Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death - Destroyed Diorama

Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death - Destroyed Diorama

I recently purchased a photo of Frances Glessner Lee that I had never seen before - taken in 1961. I love that she's wearing her iconic black pillbox hat. (Will they ever make a comeback?)

She's in front of her Nutshell that would eventually be accidentally destroyed when the Nutshells were moved from Harvard to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.

Of all the Nutshells to be destroyed, it's a huge shame that it was this one. It depicts the same room before and after the death scene was compromised.

If any miniaturists are up for recreating what was so horribly lost, I have all sorts of information and photos. Be in touch!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Frances Glessner Lee - another woman who changed history

We are such big fans of Frances Glessner Lee that we made one documentary film about her and her Nutshells, we're almost done with a second doc and I wrote a screenplay and TV pilot about her that I'm happy to say turned out better than I could have ever imagined. 
True, you didn't read about Frances in history class and most people have no idea who she was even though she changed the course of forensic history. But give it time. This "Patron Saint of Forensic Science" has a legacy that's too astounding to ignore.

Frances and her dystopic dollhouses took the criminal justice world by storm in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite strong-held gender biases of the era to leave police work to men, Frances became a pioneer in the new field of forensics - forever changing the course of history. 

Lee is affectionately revered as the Patron Saint of Forensics, but outside of the criminal justice system today, few people know she was one of the greatest crusaders for criminal justice in the United States. As a senior citizen, she ventured into the new field of forensics or legal medicine, as it was known in the 1930s. In this era women were not widely accepted in the realms of science and criminology. Yet this didn’t stop Lee from establishing the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in order to elevate the field of law enforcement to a scientific level. Interestingly, at the time women weren’t allowed to attend Harvard.

On the surface, Lee played the part - impeccably - of the wealthy heiress from the Victorian era. She was also extremely intelligent, and had plenty of strong opinions, which terrified her proper parents. Lee’s father, one of the founders of International Harvester, forbade her from attending college, insisting that education was wasted on women. Her brother, of course, was able to attend college. Lee married young, had three children, and then divorced her husband, creating a major rift in the family. Without money of her own, Lee spent much of her adult life trapped under the thumb parents.

A bright spot in Lee’s life was her friendship with Dr. George Magrath. She was introduced to him when her brother and Magrath attended Harvard together. Lee was fascinated with his controversial career as a medical examiner in Boston, which often landed him on the front page of newspapers – embroiled in controversy. Lee and Magrath spent many late nights talking through details of crime scenes and grisly murders. Through him, Lee took on his fight to better educate police detectives in processing/investigating crime scenes from a medical perspective.

In a stroke of genius, Lee created a miniature world of murder and intrigue with her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – dollhouses used to help train detectives in a seminar series of her own design. She wanted to give detectives a tool to look closer at murders, accidental deaths, and suicides because they are not always what they appear. In the process of co-opting this accepted feminine pastime, making miniatures, Lee gained widespread admiration in fields dominated by men.

The death of her dear friend, Dr. Magrath, deepened her commitment to educating law enforcement and reforming the antiquated coroner system. Lee went on to become the first woman member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and an honorary police captain in the New Hampshire State Police, with full rights and privileges.
In her later years, Lee continued to surprise people and do the unexpected. 

She corresponded with J. Edgar Hoover and became ever vigilant in reporting any suspicious communist activity in the height of the “Red Scare.” Lee also became close with author Erle Stanley Gardner, famous for his Perry Mason novels, after he attended her seminar series. One of his novels, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom is dedicated to her. Around the same time, Lee, a lifelong atheist who believed only in science, converted to Catholicism.

In 1962, at the age of 83, Lee died in Littleton, New Hampshire. Hundreds of members of law enforcement from all over the United States and Canada came to pay their respects. The organization Lee founded in 1944, the Harvard Associates of Police Science, is still in operation today, holding conferences and seminar series. And her Nutshells Studies are a still used as a much-protected teaching tool at the Maryland Office of Chief Medical Examiner. When homicide investigators and forensic experts gather, they always toast the woman that pioneered the field.

Want to know more? You will. Soon. 

Frances Glessner Lee and why I still care. (repost)

Over the years of working on several different film projects on Frances Glessner Lee, I've become the unofficial keeper of her history. And I'll keep her history until history stops forgetting her.

A few years back, I made the documentary film Of Dolls & Murder about Frances and her extraordinary Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. I was so captivated by this woman who is as mysterious as her Nutshells. 

The one and only Frances Glessner Lee 
Her imagination. Her talent. Her sheer genius. How could the world not know about her? Sadly, I think I know the answer. From the 1930s until her death in 1962, a relatively small group of people respected and acknowledged her enormous contributions in early forensic science. And those people were the men who attended HAPS (Harvard Associates in Police Science) - the seminar series she created to help foster relationships between law enforcement and the medical community in the pursuit of justice.

Everyone else generally dismissed Frances. Especially her colleagues at Harvard. A lot of people placated her only because she donated so much money to the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard - where she was generally viewed as a meddlesome old woman with money and not enough to do. (Her words)

She was a truly woman ahead of her time and this threatened people. She never gave up and this irritated people. Things were rarely good enough for her and people resented her for it.

And when she died, the forensic academic community - the community she helped pioneer - allowed her name and contributions to fade away because they simply didn't think she was worthy of credit.

HAPS members, however, are another story. They keep her memory alive.  But memories aren't quite enough for a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker like me, are they? I needed photos, documents, newspaper articles, letters, and interviews with family members and people who can speak to her impact on criminology.

When my filmmaking partner and I made Of Dolls & Murder, we had to partially abandon our original vision because we could not find enough of the kind of information I listed above. We were proud of what we created but regretted that we couldn't find enough details about Frances Glessner Lee's life.

So I started to fantasize about the Hollywood version of her life - staring some amazing actress like Cate Blanchett as Frances Glessner Lee.  So I wrote the screenplay, Dollhouse of Death and it turned out better than I could have ever imagined. If this film ever gets made, there is no way history could ever forget about Frances Glessner Lee again.

And now we are almost done with our follow up documentary Murder in a Nutshell because we were lucky enough to unearth some pretty compelling new material about Frances Glessner Lee.

Her story just keeps getting better and better. Frances spoke so eloquently for the dead and I feel privileged to speak eloquently for her.

One of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Frances Glesssner Lee -
photo by Susan Marks

The Miniatures of Frances Glessner Lee & Narcissa Thorne (repost)

The Miniatures of Frances Glessner Lee & Narcissa Thorne

The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago

Narcissa Niblack Thorne (May 2, 1882 – June 25, 1966)
When most people think of a wealthy socialite from Chicago famous for creating miniatures they do not think of Frances Glessner Lee (March 25, 1878 – Jan. 27, 1962) of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death fame.

Narcissa Niblack Thorne and one of her miniatures
Instead, most people associate this particular miniature realm with Narcissa Niblack Thorne or as she preferred to be known Mrs. James Ward Thorne, who created the miniature masterpieces known as The Thorne Miniature Rooms.

Frances and Narcissa were friends, neighbors and traveled in the same social circles in Chicago. Narcissa worked on her miniatures in the 1930s and 1940s, the same time Frances made the majority of her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Certainly, they weren't the only socialites creating miniatures, considering it was an acceptable feminine past-time for the upper classes, but their work stands out as extraordinary.

Both artists favored the one inch to one foot scale and used similar DIY techniques for creating their decor and textiles. The Thorne Miniature Rooms have no dolls, no narrative and were never intended to be teaching tools like the Nutshell Studies. Rather the Thorne Miniatures were studies in historical interiors from Europe, Asia and North America - ranging from the late 13th century to the early 20th century.

No dead bodies. No narrative. Just pretty. 

Like Frances, Narcissa traveled throughout Europe collecting miniature furnishings and she also employed a carpenter, like Frances. 

For comparison, "Kitchen" from the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Thorne rooms gained so much notoriety that they were displayed in several World’s Fairs. And in 1933–1934 they were included in Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. Narcissa went on to oversee the creation of miniature European castles, museums, and historic homes. She commissioned architects to create the miniatures and had the textiles and carpets made by the Needlework Guild of Chicago. The Thorne Rooms are currently exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Learn more about the big world of miniatures with the The National Miniature Trust.

Patron Saint of Forensics - Frances Glessner Lee (Repost)

I wrote the following about Frances Glessner Lee - aka Fanny - the creator of the dollhouse scenes of death. Without her, we wouldn't have a story to tell,  films to make. It's an honor to work on so many projects about Fanny - a woman who didn't want criminals to get away with murder and any wrongful death to be in vain.

Nothing and everything in Lee’s background prepared her for the role of a crime-fighting granny. Born in 1878, a wealthy Chicago heiress to the International Harvester fortune. Her parents believed that education was wasted on women, so Lee never received the formal education she craved. For most of her life she was paralyzed in the role of wife, mother, and socialite. Lee’s passions were elsewhere -  in academia, science, law and medicine. In other words, a man’s world.

In the 1930s, a family friend made Lee aware of the countless murders that went undetected and unsolved because evidence was either mishandled, misinterpreted or ignored. It was as if the dead were talking to Lee, urging her to speak for them. Lee took an active interest as a pioneer in the new emerging arena, “Legal Medicine” which would later be re-named “Forensics.”

Lee developed a vision for training every detective to take both scientific and medical evidence into account while solving crimes. To do so, she co-opted a feminine past time – creating miniatures – into a crime-fighting tool for (male) detectives to challenge their abilities to interpret evidence. Ironically, her creation of dollhouses is exactly what catapulted her into a revered role in the masculine realm.

Lee’s legacy lives on through the Nutshells and the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS), an ongoing detective training seminar she developed in the 1940s. Almost 70 years later, Lee’s dollhouses are still relevant training tools because all the latest technological advances in forensics do not change the fact that crime scenes can be misread, and then someone will literally get away with murder.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Frances Glessner Lee Withdrawal?


Now that the exhibit at the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery is over you may be asking yourself, "What next? I was just starting to get into the Nutshells and now what?" 


I know exactly how you feel. That's how I felt when I read about the Nutshells for the first time in a magazine article about interesting collections. I had to wait three more years for the book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death to be published. While I loved the book, it wasn't enough. I wanted to know more.


Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshells haunted me for years. So much so that I found myself visiting the home of the Nutshells - the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner - and making a case for filming the Nutshells for a documentary - Of Dolls & Murder.


You would think making a documentary film would have satisfied me but no. My filmmaking partner and I unearthed some new information about Frances Glessner Lee and this set a new journey in motion - another documentary film, Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story. We are close to being finished with it. (More funding would be amazing!) But that doesn't do you any good right now, does it? Because you are, perhaps, haunted too. 


So I have a few recommendations for you: Do like I did and start your own Frances Glessner Lee/Nutshell project. Get creative! Do something that hasn't been done before. Try to solve all the Nutshell cases. Write your own fan fiction. Maybe you will be the one to write the definitive biography? There are several books in the works about Frances but who knows when or if they will ever be published, so if you want to write about her - you should! Or perhaps you want to make your own Nutshells - like artist Cynthia von Buhler. (Photo below is a model of her grandfather's speakeasy around the time of his murder.)


I wrote an award-winning screenplay about Frances and it was so satisfying to explore her life in a semi-fictional way. I also wrote a TV pilot and it turned out better than I could have ever imagined. (More news about this coming in 2018?)


Are you the adventurous Nutshell enthusiast? You could go on the Frances Glessner Lee tour! See her historic home in Chicago, her other home at the Rocks in Bethlehem, New Hampshire and while you're there, pay your respects to Frances's final resting place and go to the Bethlehem Visitor Center to see the missing Nutshell. 

Visit Harvard and check out some of her papers at the Countway Library. Make an appointment at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to see the Nutshells in person.  She lived part-time at the Ritz-Carleton in Boston. What a great road time it would be!


Or perhaps you are more of a passive Nutshell enthusiast? Buy the Of Dolls & Murder DVD, so you can own all the DVD extras including an interview with John Waters and filmmakers's commentary. 


Check out Season Seven of CSI for the Nutshell-inspired plot of the Miniature Serial Killer. A BUNCH of people have mentioned to me that there is an episode of Father Brown that has a dollhouse murder in it - but wow, I watched two seconds of that show and found it unwatchable - so watch at your own risk. There are several podcast about Frances and thousands of articles, like this one that came out today.

There's an event coming up at the Glessner House to celebrate Frances's 140 birthday. It sounds pretty cool, so I don't even mind that they borrowed the title from our film for their event.

I hope this helps you get your Nutshell on and keep Frances's story alive. And keep checking back for updates.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Documentary Films on Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies

If you are interested in purchasing the Of Dolls & Murder DVD, go here.  It includes the film, a John Waters interview, an extra on Frances Glessner Lee and filmmaker's commentary.

Our follow up documentary film on Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story isn't finished yet. Fingers crossed for more funding so we can cross the finish line!

We also made a short film about Cynthia von Buhler who was so inspired by Frances Glessner Lee that she created her own dollhouse crime scene (and play) to solve the murder of her grandfather. You can buy the DVD for Inside the Speakeasy Dollhouse here.