These Doll Houses Of Death Prove That Tiny Can Be Terrifying Too

I had a dollhouse once. It was a lovely two storey thing, complete with pretty furnishings and little people who lived in it.
I’ll admit though, it was far from being as exquisitely detailed as these dollhouses at the Maryland medical examiner’s office.

But of course, these aren’t dollhouses at all.

Seemingly innocuous at first glance, these miniature dioramas are actually carefully constructed crime scenes, depicting hangings, suicides, and murder – right down to the tiny murder weapons and minuscule clues.

They were created more than 50 years ago by Frances Glessner Lee, a pioneer in forensic science whose obsession with the field is as much of a mystery as the work she left behind.

Frances Glessner Lee’s was the first female police captain in the U.S., is considered the “Mother of forensic science”.

Despite being an heiress, she wanted a career.  Inspired by her brother’s classmate, George Burgess Magrath, she dedicated much of her life – and a small fortune – to the advancement of the forensic sciences, and helped found the first-of-its kind Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University.

At the time, there was very little training for investigators, meaning that they often overlooked or mishandled key evidence, and few had any medical training that would allow them to determine cause of death.

Determined to create a suitable training tool, she co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the male-dominated field of police investigation.

Shrinking down details that she gathered from real-life crimes in New England, she created 20 perfectly proportioned dioramas she called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, and tempered them with a dose of obfuscation.

She began conducting a week-long seminar using the dioramas to teach trainee investigators the science of crime scene analysis.

The angle of minuscule bullet holes, the placement of latches on widows, the patterns of blood splatters, and the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses – students were instructed to study the scenes methodically and draw conclusions from the visual evidence.

After all, the purpose of a forensic investigation is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”



Her attention to detail is legendary. As such, every element of the dioramas – even things that seem insignificant at first, when put together, tell the whole story. The point was to teach investigators-in-training to recognize these.

Also evident is her deliberate focus on society’s “invisible victims,” far removed from her own social circles, whose cases she championed.
The dollhouses often featured women, the poor, and social outcasts as victims, whose cases might otherwise be overlooked by a prejudiced investigator.

Even today, these exquisitely detailed miniature crime scenes are still used as an exercise in observing, interpreting, evaluating and reporting.
But because they are still active training tools, the solutions to each remain secret.

You can, however, put on your Sherlock shoes and take apart each one for interesting clues as to what might have happened. Or you can simply choose to appreciate the fascinatingly spooky detail of Frances Glessner Lee’s masterpieces instead.


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