True Story of Elderly Heiress Who Designed Dioramas of Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz. The Monacelli Press, 223 pages, $35.

The book I’m talking about here is, hands down, the weirdest of the year just ended. Start with the title: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Any guesses as to what it means? And then there’s its protagonist-a rich lady, born in 1878, who in her 60’s became a heroine to the Boston police force by creating dollhouses. And then there are the pictures of those dollhouses: color photographs, mostly in close-up, of a series of murder venues, complete with bodies and blood. And then there’s the author, Corinne May Botz, a young writer-photographer whose absorption in this material seems almost as obsessive and personal as the activities she so intensely documents. As Alice cries out toward the beginning of her Adventures, “Curiouser and curiouser.”

To begin at the beginning, Frances Glessner Lee, our heroine, was born in Chicago to the co-founder and vice president of International Harvester, which means that she was very rich indeed, and very much a part of Chicago’s uppermost crust. But her parents were not exactly like the Marshall Fields and the Armours (the meat-packing Armours, that is). Mrs. Glessner was a “pianist, seamstress, creator of silver jewelry and objects, and beekeeper.” The house Mr. Glessner built and loved-designed by the formidable H.H. Richardson-was more like a fortress than a residence. “When it was erected,” the author tells us, it “provoked an uproar in the neighborhood …. [S]ome mistook it for an apartment building or a church; others compared it with a fort or a jail.” One critic described it as “pathologically private.”

And, in a way, the house did act on young Frances as a jail. Her parents apparently cared more for each other than for her and her brother, George, but George, being a boy, was allowed a proper education and was sent off to Harvard. Frances, trapped in a strict upper-class Victorian view of womanhood, was denied the education she longed for-she was particularly interested in medicine-and was kept home learning the domestic crafts, from sewing and knitting to painting and interior design. “A lady,” her father believed, “didn’t go to school.”

So she did what she was supposed to do: Just before reaching 20, she married a suitable young man, a lawyer and law professor, and soon moved into a large house that her parents built for the newlyweds down the street from theirs. (George and his wife were given an identical house next door.) The marriage was a failure-after eight years, three children and a trial separation, Frances and Blewett (yes, Blewett) Lee separated for good, although they didn’t divorce until 1914. A large part of the problem, apparently, lay in their financial dependency upon her parents-a dependency that continued to exercise its destructive effect on Frances until her father died in 1936, when she was 58. Corinne May Botz sees this as pure oppression, but I think it’s fair to ask oneself why this extremely intelligent and forceful woman didn’t strike out on her own, even if it meant giving up some of the comforts she was accustomed to. Or is that blaming the victim?

By this time, Frances Lee was firmly settled on the family’s New Hampshire estate. In the early 30’s, she began her first forays into the field of legal medicine, inspired by her close friend George Burgess Magrath, who had been a medical-student friend of her brother’s and went on to become medical examiner of Massachusetts’ Suffolk County (capital: Boston), working on famous murder cases and serving throughout the country as an expert witness. First, she underwrote a salary for a professor of legal medicine at Harvard. Then she established Harvard’s George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. In the year of her father’s death, she gave $250,000 to establish the George Burgess Magrath Endowment of Legal Medicine. According to the author, “In part as a result of the conferences and of pioneering legislation proposed and promoted by Lee, seven states amended their coroner system.” Finally came her most original and personal contribution to the field, the teaching tool she named the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (now you know), after a well-known police saying: “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find truth in a nutshell.”

Models, or miniatures, had been a passion of Lee’s at least since 1913, when she constructed her first one-of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra-as a gift for her mother. But it wasn’t until the mid-1940’s that Lee installed the first of her 18 Nutshell models at Harvard and inaugurated the annual Seminars on Legal Medicine that bore her name. Their purpose was to help train police officers to study crime scenes and sharpen their powers of observation. “The Nutshell Studies,” she explained, “are not presented as crimes to be solved-they are, rather, designed as exercises in observing and evaluating indirect evidence, especially that which may have medical importance.” The attending policemen, we’re told, “raved about the seminars,” one retired captain of the Maine State Police rating them superior even to comparable sessions at the F.B.I. academy. Lee blossomed into a combination donor, artist, technical specialist and mother figure to the police of New England, hosting banquets in Boston for officers attending her seminars (she had the Ritz serve these meals on a set of dishes that cost her $8,000) and riding around with them on their cases. “When she visited policemen in a distant state, she was escorted from state to state, or county to county, by the officers.” And their affection for her was reciprocated. “They have been wonderfully dear and sweet to me,” she wrote late in life, “and have brought a beautiful happiness to my last years.” Indeed, she was to declare at a meeting of the Harvard Associates in Police Science when she was 71, “I think I can promise you that I will stay right here with Legal Medicine, and with the State Police, until I drop dead in my tracks!”

All this would be curious enough, but the Nutshell studies themselves are even curiouser. They were models, or dioramas, constructed with obsessively meticulous detail, of crime scenes suggested by, but not duplicating, scenes of real-life violent deaths that had caught Lee’s attention. These were not the upper-class crimes of a Dorothy Sayers or an Agatha Christie, or even the courtroom-drama crimes conceived by Lee’s friend Erle Stanley Gardner. They were sordid acts of violence, mostly rural, inevitably taking place in shabby circumstances: an old man burned to death in a cabin fire; a farmer found hanged in his barn; a housewife who fell to her death while hanging out the wash on an upstairs porch; a woman drowned in a boarding-house bathtub. They often involved episodes of domestic violence. A few salient facts about each case were presented at the seminars, and then the attending police officers were asked to study the models in an attempt to decide whether they were observing murder, suicide, accident or natural death. At the end of the book, we’re given “solutions” to five of the 18 cases, but “[d]ue to the fact that the models continue to be used to train police officers today [in the Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore, to which they moved in 1967], solutions for the other Nutshell cases cannot be revealed.”

On the whole, the cases are as uninteresting as they are unremarkable, but as presented in this book, the cases aren’t the point. What matters, apart from the strange story of Frances Glessner Lee, are the models themselves, in all their amazing specificity, and the opportunity they provide for the photography. The pictures are either full-page bleeds-spilling out of the book, as it were-or details set against pure black backgrounds. The layout is strikingly dramatic yet severe. (My one cavil: the small type size of the text. Come on, Monacelli Press, give the reader a break!) A highly effective two-page spread showing two police officers staring into one of the models gives an idea of how small they actually are-the scale is an inch to a foot. Yet the photos of the rooms and objects are so close-up, so blown-up, that the tiny chairs, quilts, spinning wheels, lamps, magazines, bloodstains actually look larger than life, not smaller. Their impact is very strong, both as believable crime venues and as tributes to the astounding verisimilitude of Lee’s work.

Although she had the help of a carpenter in constructing the Nutshells, and imported most of the miniature artifacts from dollhouse suppliers, Lee herself worked through the night on certain features of her creations. She was particularly invested in the murder victims. “Lee made each miniature corpse and its clothing herself,” the author tells us. “She began with loose bisque heads, upper torsos, hands meant for German dolls, and with carved wooden feet and legs. She attached these loose body parts to a cloth body stuffed with cotton and BB gun pellets for weight and flexibility. She carefully painted the faces in colors and tones that indicated how long the person had been dead and, in applicable cases, the cause of death. She knit the victim’s stockings and appropriate clothes with thread that she unraveled from fabric, using needles normally used for lace making. Each doll wears undergarments.”

Even the author acknowledges that there’s something creepy about all this, but what’s creepiest is that of all the elements that go to make up the Nutshells, the bodies are the least convincing-there they sit or hang or lie in the middle of their lifelike rooms, yet they’re stridently unlifelike. Yes, of course they’re only dolls-not even Lee could have come up with real tiny corpses-but the exactitude of the rooms and their furnishings, and the fact that they’re photographed to look life-size, eerily emphasizes the dolls’ artificiality. Lee herself was aware of this deficiency, complaining that “the faces were not as realistic as she desired, and the bodies never seemed to assume or hold a satisfying position.”

Corinne May Botz is extremely sympathetic to Lee, both as a woman and as an artist, and although her explication of the life and the art is to my mind too simplistically feminist (“I believe the models were a projection of Lee’s subconscious hatred of Woman as constructed and maintained by society”), it doesn’t really effect the way we encounter these macabre and compelling phenomena on the page. You can approach The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death in a variety or combination of ways: as a startlingly eccentric hobby; as a series of unresolved murder mysteries; as the manifestation of one woman’s peculiar psychic life; as a lesson in forensics; as a metaphor for the fate of women; as a photographic study. One thing is sure: You won’t forget them.

Robert Gottlieb, dance critic of The Observer, is the author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker (HarperCollins). True Story of Elderly Heiress Who Designed Dioramas of Death