Mysterious Death Their Business (July 1953)
By Richard F. Dempewrolff (and a few notes by Susan Marks)
Death from causes unknown is a phrase that will drop from its too frequent use in the nation's homicide files if a new kind of investigator has anything to say about it.
Today, on an upper floor in a remote wing of the Harvard Medical School, an eerie atmosphere hangs over a certain laboratory headed by pathologist Dr. Richard Ford. Called the Department of Legal Medicine, its business is concerned with unexplained death.
Sightless eyes stare at intruders from a row of life-sized plaster heads of murder victims - one with slashed throat, another with a bullet hole drilled through one temple, trickling a painted red stream against its death-white cheek. Beneath them, rows of plaster chest sections are perforated with accurately simulated bullet holes and powder burns typical of wounds inflicted by various-caliber bullets at varying distances.
To the quiet whir of motors in another room, little cubes of tissue are being coated with paraffin in a complicated apparatus resembling a miniature merry-go-round. A precision knife cuts slices 1/10,000 inch thick from these wax-embedded bits, so they can be stained and viewed under a microscope. This seems pretty routine until Mr. Glass, the white-coated assistant to Doctor Ford, tells you the cubes of tissue are part of a man who was killed yesterday under suspicious circumstances.
A sample of his blood may be in one of the opaque jars in the refrigerator. His clothes are in another room, ready for a going-over by all sorts of instruments. The dust from his pockets is being collected grain by grain, not to mention the grit from his trouser cuffs, scrapings from his shoes, and microscopic bits of skin found under his fingernails.
Behind glass, recessed in the jet-black walls of another room, are 17 scenes (curious why this number is 17 and not 19) of violent death in miniature. Here, a farmer has hanged himself (or has he?) in a weathered old barn; there a trapper lies dead in a tiny cabin, fire glowing in the range, dishes and food lying scattered about. Someplace in each of these miniature sets, built one inch to the foot, a scientifically experienced eye will find clues to a heinous crime.
Today, in 38 states, legal-medicine men point out, the “experts” called in to evaluate medical and legal evidence in suspicious deaths are still usually coroners. Some are doctors, but most coroners need not know a clavicle from a clarinet to hold their jobs. They may be pubkeepers, shoe salesmen or undertakers. This system, say legal medics, has led to many a miscarriage of justice and has often permitted murderers to get away unsuspected.
It was this fact that prompted Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy New Hampshire woman, to offer Harvard $250,000 in 1939 to set up a unique department where genuine experts could be trained. Each year police, doctors, lawyers and newspapermen from New York to Honolulu swarm to its seminars. As a result, 10 states have thrown out their coroner system partly or entirely in the last few years in favor of a “medical examiner” system employing real experts. And the laboratory itself is continually called upon to help unsnarl tough cases. (Note by Susan Marks: Frances Glessner Lee's greatest contribution was her pioneering efforts to revamp the nation's coroner system. And yet she's rarely given the credit she deserves for truly changing the course of history.)
“There are 2500 unexplained deaths in this state each year,” Glass explains. “Here we investigate and perform autopsies on more than 500 of them.” Often, by using skilled medical men and scientific methods, they have produced answers that have pointed to a killer, freed innocent men suspected of murder and solved deeply tangled mysteries.
Wandering through the microscopy lab, Glass describes how it works, punctuating his description by waving toward this machine or that, emphasizing his points with actual cases.
Say a man is found dead with a wound in his head. The pathologist on the case sends samples of brain tissue for analysis. The doctor discovers a hemorrhage in the tissue, cuts out the section and puts it in formaldehyde. From there it goes to the tissue room where it’s paraffined and sliced in a long, thin ribbon into a pan of water. Then it’s picked out with tweezers, dropped on a slide and carefully guided through a series of stains. By its condition and color, expert pathologists can tell whether it is a new hemorrhage or an old one. Depending on what they find, someone may be cleared of a murder or manslaughter charge, or someone may be arrested for a serious crime.
Recently, the lab was called in on a case where a man had died after a fight with a friend. The friend, held on a manslaughter charge, claimed that his buddy had started the fight, was perfectly well after the brawl, but lay down to take a rest and never woke up. There were no witnesses. When the lab finished, Doctor Ford was able to testify that the victim had old brain lesions which would, indeed, have given him a crotchety disposition. Furthermore, the bruises he received in the fight had not been enough to cause death. He had succumbed to a stroke of apoplexy brought on by his own excitement. The prisoner went free. (Note by Susan: Frances was working on a Nutshell before she died about this case. It was never completed.)
Lack of careful, scientific probing can work the other way, too, Glass points out. Many a killer has gone completely unsuspected because some examiner took things at face value. To show how it might happen, he tells about the farmer whose friends noticed his stock hadn’t been fed, and went in the house to find him in bed, unconscious. The doctor was called, diagnosed it as stroke and sent him to the hospital. Twenty-four hours later, the farmer was dead.
There was no question about the stroke - all the symptoms were there. But the coroner was a doctor and, since the farmer had no medical record of previous trouble, he ordered a genuine legal-medicine autopsy, just to make sure. The pathologist found the stroke evidence all right. But he found something else, too. A severe case of meningitis had caused death. And it had been brought on by way of a minute stab wound at the back of the head - through a hole so small that even the pathologist hadn’t noticed it until the scalp was turned back.
Police re-investigated and learned that during a rousing party at the dead farmer’s house the previous week, one guest had stabbed him with an ice pick. Since the farmer was up and around several days afterward, no one thought he was hurt. The killer - entirely unsuspected until medical-legal science stepped into the picture - was arrested and convicted of unpremeditated murder.
Not long ago, someone found an entire skeleton under the floor of an old barn. It had been there two years, the examiner estimated - which fitted in with the time a man in the neighborhood had disappeared. A boy and a girl who had been known to dislike him for various reasons were arrested. Evidence seemed to show that both had threatened the man with guns, but that the girl had done the actual shooting and hidden the body.
At this point Doctor Ford was called. A careful examination of the skeleton with all the tools available at the legal-medicine lab turned up something that had been completely overlooked before: A tiny groove was neatly bored along the edge of one bone in the spine. Test bullets from each gun were matched to the groove and the one that came from the gun which the boy had admittedly carried was the one that fitted the groove! Larger ammunition from the girl’s gun didn’t fit at all. Confronted with this fact, the boy confessed.
What a man trained in legal medicine can do with bones is sometimes unbelievable. By looking for certain growth clues on many bones in a skeleton, or by careful examination of teeth, he can determine pretty closely the age of the victim. A skull or pelvis may be all he needs to nail down the sex. And by referring to comparison tables (of size and conformation) he can often determine sex from only an arm or leg bone. Other tables allow him to reconstruct the actual height of a victim from just one long bone.
He may even build out simulated flesh, in clay, on an old skull and come up with a remarkably close reproduction of what the dead person looked like. Certain bone characteristics may reveal racial facts about a skeleton, and any number of minute malformations may point to its actual identity. The skull of a woman, with malformation of one side, was found recently. It also had a broken hyoid bone - which usually is snapped only in manual strangulation. With this to go on, investigators found that a woman with a face larger on one side than the other had disappeared from the neighborhood some years back. Her husband was found and confessed that he had throttled her.
Just how far good lab work can go in solving a complete mystery is probably best illustrated by a case Doctor Ford and Glass both tell about, because it required so many phases of real scientific digging. Early one fall, a skeleton wearing remnants of female clothing was found in a remote blueberry patch. A weathered rope was tied around the wrists and neck. By X ray and precise bone measurement, legal-medicine men determined that it was a teen-aged girl, about five feet tall. Her clothing size, found on a mildewed label, indicated her weight. Textile experts determined the quality of the clothing and her status was determined as middle class.
When this information was publicized in the papers, the girl’s parents came forward and identified the remains. But there was lots more to find out. How was she killed?
Lab experts took the rope that had bound her and traced the makers. From them they got a similar piece and tested it for shrinkage to see if the original rope, when new, had been the right length to cause strangulation when tied in the same manner, on a body of the same proportions as the victim’s. It was.
To learn when the crime had occurred, entomologists, botanists and meteorologists were called in. The botanists carefully gathered up bits of crushed blueberry bushes that had lain under the body. Studying them in the lab, the found evidence of arrested leaf buds, but no berries, and thus deduced that the body had fallen early the previous spring. This was borne out by the entomologists who studied samples of soil from beneath the remains under lab conditions. They found crushed carrion-beetle larvae - insects which reach that stage of development at that time of year.
Meteorologists agreed that everything found was consistent with the weather record for the previous spring. Police took up the hunt from there, and within 10 days they arrested a young man who confessed the crime, corroborating the evidence in nearly every detail. The murder had been the result of a love affair.
There’s a good reason for those plaster models in the legal-medicine lab. Often, if they know the distance at which a gun was fired, experts can determine whether the wound was self-inflicted or otherwise. The models show the type of wound and powder pattern made by different types of firearms at varying distances. Students who study them retain a vivid impression that they will carry with them on examining jobs, and will know what type of wound they’re looking at.
Here’s how it works: A woman came to the lab one day and said an insurance company refused to pay double indemnity on a policy because evidence of her husband’s recent death in a hunting accident pointed to suicide. His gun lay beside him and a shot had penetrated his lower chest through his hunting jacket.
Experts photographed the man’s perforated jacket, then got an identical piece of cloth and fired the same type charge through it from distances varying from contact to 20 inches. The pattern made by the charge at distances between 16 and 20 inches matched the hole and powder-residue pattern on the jacket. Not even a contortionist, it developed, could have held the muzzle of that gun at such a distance and pulled the trigger. Further examination of the scene showed evidence that the man had been climbing the fence, gun in hand with a safety catch off (a cardinal breach of hunting safety rules). The trigger snagged a branch, and bang! The insurance company paid off.
Inexpert examiners often ruin or overlook evidence at a crime scene. By fingering a bullet hole in clothing, untrained examiners have destroyed evidence which, under microscopy and chemical treatment of the frayed edges, might have revealed important facts about the bullet.
One careless examiner folded a bloodstained sheet while it was still wet. The blots and smudges forever destroyed the shape of the original stain - which might have told a trained man the direction in which the blood had spilled, providing a clue to the cause of death. Another time, a bloodstained scrap of cloth was dried on a stove by the examiner, to preserve it. Instead, he destroyed any number of possible chemical clues that it might have yielded, since heat changes the chemical composition of blood so thoroughly it can’t even be typed.
Many a detail has helped solve mysterious death. A killer was exposed because he kicked the victim in the nose after the crime. Painstaking examiners noticed nearly invisible bits of foreign matter embedded in the dead man’s skin. When removed with tweezers and examined under a microscope they proved to be particles of shoe leather. The suspect’s shoes were then examined. Sure enough, the lab experts discovered traces of skin and the leather in those shoes matched the particles found on the corpse.
Importance of such details are the reason for those incredible dioramas at the Department of Legal Medicine. Men who attend these seminars held at Harvard each year spend the last part of their course solving the mysteries in the glass cases. Each is a composite of several actual crimes. Called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” the models were made in a huge farmhouse workshop on the estate of Mrs. Lee, in Littleton, N. H. She and a skilled carpenter, working together in spare moments with an assortment of dental tools and jeweler’s equipment, can turn out three of them a year.
A member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and a state-police captain in New Hampshire, this remarkable woman has gone to unbelievable lengths to achieve miniature realism in each scene. A significant red mousetrap in one farmhouse set is half an inch in diameter, with six tiny holes around the side. From one of them the rear end of a mouse protrudes - made of a bit of pussy willow, with a threadlike tail. Mrs. Lee herself knitted the socks of her six-inch figures, on needles the size of an ordinary straight pin. A carpet sweeper has a four-inch handle and a base no bigger than a packet of book matches.
In another scene, a five-inch-tall state trooper wears a whistle around his neck that you could blow if you could get your lips on it. The pencil in his hand, made from one end of a toothpick, has lead in it! (Note by Susan: This Nutshell was the one that was destroyed when it was transported from Harvard to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in the 1960s) Houses and buildings are constructed to scale in every detail - including studs, plaster lath, beams and all. Even a bullet hole in a miniature screen door is to scale.
There is actually no limit to the perfection Captain Lee insists upon achieving in these exhibits. She ages and weathers materials for weeks so they will be faded enough to look real. A fine piece of old linen was discarded for drapery material because it wouldn’t hang limp enough to achieve the proper scale of drape. (Note by Susan: There are a few miniaturists who highly criticize Frances Glessner Lee for not being a purist when it came to scale.)
Her ingenious imagination converts all sorts of things to use in the models. “Benzedrine inhalers,” she says, “with a little red paint and remodeling make excellent fire hydrants for a city street.” Tiny newspapers are made by reducing real ones photographically, making plates, printing them, then stitching top and bottom edges so they can be torn to simulate saw-toothed edges of real ones.
Special techniques are used to make her human figures. Antique German bisque dolls, with head and bust in one piece and movable bisque arms which must be drilled with diamond dust form the working base of every one. She makes bodies of cloth, stuffed with soft cotton and a core of BB shot - so they’ll be flexible but not so light they’ll sprawl awkwardly and uncorpse-like. Feet and legs are of carved wood. Each corpse is cunningly colored. One may carry the cherry red brought on by carbon-monoxide death; another an ordinary post-mortem purplish caste. The delicate miniature discoloration in bruises on the 1/4-inch neck of a throttled victim are so accurate that a trained examiner can diagnose it immediately.
And that’s the whole idea of these models. Each is loaded with important clues for a man who is observant and knows his legal medicine. In one diorama, a vital clue can only be found by looking in a miniature mirror. In another, there are 31 major blunders and a lot of minor ones committed by a bumbling policeman before the arrival of a medical examiner. Students must find them all.
If a man can spot all the clues in Captain Lee’s nutshell mysteries, it’s a pretty sure thing that Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine has turned out another member of a growing army that, they hope, will put a final period at the end of our “unexplained death” list.
Note by Susan: This Popular Mechanics article was instrumental in helping us find the "missing Nutshell" pictured below. For decades, no one at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner knew what happened to this Nutshell. Once we knew what we were looking for, we spotted this Nutshell in a photo taken at the Bethlehem Heritage Society visitor's center/museum.
We went for a visit and told them that many people were wondering about why this Nutshell didn't go to Maryland with the rest. Clare Brown of both the Bethlehem Heritage Society and The Rocks Estate (Frances's former residence) noted that she found the Nutshell in the rafters of the old tool barn at the Rocks and brought it to the little museum down the road. She had no idea it was "missing."
We pieced together that Frances had it sent back to her estate for the photo shoot with Popular Mechanics and for whatever reason it never went back. And the rather man-like hands in these photos are Frances's. I point that out only because it's truly amazing that she could do such detailed work with such large fingers.
We feature this Nutshell in our new forthcoming documentary film on Frances Glessner Lee, Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story.