests and learn everything they can from the practice crime scene.

“The goal is to get students to ask the right kinds of questions about the scene,” he explains. “How did the suspect enter the crime scene and how did they leave it? If there’s a dead body, was it an accident or a homicide?”

Since Lee’s time, better technology may have taken forensics to new heights of insight, but those basic questions remain the same, whether in miniature or life size. 

Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” can be viewed by request at Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland in Baltimore. B. Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland
Lee designed her nutshell scenes to create a sense of realism, down to the smallest detail. B. Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland
The “Red Bedroom” nutshell depicts the fictional 1944 stabbing of a prostitute named Marie Jones. Was her death a murder or suicide? The angle of the knife wound in Jones’ neck could tell investigators whether or not the injury was self-inflicted. B. Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland
This tiny kitchen appears in a nutshell called “Three-Room Dwelling” that depicts a gruesome double murder and a suicide, inspired by a similar 1937 case. The tiny hand mixer is actually a bracelet charm. B. Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland
The nutshell “Log Cabin” depicts the death of an insurance salesman named Arthur Roberts. It includes a gun, a cartridge and a pack of cigarettes. Did the murderer leave them behind or did he shoot himself? B. Goldfarb/Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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