The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Botz makes the most of her material's tendency to seesaw between fact and fiction, believability and sham…Botz became so familiar with these tiny spaces that her pictures exude a homeyness all the more disconcerting when you notice the bloodstains on the rug and the body under the bedcovers. She hasn't just preserved Lee's meticulous mix of primness and voyeurism, she's given it a whole new life after death.
- Vince Aletti, The Village Voice

 

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death is an exploration of a collection of eighteen miniature crime scene models that were built in the 1940's and 50's by a progressive criminologist Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962). The models, which were based on actual homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, were created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. This seven-year project culminated in an exhibition and a book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (The Monacelli Press, 2004).

The models display an astounding level of precision and detail: shades can be raised and lowered, mice live in the walls, stereoscopes work, whistles blow and pencils write. My photographs highlight the models’ painstaking detail, as well as the prominence of female victims. Through framing, scale, lighting, color, and depth of field, I attempt to bring intimacy and emotion to the scene of the crime. I want viewers to feel as if they inhabit the miniatures - to loose their sense of proportion and experience the large in the small.

In addition to creating hundreds of photographs of the models, I spent years researching and writing about the female criminologist who conceived and built the models, Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962). I considered Lee my collaborator, and as a woman artist, it was important for me to unearth her story and make it known. My writing explores how Lee’s experience of domestic space informed her creations. Frances Glessner Lee grew up in Chicago on Prairie Avenue, the city’s most exclusive address at the turn of the last century. Her childhood home was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and is now a historic house museum. Growing up Lee was relentlessly coached about the importance of domesticity, and home-schooled until the age of seventeen. As civic and cultural leaders of Chicago, Lee’s parents exposed her to theater, art, and music and introduced her to prominent artists and intellectuals. Although she wanted to study medicine, according to Lee she did not attend college because her father believed “a lady didn’t go to school.” She wrote at the age of seventy-three, “This has been a lonely and rather terrifying life I have lived. Chief amongst the difficulties I have had to meet have been the facts that I never went to school, that I had no letters after my name, and I was places in the category of a ‘rich woman who didn’t have enough to do.’” It was not until late in her life, after marriage, divorce and raising three children, that Lee was free to pursue her long-held interest in legal medicine.

Lee’s interest in legal medicine was inspired by George Burgess Magrath, a classmate of brother at Harvard, who went on to serve as medical examiner for Suffolk County (Boston). In 1932, Lee underwrote a salary for the creation of a chair in Legal Medicine at Harvard University and in 1936 she endowed the department with a gift of $250,000. Lee saw this as her opportunity to “do something in my lifetime that should be of significant value to the community.” The mission of her work was nothing less than to reform the country’s legal medicine system. Lee received an honorary appointment as captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943, making her the first woman to hold such a position.

The Nutshell Studies were not whodunnit exercises nor were they presented as crimes to be solved – rather, they were designed for training detectives to observe and evaluate indirect evidence, in particular that which might have medical importance. Each model incorporated elements, or “problems,” from various crime scenes so each is a composite. Lee named the models “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” after a police saying: “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell”. The models are housed at the Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore where they continue to be used for training purposes.

For me, Lee’s story is all the more noteworthy for the manner in which it advanced the then male-dominated work of crime scene investigation by co-opting the feminine tradition of miniatures.  She had already acquired a skill for creating models as a young woman when she made miniature versions of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Flonzaley Quartet. With the assistance of a carpenter, Lee constructed approximately three Nutshell Studies a year. Her carpenter equated the length of time spent building a single model as equivalent to that required to build a house. Lee believed the models had to be created with the utmost precision in order to be taken seriously. Working from photographs, measurements and police reports, she often changed the locations of the crimes as well as the name and date, and elaborated the facts in order to create more intricate cases.

Although the Nutshells were used for scientific training, Lee took some artistic license while making them, resulting in a fascinating interplay between fact and fiction in the models. In some she included personal details: one miniature painting shows the cottage she lived in and a fictional newspaper is named after her hometown. Lee was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes and like Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional mysteries, her miniature crime scene interiors are bursting with “readable” clues pertaining to the life and death of the inhabitant. It is also notable that the models depict a gendered notion of space and the majority of victims are women who have suffered violent deaths in the home.  The models are a reminder that domestic space can be terrifying as well as safe.

 

Further reading:
The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, Ciel Variable 93: Forensics, National Library of MedicineChicago Journal, Art Papers, Dcist, Phaidon, Welcome To Baltimore, Hon!, TruTVDoll Studies: Forensics, The Glessner House.  

Radio:
BBC - Radio 4 “In a Nutshell,” 99% Invisible and New Hampshire Public Radio