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The Nutshell Studies: How a Wealthy Grandmother Revolutionized Crime Scene Investigation

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Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Every year, police officers from around the world gather for the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS) Seminar. During the three-day event, the officers attend lectures and participate in workshops covering such macabre topics as “Homicidal Drownings” and “Investigation of Deaths of Infants and Children.” To face the worst of mankind’s dark side requires a certain sense of detachment and steeliness that not just anyone can muster. So it’s a surprise that the founder of HAPS—and some would argue the most important figure in the field of modern forensic analysis—was a 67-year old grandmother who liked to make dolls.

A Respectable Heiress

Frances Glessner Lee. Photo Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Frances Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878 to John and Frances Glessner. Mr. Glessner was the vice president of International Harvester, a company that manufactured farm machinery, so the family lived in the lap of luxury on the Windy City’s lakefront. Home schooling was common among the social elites, and the finest tutors taught Frances and her brother, George. Frances especially excelled in her studies, and hoped to go on to practice either medicine or law. When she wasn’t hitting the books, Frances was learning more domestic skills, like sewing, knitting, interior design, and painting, which she took to with a similar enthusiasm and skill.

When it came time for the children to attend college, George was sent directly to Harvard to pursue his degree. Frances’ dreams, on the other hand, were dashed by her father, who insisted she follow the path of a respectable heiress. At 19, Frances Glessner became Frances Glessner Lee when she married up-and-coming lawyer Blewett Lee. The couple went on to have three boys, but the marriage was not a happy one. After a lengthy separation, Frances and Blewett divorced in 1914.

The “Mother” of CSI

In her 20s, Lee met a friend of her brother’s named George Magrath. Magrath was studying medicine at Harvard with plans to go into the relatively new field of legal medicine. After hearing Magrath’s stories of solving crimes using scientific analysis just like her favorite literary sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Lee became intrigued by the field.

Over the course of many years, with Magrath’s guidance, Lee became a self-taught crime scene analyst. Using her wealth and social influence, she was able to acquire books, attend lectures, and gain access to autopsies, crime scenes, and other places laypeople were normally not allowed. Although she was never officially involved in a case, her opinions were respected and appreciated by the officers in charge, to the point they often called her “Mother” Lee.

After her brother died in 1930, leaving Lee in control of much of the family fortune, she became a benefactor to Magrath and the field of forensic science. Lee helped establish Harvard's Legal Medicine Department with a $250,000 endowment (about $3.8 million today), and founded the school's Magrath Library in 1936 by donating 1000 crime scene analysis books and manuscripts from her vast personal collection.

Not only did Lee champion the field of forensic medicine, but she also broke new ground for women. In 1943, the New Hampshire State Police made her an honorary captain, the first woman to hold the position. Additionally, she was the first female member of the International Association for the Chiefs of Police, and of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Although Magrath died in 1938, Lee continued the mission by establishing HAPS in 1945 and hosting its now-famous training seminar. Lee personally organized the event, from selecting the seminar topics to booking lecturers, and even oversaw every detail of the formal dinner party that closed out the conference.

Despite all of these accomplishments, what Lee is perhaps best known for are her disturbing dollhouse dioramas.

A Model Solution


Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Around the same time that she was busy starting HAPS, Lee heard a common complaint from many young officers trying to learn crime scene analysis: there simply weren’t enough crimes to analyze.

To solve the problem, Lee turned to a hobby she had enjoyed for many years—creating miniature dioramas. Dioramas were a common hobby for women in the early part of the 20th century, especially for wealthy heiresses with a lot of time on their hands. One of Lee’s first forays into the craft was a miniature scene featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, built when Lee was 35, as a gift for her mother. Lee spent two months creating 90 musicians, each in hand-sewn clothes, playing tiny sheet music with hand-made miniature instruments.

Her skills served her well as she created miniature death scenes for forensic training purposes, a project she called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She got the name from a detective who said, “As the investigator, you must bear in mind that there is a two-fold responsibility—to clear the innocent as well as expose the guilty. Seek only the facts ... find the truth in a nutshell.”

It's All in the Details

Photo Courtesy of Susan Marks.

For the macabre miniatures, Lee created composite scenarios taken from real-life crimes, accidental deaths and suicides, and combined them with anecdotes from police officers, medical examiners and morgue workers. She also recreated cases described in her many field books and manuals. Using these pieces, she would construct one-inch-to-one-foot scale rooms, completely enclosed in glass to preserve the integrity of the scene, where a mysterious death has occurred.

The victim dolls were all hand-made and decorated by Lee, who spent countless hours getting every piece just right. She cut and sewed all the clothes by hand, even going so far as to knit tiny socks with straight pins to make them as realistic as possible. Lee also painted each victim to represent scientific clues, such as the level of decomposition that would be expected on a body that had been left undiscovered for a few days. Lee also painted unique clues on the dolls, such as tiny bite marks left by an assailant.

To ensure the scene was complex enough to be realistic, Lee overstuffed it with props that might be important to the case. For example, many Nutshells include details like tiny hand-rolled cigarettes, accurate dates on hand-painted wall calendars, scale-model clothespins whittled from wood, medicine bottles with hand-painted prescription labels, little envelopes complete with little stamps, and date-accurate headlines on miniature newspapers. These were in addition to the instruments and decorations of death, like tiny, bloody knives, or blood splatter patterns on the wallpaper.

The scale rooms and furniture were mostly made by craftsman Ralph Mosher and his son, whom Lee hired to work on the Nutshells full-time. Like the props, the rooms and buildings were incredibly detailed, down to working shutters, blinds, light switches and bulbs, and tiny keys for tiny locks on tiny doors. One of Mosher’s most famous creations, a Nutshell called “The Burned Cabin,” took the craftsman months to construct, only to have the interior scorched by a blowtorch to provide accurate evidence of a fire in the room.

Tiny Teaching Tools

Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Despite the countless hours spent on each one, Lee and the Moshers were able to complete two or three Nutshells every year. The dioramas were donated to Harvard for use in both the classroom and at the annual HAPS seminars. Before studying the physical evidence in the diorama, students were given a witness’ statement, but the rest was up to their sleuthing and scientific skills.

Although every Nutshell has an official solution to the mysterious death, the purpose was not to necessarily have a trainee solve the case. It was more important that students learn how to observe and analyze the scene using a scientific approach. Even if they couldn’t solve the case, presenting a thorough list of evidence analysis was considered a major victory.

The Nutshells Today

Photo Courtesy of Erin N. Bush, Death in Diorama.

Lee died in 1962 at the age of 83, but the 20 Nutshell Studies she made were used at Harvard for HAPS seminars and as teaching aids until 1966, when Harvard’s Legal Medicine Department was dissolved. But Lee’s legacy lives on, as the surviving 18 dioramas are currently housed at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office, where they are still used for training future crime scene analysts.

To see more of the Nutshells, check out Erin Bush’s excellent “Death in Diorama” website.

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History
How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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Fox Photos/Getty Images

In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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