Built in 1887 on the near south side in what was then Chicago’s most desirable neighborhood, the forbidding Glessner residence was by all accounts a happy home. Mr. and Mrs. Glessner were devoted to each other, according to the docent who led a recent tour of the house, now a museum. Though wealthy, Mr. Glessner went to the office every day, and despite her role as a society wife, Mrs. Glessner was an industrious woman who busied herself with beekeeping, embroidery, and silversmithing. Two of their three children, George and Frances, survived into adulthood, and Frances, born in 1878, inherited her mother’s talent and creative drive. Long after raising her own three children, Frances began what she called the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” miniature dioramas that replicate scenes of brutal crimes on a precise scale of one foot to one inch.
Corinne May Botz stumbled on Frances Glessner Lee’s 18 miniature re-creations, now housed in Baltimore, while working on a video about women who collect dollhouses. Lee would have recoiled in horror to hear that term applied to her projects, which were intended not to acclimate girls to a comfortable domestic life but to train policemen in the nascent field of “legal medicine.” Captivated, Botz recognized in these tableaux the loving attention paid equally to stockings and food containers, blood spatters and slit throats. Fourteen of Botz’s photographs of the “Nutshell Studies” are now on view at the Glessner House Museum.
Lee saw the double edge of the word “domestic” at a time when most others did not. Though the term can stir up images of cozy fires and warm lamplight, it’s now often associated with violence. One hundred years ago most women of Lee’s intelligence and ambition would still have seen the home as a place of comfort but also as a site of claustrophobia and suffocation. As Lee would come to realize later, she conformed to what was expected of a dutiful daughter. She was educated at home by tutors, went on a tour of Europe, came out in Chicago society after her return, got engaged to Blewett Lee and married him a year later. Her parents built Frances and her brother and their families houses a block from the Glessner residence. But Frances’s marriage didn’t last: separating for good in 1906, she and Blewett were divorced in 1916.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, when Lee was in her 50s, that she embarked on her life’s work. Living far away from her parents but on their property in New Hampshire, she became better acquainted with a childhood chum, George Burgess Magrath, a professor of legal medicine at Harvard. She became so interested in his area of expertise that in 1931 she underwrote his salary. Two years later she donated a library of volumes on forensic medicine to Harvard in his name, and in 1936 she established the George Burgess Magrath Endowment of Legal Medicine. As Botz’s excellent catalog essay makes clear, Magrath encouraged Frances’s interest in forensics, and she played a major role in Harvard’s emergent program in forensic investigation. Though she’d made miniatures as a young woman–notably a model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, also on view at the Glessner House–she began creating her “Nutshell Studies” only in the early 1940s and started conducting seminars with their help in 1945.
Working with a carpenter, Lee created crime scenes that were pastiches of many different cases–an approach that made the reconstructed narratives more intricate and interesting. Lee knitted the stockings for one unfortunate corpse with needles the size of straight pins; all of her miniature pencils and stereoscopes and mousetraps worked despite their size; and wallpaper wasn’t plastered to the walls in one sheet but trimmed into sections and glued on exactly as it would have appeared in someone’s home. Her travels were devoted to finding miniature items that could be modified to suit her needs. In her studio, she and the carpenter would reenact murders so that she could determine the precise angle of a fallen hat. These studies were used to teach the police officers in her seminars how to respect the integrity of the crime scene and how to look for both the obvious and the obscure. Were the liquor bottles empty or full? Were the breakfast dishes out or put away? Why was there a dishpan in the bedroom? Trainees were asked to spend 90 minutes observing the scenes in minute detail, then formulate a theory of the crime. In the days before DNA testing and international fingerprint databases, police investigators had little to rely on but their own observation and deductive reasoning.
Though Lee’s miniature rooms appear to better advantage in Botz’s book than they do in this exhibition of her photos, seeing the scenes in the context of Lee’s girlhood home has its appeal. Climbing the creaky stairs to the second-floor bedrooms, weak winter light filtering in through the windows, one gets the sense of the dark interiors, both physical and psychological, that defined women at the turn of the 19th century. Yet like Jane Addams, another woman of means, Lee transcended the limitations placed on women and turned her considerable talents to ameliorating the lives of others. For Lee, crime solving was a moral and intellectual mission, though ultimately it was a mission carried out by men. Always somewhat bitter about her lack of academic training, Lee wrote in her 70s that “chief among 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 that I was placed in the category of ‘rich woman who didn’t have enough to do.'”
Lee also called her life “lonely and rather terrifying.” And what are we to make of the fact that she created clothing for tiny doll women shot in their beds and tiny doll men hung from barn rafters out of her mother’s needlework? That details from Lee’s own home, such as fish imagery in a bathroom, found their way into her scenes of unexplained death? Or that she began making her crime studies as a woman in her 60s in a child-size “playhouse” cabin built for her when she was a little girl? Lee herself would have found these personal questions irrelevant. As she reminded her trainees, the investigator seeks “only the facts–the Truth in a Nutshell.”
When: Through 4/30: Wed-Sun noon-4 PM
Where: Glessner House Museum, 1800 S. Prairie