I have been your doll-wife, just as at home
I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls.
I thought it great fun when you played with me,
just as they thought it great fun when I played with them.
That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.
(H. Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act III)
When Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878, her life had already been planned.
Her parents, industrialists who became millionaires selling agricultural machinery, had very clear ideas about what they expected from her: she was going to grow up in the big family estate, which resembled a fortress, where private institutors would instruct her in the feminine arts of sewing, embroidery, painting. Once she had become a raised-right young lady, she would marry and continue her existence in her husband’s shadow, as it was suitable for a respectable woman. For a perfect doll.
And Frances followed these rules, at least apparently. After her parents refused to send her to Harvard to study medicine like her brother (because “a lady doesn’t go to school”), the young girl married a lawyer and gave him three children.
And yet Frances felt secretly repressed by the morals of her time and by not being allowed anything outside domestic tasks: she was eager to do something tangible for the community, but on the other hand could not openly dispute the social role that was assigned to her.
Thus many bitter years passed, until things slowly began to change.
In 1914 a first, small scandal: Frances divorced her husband, partly because (according to her son) he was not happy with her doing creative manual work, in which she excelled. In little more than ten years, in turn, her brother, her mother and her father died. Frances found herself with an immense fortune, free at last to pursue her true vocation – which actually was quite far from the dreams others had dreamt for her.
Because her passion, fueled by the stories of Sherlock Holmes, was the newly-born forensic science.
Frances had a close friendship with George Burgess Magrath, who was her late brother’s collegue and a famous medical examiner specializing in murder cases. Magrath often complained about investigators misinterpreting or even tramplimg with the evidence on a crime scene: there still was no education on this matter, police officers moved the bodies or walked on blood stains without giving it a thought, and as a consequence a high number of homicides went unsolved.
The now wealthy heiress decided, initially assisted by Magrath, that she would begin to do her part in renewing the system. In 1931 she endowed Harvard University with a generous donation in order to establish a Department of Legal Medicine; subsequently she founded the George Burgess Magrath Library, and created an organization for the progress of forensic science, the Harvard Associates in Police Science.
Magrath died shortly after, but Frances — even though she was not a trained doctor — had already acquired a stunning knowledge in criminology. In the pictures from the time, she is sitting beside the biggest experts in the field, like a respected godmother and patron.
But her most extraordinary contribution to the cause was yet to come.
In the 1940s, Frances Glessner Lee decided to hold biannual seminars for detectives and investigators. And here she presented for the first time the result of countless days of solitary work: her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
At a first glance they looked like elaborate and detailed dollhouses, but looking closely one could discover their macabre secret: the puppets inside those houses were all dead.
Each diorama was in fact inspired by an actual crime scene, which Frances had studied or seen in person during the investigations.
The quality of craftmanship was impressive. With painstaking care, every doll was dressed with tiny cross-stitched clothes; using jeweler’s precision tools Frances was able to equip her models with windows that could be opened, working keys and locks, pantries filled with food cans and countless other microscopic details.
Thanks to her familiarity with autopsies and crime scenes, the murdered dolls showed realistic signs of violence and death: wounds, bruises, decomposition symptoms, blood spatters on clothes and walls, everything was reproduced to the smallest detail.
The dioramas, each accompanied by a “witness statement”, were designed as crime mysteries to be solved.
The investigators attending the seminar were given 90 minutes to examine each single scene; they had to carefully study every clue.
What happened exactly to that family, all massacred by gunshot? Was it a murder-suicide, or were the father, mother and baby killed by a stranger?
And why did this housewife decided to commit suicide with gas, taking the precaution of carefully sealing the door — but leaving in the sink some half-peeled potatoes? Could the hour of death be determined by the state of food in the open freezer?
Did the man in the barn really hang himself?
If this other woman really died while drawing a bath, how come the stopper was not in the bathtub? And why her legs, in full rigor mortis, had stopped in that unnatural position?
When the allowed time ran out, the detectives had to draw their conclusions on what might have happened.
Thanks to her exceptional work, Frances was made honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943, becoming the first woman to be chief of police.
Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962; but to think her incredible dioramas (18 in total) were some kind of eccentric and cheap game, would be way off mark. They are so complex and accurate that they are used still today in Harvard to train forensic specialists.
Beside their specific educational value, the story these works tell us is also interesting for another reason.
In a sense, Frances Glessner Lee never stopped playing with dolls, as she was taught to do when she was little.
And yet the bourgeois interiors, the cabins, the bathrooms or the alleys recreated in her models speak of a reality of abuse and violence, of victims and executioners. In a subtly subversive way, the Nutshell Studies use the “language” of toys and childplay to describe the most brutal and terrifying aspects of existence — hatred and blood creeping into the reassuring tableau of a marriage, of a family, splattering those clean and tidy walls. It’s real life, with all its cruelty, bursting into the idealistic world of childhood.
One could guess, in these dioramas, some sort of secret pleasure on the part of their creator in destroying the idyllic domestic space.
Maybe staging savage murders inside a dollhouse — thus turning the perfect decent lady pastime into something terrible and macabre — was to Frances a small, symbolic revenge.
The victims in the Nutshell Studies are mainly women.
And this last detail sounds a bit like a warning, a cautionary note addressed to young girls: do not believe too much in fairy tales, with all their princes charming; do not believe in the golden, coddled lives the adults are preparing for you.
Do not believe in dollhouses.
On the Nutshell Studies you can find a documentary film on YouTube and a book on Amazon.
I highly recommend a visit to this website: besides finding further infos on Frances Glessner Lee and her dioramas, you can test yourself on some of the puzzles, explore crime scenes and examine the main clues.