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

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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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols's life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

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