“Grandma Sleuth” Made Dollhouses Showing Crime Scenes — And Shaped The Field Of Forensic Investigation

by Miriam Mosher

On Friday, October 20th, The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum launched the exhibit Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. The show looks at the overlap between craft and forensics — a rarely considered intersection — by displaying miniature dioramas of crime scenes made by the remarkable Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962). Murder Is Her Hobby marks the first time these dioramas, created in the 1940s and used to this day as teaching materials, will be displayed in a museum setting for their impressive craftsmanship. The show presents a master craftsperson who utilized traditionally feminine skills to revolutionize the male-dominated arena of police investigation and emerge as the doyenne of that field, eventually becoming the first-ever female police captain. A badass historical woman, unexplained death, and craft with an activist bent — we, at BUST, couldn’t be more excited!

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The Nutshells, as they are called, are essentially maudlin dollhouses. Frances synthesized real murder cases and her own imagination to create murder scenes in exacting detail. Usually set in a domestic setting, she treated every detail as equally important, putting as much care into the pattern on a pair of curtains as the painted blood splatters of a homicide. These dollhouses are intended to teach investigators how to approach a crime scene with a scientific eye. The nutshells are presented with little fact sheets that include testimony and general information. Given these details, the observer is left to deduce what he can: is it a murder, a suicide, or an accident? How did it happen?

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The dioramas are particularly groundbreaking in their attention to often forgotten members of society. Nora Atkinson, the Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft, tells BUST, “Even though [Glassner] came from a very wealthy background, she was committed to seeking truth and justice for every member of society. She very purposefully made many of the victims people whose cases might have been overlooked at the time — especially women. She wanted the Nutshells to help investigators to see and overcome their unconscious and conscious biases and to treat every case with the same degree of seriousness.” Because the subjects were people on the fringes of society — sex workers, alcoholics, the poor — she forced investigators to take seriously victims who are not rich men. After all, women were not taken seriously in anything, not even death.

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Frances Glassner Lee has a cult following as “Grandma Sleuth” and has been the inspiration for various shows including Murder, She Wrote, and yet her history and very real role in shaping the nascent field of forensic investigation is often unknown, a lapse in knowledge that the exhibit seeks to remedy.

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Lee was born into a wealthy family. She had an interest in investigation, fueled by an early love of Sherlock Holmes, and a real academic aptitude. While Lee wanted to attend medical school and pursue these passions as a career, her choices as a young society woman were limited; instead, she was trained in the domestic arts and married a young lawyer. Forced to pursue these interests as a hobby, she took to collecting books, attending lectures and doing everything she could to educating herself in the fields of medicine and law.

Her interest in forensics was further developed through her friendship with George Burgess Magrath, a friend who studied medicine with an emphasis on death investigation at Harvard and eventually became the medical examiner of Suffolk County. He appreciated her sincere interest and stoked her already active imagination with stories from the field. Respecting her opinion and dedication, he shared his concerns with her about the nascent discipline of medical examination. While it was a huge step forward from the coroner system, marked by it’s lack of scientific basis and nepotism, it was still marred by sloppy technique and lack of training.

After Lee’s brother’s death in 1929, she made a donation in his name to found the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, the first program that brought medicine and law together under one roof. It was this action that made clear to her husband and the very traditional social circles in which she existed, that her interest was not simply some morbid hobby, but a true passion. It was, however, only after receiving her sizable inheritance and making the unprecedented decision to get a divorce, that she was able to fully dedicate herself to the new field.

She approached the work from a vastly different background and with a markedly different set of skills and experiences than her young male counterparts. Acutely aware of the issues Magrath had shared with her, she realized she could use her skill in miniature making to create training tools for investigators. In 1943, when she was 65, she began the project that she would become known for: The Nutshells of Unexplained Death. Enlisting the full-time help of the carpenter from her estate, they began the process of creating the scenes; he focused on the structural elements, and she focused on the interior details, the people, the weapon, the general scene. As didactic tools, they changed the nature of training for death investigation.

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Because of their usefulness in training investigators, the nutshells have remained in use all these years later. It is an exciting development to be able to view them from a new lens, to see the subversive act of making miniatures that sharply differ from the dollhouses of the time. Dollhouses were intended to exude a domestic tranquility and were used as training tools for upper-class young ladies. In fact, a neighbor of Lee made “The Thorne Rooms,” some of the most famous examples of these domestic scenes. The nutshells explicitly turned these cute domestic scenes into domestic dystopias. Lee’s inversion of the dollhouse narrative likely mirrors her own relationship to domesticity — one that was mired in frustration, dissatisfaction, and general unhappiness. Seeing all of the nutshells united and on display is a striking reminder of the ways she both upended ideas of feminine domesticity while using her adroit skills in the so-called feminine crafts to revolutionize a male-dominated field. As an OG lady sleuth and remarkable craftsperson, she is the kind of woman we love seeing the Renwick highlight! 

Images courtesy The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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