(Roughly) Daily

“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”*…

 

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Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) was a millionaire heiress and Chicago society dame with a very unusual hobby for a woman raised according to the strictest standards of nineteenth century domestic life: investigating murder. And she did this through a most unexpected medium: dollhouse-like dioramas. Glessner Lee grew up home-schooled and well-protected in the fortress-like Glessner House, designed by renown American architect H.H. Richardson, but she was introduced to the fields of homicide investigation and forensic science by her brother’s friend, George Magrath, who later became a medical examiner and professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. Instantly captivated by the nascent pursuit, she became one of its most influential advocates. In 1936, she endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard and made subsequent gifts to establish chaired professorships and seminars in homicide investigation. But that’s not all…

Glessner Lee, rather than using her well cultivated domestic skills to throw lavish parties for debutantes, tycoons, and other society types, subverted the notions typically enforced upon a woman of her standing by hosting elaborate dinners for investigators who would share with her, in sometimes gory detail, the intricacies of their profession. Glessner Lee oversaw every detail of these dinners herself, down to the menu and floral arrangements. She could probably tell you which wine goes best with discussion about a strangled corpse found in a bathroom. But the matronly Glessner Lee — who may have been the inspiration for Angela Lansbury’s character in “Murder She Wrote”– wanted to do more to help train investigators. She wanted to create a new tool for them…

In her conversations with police officers, scholars and scientists, she came to understand that through careful observation and evaluation of a crime scene, evidence can reveal what transpired within that space. The physical traces of a crime, the clues, the vestiges of a transgressive moment, have a limited lifespan, however, and can be lost or accidentally corrupted. If a crime scene were properly studied, the truth would ultimately be revealed.

To help her investigator friends learn to assess evidence and apply deductive reasoning,  to help them “find the truth in a nutshell,” Frances Glessner Lee created what she called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,”  a series of lovingly crafted dioramas at the scale of one inch to one foot, each one a fully furnished picturesque scene of domesticity with one glaringly subversive element: a dead body…

These miniature crime scenes were representations of actual cases, assembled through police reports and court records to depict the crime as it happened and the scene as it was discovered. They were pure objective recreations. The design of each dollhouse, however, was Glessner Lee’s own invention and revealed her own predilections and biases formed while growing up in a palatial, meticulously appointed home. She makes certain assumptions about taste and lifestyle of low-income families, and her dioramas of their apartments are garishly decorated with, as Miller notes, “nostalgic,” and “often tawdry” furnishings.

Investigators had to learn how to search a room and identify important evidence to construct speculative narratives that would explain the crime and identify the criminal.  Glessner Lee’s models helped them develop and practice specific methods –geometric search patterns or zones, for example– to complete an analysis of a crime scene. “The forensic investigator,” Miller writes, “takes on the tedious task of sorting through the detritus of domestic life gone awry….the investigator claims a specific identity and an agenda: to interrogate a space and its objects through meticulous visual analysis”…

Read the full story at “How a Chicago Heiress Trained Homicide Detectives With an Unusual Tool: Dollhouses.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of the Four

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As we re-enact the crime, we might recall that it was on this date in 1831, that Edward Smith knocked over the National City Bank of New York (an ancestor of Citibank), and made off with $245,000– America’s first bank robbery.  He was quickly apprehended and sentenced to five years in Sing Sing (which was only five years old when Smith arrived as an inmate).

While Smith has claim to being America’s first “bank robber” as we tend to use the term, his stick up was not the first theft from an American bank.  That honor seems to belong to the 1798 burglary of the the Bank of Pennsylvania at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 19, 2014 at 1:01 am

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