Nutshell Studies: This amazing woman changed forensics with her miniature crime scenes

nutshell studies - miniature crime scenes

The incredible miniature crime scenes of one amazing woman helped change forensics forever. Discover the Nutshell Studies of ‘Grandmother Lee’…

Imagine you walk into your home and discover a crime scene. Perhaps you’ve been robbed, with the TV missing and your possessions thrown around. Maybe there’s blood on the floor and a stranger lying in your bathtub, unquestionably dead.

nutshell studies red bedroom detail

Nutshell study:

Red bedroom (detail)

A discovery like this would obviously be very frightening, but public knowledge of forensics is now so high that many of us would immediately follow this simple rule:

Do not touch anything.

It’s common knowledge that we take for granted. If you invited a friend over to help you wait for the police, they wouldn’t question why you were leaving your home in such a mess. We all know crime scenes can hold hints and clues as to what happened. It’s all evidence that a professional might be able to unravel.

Frances Glessner Lee and the Funding of Police Training

This idea of not touching anything in a crime scene wasn’t always the case. Until surprisingly recently, most crime scenes would be cleaned and tidied, and items would moved around without a second thought. Criminal cases would routinely be left unsolved because police officers weren’t trained in the importance of forensics and weren’t able to take proper stock of a scene.

(By the way, I’m not talking about forensics in the sense of evolving technology like residual heat scanners, spectrometry or any fictional apparatus in CSI: Miami. I’m talking about respecting the evidence at a crime and how it paints a picture about what took place.)

nutshell studies kitchen detail

Nutshell study:

Kitchen (detail)

How about an example? Imagine a beer can found at a murder scene where the victim was known to never drink. If you don’t have respect or control over the scene of the crime, you might not know if that beer can was there already – suggesting another person’s presence – or if someone else happened by and put it down. Maybe it was the landlord who let you in. Maybe the beer can was put there by someone else assisting the case. A piece of the puzzle is lost.

This respect for the crime scene and the story it can tell is in part attributed to Frances Glessner Lee. Living in the early part of the 20th century, Lee was an American heiress who used her wealth to fund and create The Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS) as well as the Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation. These seminars were enormously helpful in the training of police officers, who were often completely ignorant when it came to collecting important evidence.

nutshell studies parsonage detail

Nutshell study:

Parsonage (detail)

Lee’s contribution was so important that she soon became known as Grandmother Lee, or the “Patron Saint” of policemen.

Artefacts of her training are still around today. Welcome to the Nutshell Studies…

The Nutshell Studies

Part of Frances Glessner Lee’s seminars and training for policemen involved the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”. Each Nutshell Study was a perfect miniature of a crime scene, accompanied with accounts taken on the day to assist officers in working out what had happened.

Replicates of homes, apartments and motels were each created down to the size of a shoe box, many of which contained scenes of apparent murders, suicides or accidental deaths that the officers would be invited to inspect and try to explain.

Nutshell studies

Nutshell study:


nutshell studies

Nutshell study:

Red Bedroom

The detail Lee took in these “Nutshells” cannot be overstated; her intention was to make them as close to reality as possible.

  • Bodies would be painted in ways similar to how blood pools in cadavers, giving indications as to whether the body was moved after death.
  • Faces would be carefully detailed with wounds or colouration that – again – would give hints as to the truth of this case.
  • Lee even learnt about the details of rigor mortis, recreating the effects in her dessicated little dolls.
  • Intricate details like half-chopped food left in the kitchen of an apparent suicide, open windows and tiny cigarette butts all challenged the officers and helped them take their training into the real world.

Lee made 20 nutshell studies in total and 18 survive to this day, lovingly restored and still used as a method of police training. They’re not viewable to the public and the resolution to each study is a closely guarded secret!

A Legacy In Police Training

Today, police officers are trained in full-scale nutshell studies. Entire apartments that can be turned into life-sized crime scenes to give them skills that will easily transfer into their jobs, all inspired by those original miniatures.

This is the story of how a woman denied her dream of attending Law School – when upper class ladies didn’t ‘need’ to attend university – ended up becoming one of the most important contributors to the world of police training.

Over time, some of this knowledge has trickled down into the public sphere through the work of the police, making us all a little more knowledgeable about the importance of that size 11 muddy footprint in our small-shoed friend’s ransacked bedroom.

Photo credits:

T he Nutshell Studies are not open to the public.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death may be viewed by the public by appointment.

Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
900 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21223

Jerry Dziecichowicz, Chief Administrator of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland, and Dr. David R. Fowler, Chief Medical Examiner, gave Erin N. Bush permission to take as many pictures of the Nutshells as she needed for her Nutshell Studies research.

Erin N. Bush’s work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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