Welcome to the (Very Dark) Dollhouse

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One of the many excellent but sometimes unnecessary rules of fiction writing is to begin in media res. The advice goes that if you begin with action, you hook your reader. But sometimes I’ve stayed up all night to read stories in which nary a thing happens. So all rules should be known but easily broken–said someone famous–and I agree with that

I thought I should begin my blog gently, with something colorful and charming, and then I put it off because I couldn’t think of anything like that. Well, I thought: Begin with action, then. Begin with the Nutshells.

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The Kitchen

This poor little awkward doll. She’s met an untimely demise, of course, because this is a room from The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

History. Not mine–but that of the keen-minded Frances Glessner Lee’s (March 25, 1878 – Jan. 27, 1962), who was the creator of the Nutshell Studies, and the woman whom many still claim as the mother of modern crime scene investigation.

Born into a wealthy industrialist family and well-educated, Frances Glessner Lee might have done what she wanted–which was study medicine–but her family decided she would not. She would marry instead. And she did. She married and had three children. She raised her children, knitted and sewed, entertained, became a talented miniaturist, and read Sherlock Holmes for kicks.

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Not bound by the same rules as his sister, Lee’s older brother did study medicine, and one summer, he brought home a school friend, George Burgess Magrath, who would have an enormous impact on Lee’s future. Magrath became Lee’s good friend, but he also became a chief medical examiner in Boston and taught courses in legal medicine at Harvard. Just like Lee, he was intrigued by crime scene investigation, and the two often discussed the details of actual crimes. Based on these conversations, Lee began to build the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. The Nutshells are filled with clues–some intrinsic, some useless–it is up to the viewer to decipher which is which.

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If you’re a noir fan, the miniatures won’t disappoint. The bleak side of poverty and addiction are depicted, and the pretty rooms of the middle class sometimes hold the saddest secrets. Instead of Philip Marlowe, it is the viewer who plays the cynical detective while reading witness statements and eying overturned ashtrays and empty bottles.

The Nutshells are still used today as teaching tools in forensic science, and if  you want to see the Nutshells for yourself, you must travel a bit–if not physically, mentally and emotionally. They are housed on the fourth floor of The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. Mind you, that’s the morgue, so be prepared for a rather an odd day.

I had very strange day indeed.

I’m originally from Maryland,and my parents still live there . My mother is the children’s author Mary Downing Hahn, and I inherited her penchant for the spooky. She’s got an Edgar, after all, and does things like break into abandoned amusement parks to take photos, so when I called my mother and said, “Let’s go see the Nutshells!” she said simply: “Oh—,” then: “Let’s.”

On the day of our appointment, the rain was torrential and right in front of the Medical Examiner’s Office, I was hit–but not really hit–caught–and not me, but my car was caught–by an enormous truck. There was a terrible tearing, crunching sound, and when my mother and I got out and looked, stepping around puddles in a muddy gravel parking lot where parts of “The Wire” had once been filmed, it seemed that my bumper was “torn a little off,” and we could just “sort-of pop it back on” if we tried. We tried. In the rain. Eventually I said: “Never mind. I’ll take care of it after. Let’s just go in and see the Nutshells.”

So we went. And we saw.

Three Room Dwelling, by Frances Glessner Lee

Three Room Dwelling, by Frances Glessner Lee

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Three Room Dwelling

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Three Room Dwelling

Bruce Goldfarb, a journalist and former EMS tech, showed us around. He’s an expert on Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshells, and though he’ll never reveal solutions (the answers are kept under lock and key), he will help you learn how to look. He asked me if I was sure about something more than once–after I noticed the doorway stuffed with newspapers but before I knew anything about the window latches. He was so interesting that I forgot all about my car and the rain. You really couldn’t hope for a better guide. By the end of the day, my mother and I had both claimed him as our best new friend.

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The Bathroom

This was the same day that Charles Street collapsed, and my mother and I still had some notion that if we couldn’t pop the bumper back on ourselves, someone would come out who could pop the bumper back on. Three hours later, a tow truck arrived. The tow driver said we should stay in the car while he got my car hooked up to his truck. I pulled out of the lot and waited on a side street next to the morgue. I glanced through the fogged windows to see the tow operator’s black hoodied head moving back and forth in the rain–I think it was then that his hood began to resemble the grim reaper’s cape, his tow tools a distorted scythe. The strangeness of the day had finally gotten the better of me, and by the time we were warm and towed and sitting in the auto shop with cups of burnt coffee, I only felt grateful to be safe and dry with my mother beside me.

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Marie, The Red Bedroom

But poor Marie was still in the closet! This is why the Nutshells fascinate. The dioramas are of people–mostly women–doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing where they should be doing it. They’re at home, in safe spaces. The woman at the bottom of the stairs in her beautifully turned out home, the woman face up on her kitchen floor with a cake fresh out of the oven–all would seem to be as it should be if not for the dead body. The Nutshells shatter the illusion of domestic tranquility, and they do it in such a way–with dolls and beautifully hand-crafted sets–to make it possible to really look, to begin to see what the forensic investigator sees.

Lee sewed and knitted all of the clothes. She glazed and painted the dolls.  She collected weapon charms–knives and guns. The only work she sent out was to a carpenter, who built the houses and made certain the doors and windows opened and closed the way a real door or window would. The careful worlds are scaled one inch to our one foot.

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Many of the victims are in their beds, even.

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Frances Glessner Lee did not begin her career in media res. By 1943, when she was appointed captain in the New Hampshire State Police, she was divorced, and both of her parents were no longer alive to protest what her father had called her “unseemly” interest in crime.  She was fifty-two when she built her first Nutshell.

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I’m not sure how many Nutshells exist, but there are eighteen in Baltimore. They are encased in glass, perfectly preserved, forever teaching students to double-check witness statements, to consider the time of year, the day of the week, the temperature. I like to think of them, too, as teaching us to keep after our true passions and fascinations–no matter what’s stopped us in the past. It turns out that the Nutshells are the perfect way to begin a blog about fascinations, curiosities, and legend trips.

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What’s next? In a few weeks, I’ll let you know. I’m planning another road trip–this one to pick up my finally fixed car. I’m stopping to look at some rare books along the way, but that’s all I’ll say for now.

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Don’t stop here! There are so many better photographed images than mine.  Check out these from the New York Times: Visible Proofs. Those gorgeous photos are by one of the Nutshell masters, Corrine May Botz.

If you want to see the Nutshells in person, call Bruce to set-up an appointment:

Bruce Goldfarb (410) 333-3225

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
900 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21223

I can say for sure I’ve never had a better tour anywhere.  If you go, you can also view a startling collection of Frances Glessner Lee’s hand-painted chest plates of gun shot wound patterns, as well as a room for crime scene set-ups called “Scarpetta House,” funded by the crime writer, Patricia Cornwell. On the day we visited, Scarpetta House had just been cleaned up after a massive cult suicide staging. We saw a few pictures on Bruce’s phone–all the office employees done up in full poison makeup. Imagine one of those apartments you wander through in IKEA–but a little different. Scarpetta House definitely has a vibe.

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Thanks to the following websites, places, and people:

Botz, Corrine May. The Nutshell Studies.

Bush, Erin M.  Death in Diorama

Goldfarb, Bruce. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

NIH. Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Baltimore

Ramsland, Katherine. Death in Miniature.

6 responses

  1. Kate, Next time you’re in Maryland, we’ll go. You’d love them. Heather! You must come one one of my NY adventures with me. I’ll have to think of a good Brooklyn post. Thanks both!

  2. Great reconstruction of our misadventure — despite our little mishap with the car, we had a wonderful day. Your write-up is perfect! Yes, Kate, you will have to join us for a return visit the next time you visit. Remember the Smithsonian doll house? Imagine it with a crime scene in every room!

  3. For a good Brooklyn post you can’t go wrong with Green-wood Cemetery. Athena looking out over the water to her sister, Lady Liberty, is terrific.

    I hope you own Corinne Botz’s book. I keep buying it and giving it to people as gifts – your mom would LOVE it I know. Oops. Hi Mary!

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