With its facade of new brick and tinted glass, the five-storey building in the west of downtown Baltimore could be the headquarters of an asset-management company or an executive-recruitment agency. In fact it is dedicated to the study of human death and its causes. This is the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) for the state of Maryland, and it is hosting its annual week-long seminar in homicide investigation for murder detectives from all over North America.
On the third floor a deputy chief medical examiner, Dr Jack Titus, is delivering the first lecture of the day, Death Due to Hanging and Strangulation. As he describes the terminal phase of death (‘Stomach contents will come up into the airway’), accompanied by a graphic PowerPoint presentation (‘Here’s an individual who hanged himself with a PlayStation cord’), a roomful of dressed-down cops slurp coffee and munch on Dunkin’ Donuts’s signature comestible.
In the break that follows, some drift round to a windowless room on the same floor, next to the reception area. Here, looking like Gulliver in Lilliput, burly officers packing firearms next to the badges on their belts stoop to examine a series of 18 doll’s-house-like structures. On a scale of one inch to one foot, these models depict domestic scenes from 1940s America. A kitchen is equipped with post-war labour-saving devices; a bedroom has a wedding photograph on the chest of drawers. But Death has come to Toytown. Walls are spattered with blood, floors and beds littered with corpses – knifed, shot, hanged, decomposing. ‘This one’s a double-murder-suicide,’ one of the homicide investigators says, indicating a model called Three-Room Dwelling. His colleague agrees. ‘Looking at the angle, it almost appears as if he shot the child while standing on the chair.’
The models, known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, occupy a unique place in the criminological history of America – and offer glimpses into the mind of the woman who conceived them. That woman was a wealthy socialite turned police captain called Frances Glessner Lee, who is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Jessica Fletcher, the character played by Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. During the 1940s and 1950s, in a farmhouse in New Hampshire, Lee assembled these scenes of domestic dysfunction with skill and obsessive attention to detail. They are based on real – and particularly complex – cases or composites of cases, and their purpose was to test and hone investigating officers’ observational powers at a crime scene. ‘The inspector may best examine them by imagining himself a trifle less than six inches tall,’ she wrote. ‘He is seeking only the facts – the truth in a nutshell.’
Of the 18 models kept in Baltimore, six are freestanding constructs with exteriors as well as interiors (in Barn, for example, a man has apparently hanged himself in an outhouse. The pail standing outside by the water pump is a crucial piece of evidence). The remaining 12, most of the interiors of single rooms, are displayed behind glass like objects at a jeweller’s. Insured for $100,000 each, these 18 Nutshells are not accessible to the public (though anyone who can demonstrate a professional interest may arrange a private viewing), and the series will never be split up. But Wellcome Collection, a science-based museum in London, has managed to secure an additional Nutshell that was in Lee’s New Hampshire home and is now in the collection of the Bethlehem Heritage Society, also in New Hampshire. Showing a man who has apparently drunk himself to death, this will feature in Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition on forensic medicine, allowing the British public to peer into the strange world of the woman of whom Erle Stanley Gardner, her friend and the creator of Perry Mason, said, ‘I don’t believe she has ever overlooked a detail in her life.’
Demonstrating the truth of this observation, Bruce Goldfarb, the assistant to the chief medical examiner and the de facto keeper of the Nutshells, indicates one of the models, Pink Bathroom. It depicts a ‘widow’, Rose Fishman, who lies dead next to her marble bath. A brownish discharge seeps from her nose and mouth. Through the bathroom window at the back, a small section of a fire escape attached to the adjacent building is visible. Goldfarb opens the front of the model to reveal that the fire escape is complete. There is also a side window that you cannot see when the model is properly assembled. ‘How crazy is that?’ Goldfarb says. ‘It wouldn’t matter to anybody [if the window wasn’t there].’
Anybody except Frances Glessner Lee, who was born in Chicago in 1878, the daughter of a co-founder of the International Harvester Company – a manufacturer of farm vehicles and machinery – and had a privileged but restricted upbringing. She learnt needlework, embroidery and interior design (skills she would put to good use in the Nutshells) from her mother, but despite her academic aspirations there was no question of her being allowed to follow her brother to Harvard University. She lamented that she had been cast in the role of ‘rich woman who didn’t have enough to do’.
It was not until she reached her 50s, after a failed marriage, three children and a divorce, that she found her calling, developing a passionate interest in ‘legal medicine’ (what would nowadays be termed ‘forensic medicine’) through her friendship with a pioneering medical examiner and forensics expert, George Burgess Magrath. Forensic medicine was in its infancy in the mid-20th century. The local coroners responsible for determining cause of death were not required to have medical training (in some US states this is still the case) and many deaths were wrongly attributed. ‘People were literally getting away with murder,’ Goldfarb says.
In 1936 Lee founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. In 1942 she was made a captain of the New Hampshire State Police, and three years later she hosted the first Seminars on Legal Medicine. By this time she had started to construct models of crime scenes that she or colleagues had investigated, and now she introduced them as teaching tools. Photographs of the time show her looking severe and matronly – more Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple than Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote – though she is said to have loved being the centre of attention among police officers.
Detectives, in turn, were keen to be part of her groundbreaking work. ‘Invitations to attend [the Harvard seminars] are as sought after in police circles as bids to Hollywood by girls aspiring to be actresses,’ Gardner wrote in 1949. The event was later renamed the Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation – the title it bears today. Lee died in 1962, and when Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine closed down in 1967 the seminar – along with the Nutshells – was transferred to Baltimore.
It was by a strange synchronicity – one that Lee would no doubt have relished – that her models ended up here. A few minutes’ walk north of the OCME, in a neighbourhood of housing projects that Bruce Goldfarb describes as ‘seriously dangerous’, lies the small red-brick house in which Edgar Allan Poe lived during the 1830s. Poe is credited with inventing the first fictional detective in the English-speaking world, C Auguste Dupin, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue – and Dupin’s ‘pure analytic ability’, his powers of ‘ratiocination’, are precisely the qualities that the Nutshells were designed to cultivate.
The 70 homicide detectives (53 men, 17 women) who are putting their analytical abilities to the test at the latest seminar are from Baltimore and central Maryland, Vermont, Arizona, Chicago, New Jersey, the United States Park Police and Canada. The average age looks to be somewhere in the late 30s. They are attending five days of lectures – on subjects ranging from Sharp Force Injury to Time of Death and Postmortem Changes – but the core component of the seminar is still the Nutshells. ‘The real value of these things is in making the observations that allow you to arrive at a reasonable conclusion,’ Dr David Fowler, the chief medical examiner, tells me. ‘Can they spot all the clues that are present? The idea is to orientate students to what we realistically can and cannot do. To get away from this CSI nonsense.’
On the first day Jerry Dziecichowicz, a semi-retired former administrator of the OCME, divides the students into 10 groups of seven and assigns each group to one of Lee’s models. ‘You say to these guys, “Picture yourself 6in tall. It’s your scene. Walk into it,” ’ he says. In addition to the scene as presented in the model, the detectives are given the first statement or statements obtained from one or more witnesses (‘Eben was hard to get along with. When he was irritated, he would go out to the barn, stand up on a bucket, put a noose around his neck, and threaten suicide…’). As Lee pointed out, these are not necessarily trustworthy. ‘It must not be overlooked that [the] statements may be true, mistaken or intentionally false, or a combination of any two or all three of these,’ she said.
Lee’s criminological conundrums are a minefield for even the most experienced homicide investigators, and Dziecichowicz is one of the few people alive who know her definitive explanations, which the OCME is at pains to keep ‘hush-hush’ so that the Nutshells retain their training value and mystique. On the penultimate afternoon the groups will present their theories and conclusions, and he will tell them whether they have been blowing hot or cold. ‘Frances had a solution – a beginning, middle and end in mind,’ he says. ‘But they’re not little whodunnits. If students come up with good answers, I’m not fighting them.’
Over four days, before lectures start and during the coffee breaks between them, the detectives are drawn to the Nutshells room, where they shrink to inspect their criminal wonderlands with the torches provided or the flashlights on their smartphones. Some return again and again, obsessed, baffled.
‘I’ve been working with dead bodies for 10 years,’ a detective from Vermont says (he declines to give his name). ‘The level of detail here is amazing.’
The mention of dead bodies is a reminder that this is not a parlour game. Away from the homicide lectures the OCME is a conduit between life and death. All suspicious deaths occurring in Maryland are reported here. Almost six million people live in the state – about 620,000 of them in Baltimore, which has an annual per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent cities in America (the reality of that statistic inspired The Wire, one of the country’s most successful television crime series). ‘We’re big and busy,’ Goldfarb says. ‘We investigate more than 9,000 deaths annually and do autopsies on about half – 4,500. Four per cent are homicides, 65 per cent are natural causes [17 per cent are accidental, six per cent suicide and eight per cent undetermined]. But these deaths are suspicious until proved otherwise.’
Only one of the two autopsy rooms is in use today. Lying on stainless-steel platforms, seven naked cadavers are in various stages of disassembly. Viewed from the observation deck above, the bodies and their removed parts appear wax-like, slightly greater than human-sized – no more real than the tiny corpses Lee fashioned for the Nutshells from porcelain, cloth and wood, painting discoloured flesh to represent lividity or carbon-monoxide poisoning. Standing alongside us on the observation deck are three detectives who are possibly interested in the ‘female train victim’ pointed out to me below (Did she jump? Was she pushed?). Ninety-nine per cent of cases referred here are subject to an autopsy within 24 hours of being found or declared dead, which means a day previously, while I was flying into Baltimore, these seven bodies were probably alive.
The spirit of Lee lives on in the OCME. She is referred to – reverently and affectionately – as ‘Frances’, and her models have a 21st-century incarnation. Goldfarb shows me the ‘Scarpetta House’, a facility donated by the crime writer Patricia Cornwell and named for her fictional forensics expert Kay Scarpetta. ‘This is the most violent room in Baltimore,’ Goldfarb says proudly. ‘A life-size Nutshell.’ The room, complete with furniture and realistically weighted and articulated mannequins, can be configured to represent any number of murder scenarios. ‘We recently staged a simulated religious mass suicide,’ he says.
Back in the Nutshells room the detectives are working on their cases. If Lee were to stand quietly alongside me in the corner of the room, she would be proud. There is some banter (‘Personally I think she did all these murders and that’s how she knows what the crime scenes look like,’ quips one cop) but generally the mood is respectful and earnest.
One discussion, over the fate of Arthur Roberts, ‘insurance salesman’, in Log Cabin, grows heated.
‘It’s possible he shot himself. The only issue is his head. If you fell, wouldn’t you move your head to the side? That’s what’s throwing me off.’
‘I’m telling you, bro. He killed himself. One shot, front through the back. End of conversation.’
And what about Ruby Davis, ‘housewife’, found dead at the bottom of the stairs in Living Room?
‘What I’m thinking is, sometimes when you have a fall you have a seizure, right?’
‘But there’s lividity on her back. So obviously she was moved…’
The following afternoon the groups gather in the lecture room to deliver their case reviews to Dziecichowicz. There is one piece of left-field speculation, that Hugh Patterson, the ‘bank vice president’ found dead in his car in Garage, was the victim of ‘auto-erotic asphyxiation’ (he was not). Their conclusion on another case turns out to be wrong though well argued. But in general the detectives’ observations and analyses are impressive. They find the bullet in the ceiling in Log Cabin. They spot that the knife sticking out of Dorothy Dennison, a ‘high-school student’, in Parsonage Parlor caused a post-mortem wound ‘as there’s no blood around it’. They believe another case ‘is probably a homicide’.
‘Good job guys,’ Dziecichowicz concludes.
One of the final lectures of the seminar is given by a major-case specialist from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, Virginia. The subject of the lecture is criminal investigative analysis – otherwise known as psychological profiling, or deducing information about an individual from analysis of a crime scene. It struck me that even the most prolific serial killer leaves behind fewer crime scenes than did Frances Glessner Lee, who totted up almost 20 in her lifetime. So, to turn the tables, what do today’s commentators conclude about her?
Since the first Nutshells were displayed in the 1940s there has been much speculation about what they reveal of the woman who made them – an adult who co-opted the fantasy world of children and defiled it with blood and violence; a mother who lavished so much love on death. ‘I think she had a morbid curiosity,’ Goldfarb says. ‘This was a woman with considerable means who could have done whatever she wanted. And yet she was fascinated by death.’ Dziecichowicz goes back to her fanatical attention to detail – the fire escape and hidden window at the back of Pink Bathroom are not the half of it.
In her workshop at the Rocks, her New Hampshire estate, she spent countless hours lovingly knitting stockings for her female corpses using dressmaker’s pins as knitting needles. Though some of the contents of the rooms were adapted from existing objects or doll’s-house furniture – the egg whisk in one kitchen is actually a 14ct-gold charm sprayed silver – much was made from scratch by her or the carpenter she employed. Even sheets of toilet paper – the old-fashioned, crinkly stuff that predated rolls – are faithfully rendered. And she required a rocking chair, when pushed, to rock back and forth the same number of times as the one in the real crime scene on which it was based. ‘You get to that stage, you might get put away if you didn’t have money!’ Dziecichowicz remarks.
Goldfarb commends a rich, privileged person for portraying the lives (and deaths) of the ‘marginalised’ – drunks, prostitutes, blue-collar workers – while Dziecichowicz finds it ‘disturbing that the majority of victims are women. And [each death she depicts] happens in the home, where you’re supposed to be safe.’ Certainly it is hard to look at the baby lying in her cot in Three-Room Dwelling – her face shot out, the bars of the cot and the pink-striped wallpaper behind spattered with blood, the teddy on the floor and the doll in a high chair – and not wonder at the mind prepared to turn the world upside down in this way.
Frances Glessner Lee herself never spoke or wrote on the subject of her inner life and motives, remaining even harder to work out than the most enigmatic of her Nutshells. She dealt only in facts – the truth in a nutshell. And, in the words of the homicide detective from Vermont I spoke to, the one ineluctable truth you take from her dystopian dioramas is this: ‘There’s only so many ways to kill someone. There’s only so many ways to die.’
Source: The Telegraph