baby house, creepy toys, crime scene, Cursed dolls, dolls houses, forensic diorama, Frances Glessner Lee, Ghost stories, HAPS, haunted dolls house, haunted nurseries, legal medicine, miniatures, mother lee, mr james, murder house, murder in a nutshell, nutshell studies, Queen Mary's dolls house, unexplained death
As I won’t be in reach of the internet on the night itself – here is my slightly early offering for Halloween. Enjoy…
There has always been something innately creepy about the trappings of childhood – from cursed dolls to self-propelling rocking horses – the contents of the nursery has more often than not been the stuff of nightmare and horror. Perhaps it is the ease with which such objects of innocence can transform themselves, with only a change in the quality of light or a sense of unobserved movement, into the uncanny or sinister.
Dolls houses have always held a particular fascination for me, perhaps it is because peering in at the windows of the world in miniature, you cannot help but imagine what dreadful stories might be unfolding behind the twee facade. I have to admit that as a child, I set macabre tales of grisly murder and haunting in my own dolls house. Even today, although it is rather a regular sort of faux Georgian dolls house, I still occasionally have the urge to set up seances in the parlour.
Household management in miniature
Originally dolls houses, or baby houses were not for the grubby fingers of childhood, but rather were used as intricate and exquisite objects of display and prestige by royalty and the elite. Earliest German examples date from the mid sixteenth century, Albert V of Bavaria had one – clearly demonstrating that boys like dolls houses just as much as girls. By the eighteenth century every self-respecting (or should that read ‘self-aggrandizing’) grandee had a doll’s house. The more extravagant and palatial the better. Examples such as ‘Mon Plaisir’ the eighty room mansion created for the Princess Augusta Dorothea of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt were the height of luxury and, costing a fortune, were only ‘completed’ when the money ran out.
As well as ostentatious display many of these baby houses and cabinet houses also had a more practical and educational role in that they represented the ideal of what a well run home should look like. They were often used as tools to train up wives and maids in household management. Houses such as the Stromer House, dating from 1639, now housed in the Germanisches National Museum, have an almost time-capsule quality, showing how people lived (or aspired to live) at that period in history.
The nineteenth century saw children finally get their sticky hands on Dolls houses in a big way, and the creep factor shot up significantly. However, rather than dwelling on the possessed playthings of whey-faced and sinister Victorian children (far too obvious!) I would like, instead, to introduce possibly the most disturbing incarnation of the dolls’ house that I for one have ever come across….
Frances Glessner Lee – The Original Jessica Fletcher…
The twee little old lady with her bun and her spectacles, pictured above making dainty little miniatures, has more in common with Miss Marple than Mary Poppins. The miniature masterpieces she put together were most definitely not for the nursery. Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy socialite born with a silver spoon in her mouth, found fame in a most unladylike manner by creating the most macabre miniature diorama’s of death, in meticulous detail. In so doing she helped to pioneer the importance of legal medicine and forensic crime scene investigation.
Born in 1878 in Chicago, daughter of the co-founder of the International Harvester Company, Frances Glessner was brought up to be a gentile young lady. Trained in feminine arts and the skills required to be a society hostess. Her wish to go to university was thwarted because it was not considered ladylike. Her brother went to Harvard, and it was one of his friends, George Burgess Magrath, who fired Frances’ interest in Legal Medicine (what we would not call forensic medicine).
In the first part of the twentieth century coroners did not have to be medically trained and the police were largely ignorant of crime-scene investigation techniques. As a result many murderers were never brought to justice. As an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and no shrinking Violet, the indomitable Frances, and her good friend Magrath, set about addressing this problem. This was made significantly easier for Frances as by 1930’s she had come into her own, well, she inherited her fortune thereby allowing her to pursue her own ambitions, rather than bend to the will of her family. And of course, being a grand society hostess and a well brought up lady, she managed to fuse her more gentile talents: such a miniature making and dinner party management, with the retraining of the police force in methods of forensic crime-scene investigation.
In the 1930’s she founded the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, in 1942 was the first woman to be made Captain of the New Hampshire State Police, and as if that wasn’t enough, by 1945 she had instituted Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation for leading crime-scene investigators (it was later renamed Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS)). This is where the dinner party skills came in handy – the end of the week-long course was celebrated at the Ritz Carlton with a swanky dinner. No doubt the grande dame enjoyed being the centre of attention.
Murder in Miniature – the Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee
Frances Glessner Lee firmly believed that the purpose of crime-scene investigation was to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell,” and she must have realised that practical experience counts for much more than a week of lectures on the subject. With this in mind from the she made use of her skills as a miniaturist and her money, to create 20 precise and deadly murder diorama’s, of which 18 still survive in the collection of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office.
Lee used a combination of actual cases, witness statements, court records and even literature to create individual and obsessively detailed crime scenes in the scale of one foot to one inch. Jerry Dziecichowicz, interviewed in the Telegraph, stated that Lee had a solution to each scenario in mind, however the importance of the diorama’s goes beyond a mere who dunnit. They are about a methodical approach to observation – Lee favoured a clockwise spiral of observation – and identifying clues as to the nature of the death: was it murder, suicide, and accident? It was as important to clear the innocent as to convict the guilty and the lesson was how to read the crime scene effectively.
She worked with her carpenter at her New Hampshire farm, The Rocks, to make the nutshells. Although she sourced some mass-produced materials, often she made the items herself, often going to obsessive lengths to get them just right. She put together the dolls and is known to have hand knitted stockings for them using straight dress makers pins. She also carefully painted their flesh in just the right colours of putrefaction to match the time of their death.
Those who attended the seminars, and invitations were highly sought after, were given only 90 minutes to study each scene, the only tools being a flashlight and a magnifying glass. Some of the clues were tiny or only observable if you moved items, in one scene, a lady dead in bed can be discerned to have been smothered by a tiny smudge of lipstick on a pillow. In another, the Cabin, a tiny bullet lodged in a beam is the key to guilt or innocence. Lee understood the importance of these clues in identifying what the nature of the scene was – looking beyond the obvious to identify whether it was murder, suicide or an accident.
As much as the nutshell’s were intended to educate, they also inform – about Frances Glessner Lee herself. They are almost obsessively detailed, she included things that anyone else would have left out – a fire escape and hidden window at the back of the Pink Bathroom are mentioned by Bruce Goldfarb, assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner at Maryland, and curator of the Nutshells. Further indications of Lee’s biases are noted by Laura J Miller in her article for Harvard Magazine: most of the victims are white, the majority women, and of the lower classes. The crime scenes may be objective but the decor and trappings are indicative of Lee’s view of the tawdry lives lead by those marginalised by society who inhabited rented rooms and cheap lodgings. Alcohol, drugs and prostitution go hand in hand with these brutal deaths. Miller goes on to say that Lee “disclosed the dark side of domesticity and its potentially deleterious effects: many victims were women ‘led astray’ from the cocoon-like security of the home – by men, misfortune, or their own unchecked desires”
If you want to explore the nutshell studies in more detail I have added a link to the excellent Death in Diorama website below – it is well worth a visit.
From murder in the doll house to a Haunted Dolls House
Queen Mary, wife of King George V of England, didn’t have a lot in common with Frances Glessner Lee, but one passion they both shared was miniatures. In the 1920’s Edward Lutyens, the famous architect, was commissioned to create the palatial dolls house, now know simply as Queen Mary’s dolls house, for the lucky monarch.
Perfect in every detail, cram packed with every luxury an early twentieth century royal could want: running water, flushing toilets, and a fully stocked wine cellar, it also boasted an extensive library. And of course the doll’s house has a dark secret….a murder and a haunting! Well, no not really, unless you believe MR James who wrote his Haunted Dolls House tale for the Royal dolls enjoyment, knew something we don’t! Based on the Mezzotint, the Haunted Dolls House tells of an avaricious collector who (rather too cheaply) obtains a lovely old dolls house in ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ style that harbours a nasty secret. And he soon finds himself the helpless witness to a murder and a haunting.
If you fancy a little Halloween ghost story, links to the text and a short film adaptation of MR James Haunted Doll’s House can be found below.
A little something extra for Halloween…
For Frances Glassner Lee’s murder diorama’s under the magnifying glass, visit: http://www.deathindiorama.com/
Also the website of Corinne Botz, who is behind most of the excellent photographs of the Nutshell Studies out there, and who produced a book on them: http://www.corinnebotz.com/Corinne_May_Botz/Nutshell_Studies.html
For a tour of Queen Mary’s Doll’s house, inspiration for MR James Haunted Dolls House, visit: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/queenmarysdollshouse/book.html
You can find a dramatization of the Haunted Doll’s House, directed by Stephen Grey and starring Steven Dolton, on You Tube. Rather like a scary version of Trumpton – this short ‘no-budget’ adaptation is well worth a watch!
Diorama Photo’s – most of the photos of the Nutshells used in this post were taken from Death In Diorama, but I’m not who the photographer was. Diorama operate the following licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/
Pasierbska, Halina, Dolls’ Houses, Shire, 1991
Ramsland, Katherine, ‘The Nutshell Studies of Francesl Glessner Lee’, PDF sourced from the internet.