B1 Intermediate US 18 Folder Collection
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Something terrible happened in these dollhouses.
Maybe a suicide.
A murder.
A stabbing with an adorable knife.
These dollhouses are part of Frances Glessner Lee's Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,
which she made in the 1940s and early 50s.
They're in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
for a reason.
They're incredibly detailed —
these cans are all labeled.
Accurately.
And these dollhouses are used by law enforcement
to train and to develop analytical capabilities.
But these artful dioramas actually contain two mysteries:
What happened in these houses?
And why did Frances Glessner Lee spend her time, and part of her fortune, making them
perfect?
This is “three-room dwelling,” and it's a dollhouse murder showstopper.
There are 19 of these dioramas and each one comes with a backstory, drawn from composite
real crimes.
In this one, Robert, Kate, and baby Linda Mae Judson had a nice porch where the milkman
stopped by.
They were living the American dream until the murders happened.
“As you start to sort of investigate the evidence...
the first time I approached this case, I looked at it for a couple of hours, I took tons of
pictures home and I analyzed them for hours, trying to figure this out, because it doesn't
seem like things add up.
There's a bloodstain that's in the baby's room but it's just a blood pool, and there
doesn't seem like there's any kind of trail from it, it's just sitting there.
We don't know what had happened there.
There's bloody footprints that are leading into the bedroom, the husband is lying on
the ground on some of the bed coverings, we have no idea how he died, he's covered in
blood all over his pajamas, so it's very hard to tell.”
Three-room Dwelling's morbid details come from the same mind that crafted incredibly
delicate ones.
“There's this little eggbeater down under the cubbard here that I like to point out,
and this was apparently originally a solid gold charm from a charm bracelet.
The Nutshells themselves are lit as the rooms would be, the flashlight helps you find the
evidence.
There's quite a lot of evidence in these pieces that you would probably never discover
without it, so it's a fun thing to have in the exhibition, but it's also a real
training tool for really systematically looking through these pieces.”
And you notice the fabric on a chair, the blocks scattered on the porch, and the blood
spattered on the baby's wall.
Because law enforcement still use these to train, it's tempting to play CSI with these
murders.
But notice that Atkinson only broke down the nutshells, she didn't didn't give away any
solutions.
That's partly because the solutions are still kept secret for those in training.
But mostly, it's because the mystery serves a purpose.
“The point of the nutshells is not to solve them.
The point is to collect detail.”
Erin Bush saw the nutshells in their home before the Renwick gallery — the Maryland
Medical Examiner's office, where they're used for training investigators.
“The goal of the nutshells is to train your eye to see small, minute, seemingly insignificant
details that stand out.
So the kitchen: It's Spring, 1944 — Robin Barnes is a
housewife.
Fred Barnes, her husband finds her.
And the story is, he's out of the house to run an errand.
He comes home, he looks through the kitchen window and he sees her laying on the kitchen
floor.
He can't open the door, the door is locked from the inside, the window is locked from
the inside.
So he calls the police, the police break the door down.
So this is what we know when we arrive.
She was clearly in the middle of something.
She's clearly preparing a meal.
There's a pie in the stove, there are potatoes in the sink.
You don't commit suicide if you're in the middle of dinner.
And I think, if you look very closely at the stove, and if you can recognize a 1940s stove,
you will see that all the gas jets are on.
There are a lot of weapons in the room.
There's a rolling pin, there's an iron, there is a knife, on the chair.
It's very possible someone hit her over the head.
If you look very closely at the door, it's stuffed with newspaper.
So now we're back to suicide.
The point, of course, was to recognize these details and to teach investigators how to
recognize these details.
It was a very different way to investigate crime than they were used to.”
Frances Glessner Lee was an heir to International Harvester, a company that produced farm equipment
and other machinery.
Her family made a fortune, a part of which she eventually used to fund miniature crime
scenes.
She endowed Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine, the first of its kind, and became
an honorary police captain.
Her artistic obsession helped detectives become more attentive to crime scenes, relying on
evidence instead of hunches.
“For me, as a historian, when I look at them, I don't think who did it, I think
my God why is she inventing this scene the way she's inventing it, you know, what's
in her head, and to me that's fascinating.”
Lee's nutshells are as complex as the scenes they depict.
They overflow detail: the magazines crumpled on the floor; the apples that will never be
eaten; the body that will never move but is so vividly rendered that you can imagine it
once did.
“On the one hand, she was the young Frances Glessner who was this philanthropic lady who
was brought up in a fine household, and the other half of her personality was
Captain Lee, and those two things did come together sometimes.”
Lee wrote a 1952 article in the Journal of Law and Criminology.
“Some years ago, the writer was greatly surprised to learn that nowhere in America
was Legal Medicine, as thus described, being taught.
The writer has for many years worked sporadically at miniatures, hence these presented themselves
as the solution.”
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962 of natural causes.
“It must be understood, these models are not 'whodunits' - they cannot be solved
merely by looking at them.
They are intended to be an exercise in observing, interpreting, evaluating and reporting-- there
is no 'solution' to be determined.”
This toy's only approved for ages...dead and older.
“YEAAAAHHHHHHH!!!”
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The dollhouses of death that changed forensic science

18 Folder Collection
jeremy.wang published on March 30, 2020
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