Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

On January 25, a group of 30 AAFSW members and friends enjoyed a guided tour of the Renwick Gallery, including the fascinating exhibit of Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” Our knowledgeable docent first took us to the other impressive Renwick exhibits, explaining that the Renwick was the first building in the U.S. built especially as a museum. She then told us that Ms. Glessner Lee (1878-1962), an heiress to the International Harvester fortune, was not permitted to go to college, but was expected to excel in the domestic arts. Eventually, after divorcing her husband and coming into her inheritance in her 50s, Glessner Lee was free to pursue her lifelong interest in forensic science.

In the 1940s and 50s, Glessner Lee designed and crafted her extraordinary Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, described by the museum as “exquisitely detailed miniature crime scenes – to train homicide investigators to ‘convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.’” These dioramas, which are still used in forensic training today, were accompanied by brief explanations—however, the final results of the criminal investigations were not disclosed, allowing Renwick viewers to search for clues and come up with possible solutions.

We all came away with a great respect for this talented woman, who was determined to follow her passion for forensic science in spite of the obstacles imposed by society.

Barbara Reioux
AAFSW Member

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