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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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Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish "Fairy Wife"
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The policemen had been combing the green yards and fields of Ballyvadlea, Ireland, for a week when they finally found Bridget Cleary. The 26-year-old's body had been wedged beneath several inches of clay and a jumble of thorn bushes, but her corpse showed wounds caused by something much worse than branches: Her spine and lower limbs were so badly burned that parts of her skeleton were exposed. She was naked, except for a stocking and one gold earring, and her head was encased in a sack.

The judge would later describe the events leading up to Bridget's death as demonstrating "a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several—a moral darkness, even religious darkness." It was the end of the 19th century, not exactly the Middle Ages, but those involved in the end of Bridget's life had become convinced that she wasn't really herself—and that a supernatural creature had taken her place.

GONE WITH THE FAIRIES

Bridget was the wife of a cooper named Michael Cleary, and the pair were regarded around town as a relatively happy couple. They shared their cottage, in a remote townland near Tipperary, with Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, and had no children. Michael was nine years Bridget's senior and earned a decent salary; she brought in some extra income by working as a seamstress and egg-seller. By all accounts, they were more prosperous than their neighbors, likely thanks to her resourcefulness. As a literate, independent, and fashionably dressed working woman, she was part of an emerging class in a rural society that had long been based in agriculture and the oral tradition.

It was also a society steeped in legends of the supernatural. Fairy belief, in particular, was pervasive in Irish rural societies at the time, and had long coexisted with Christian doctrine. Children grew up hearing legends of the Little People from their earliest days, and learned how to appease them by leaving untasted food on the table, for example, or saying "bless them" whenever the fairies were mentioned. The fairies were blamed for everything that went wrong—lost items, spoiled milk, bad crops. As one County Sligo man interviewed at the start of the 20th century told an anthropologist, "Nothing is more certain than that there are fairies."

Bridget herself was known to be fascinated by the beings, and to take trips to the most fairy-ridden spots around town. She may have visited such a spot on Monday, March 4, 1895, when she went to deliver eggs to her father's cousin, Jack Dunne, near Kylenagranagh Hill. The area was home to a ringfort, an early medieval circular fortified settlement believed, in Irish folklore, to be a "fairy fort," and thus to be avoided at all costs. Yet Bridget often visited the fort, and she likely spent time there that Monday after delivering the eggs.

It was a cold morning, the mountains still covered in the snow that had fallen the previous day, and after the two- or three-mile walk Bridget couldn't seem to warm up once she got back home. She spent the following day in bed, shivering and complaining of "a raging pain in her head."

That Saturday, her father walked four miles in the heavy rain to ask the doctor to call on her. But the doctor wasn't able to visit until the following Wednesday, and by then her husband had also gone to summon him twice. They should have been reassured by the doctor's diagnoses—"nervous excitement and slight bronchitis"—but it wasn't this ailment that worried Michael. He was convinced that the bed-ridden woman in their cottage was "too fine," in his own words, to be his wife, and that she was "two inches taller" than the woman he had known. At some point, Michael had developed the belief that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling as she passed near the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill.

"ARE YOU BRIDGET BOLAND?"

It is likely that this idea was planted in Michael's head by his confidante, Jack Dunne. According to Irish historian Angela Bourke, who has researched the case extensively, the 55-year-old Dunne was a charismatic man rumored to have the power of divination. He was known in the area as a seanchaí, a sort of storyteller well-versed in fairy mythology.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the doctor's visit, a priest visited. He wasn't overly concerned about the illness, but decided to administer the last rites in case it worsened. The ceremony emphasized the fact that Michael could lose his wife, which distressed him even more. He talked to Dunne, who urged him to act immediately, or the "real" Bridget would be lost forever. "It is not your wife is there [sic]," the older man reminded him. "This is the eighth day, and you had a right to have gone to Ganey"—the local "fairy doctor"—"on the fifth day."

The cooper duly visited Ganey following morning. He came back with a mixture of herbs that needed to be boiled in "new milk," the nutrient-rich first milk produced by a cow after calving.

That night, Michael forced the bitter concoction down Bridget’s throat while Dunne and three male cousins pinned her down in bed. Relatives outside the house heard someone—likely Michael—shouting, "Take it, you witch, or I'll kill you!" The men threw urine at her and shook her, yelling, "Away with you; come home Bridget Boland, in the name of God!" Other relatives and neighbors came and went, witnessing her ordeal and hearing her screams, but were too scared to intervene. Michael asked his wife to answer her name three times: "Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" The men then brought her to the fireplace and held her over the grate—ordeals by fire were known to drive out the fairies—while they repeated the questioning.

By midnight Thursday night, the ritual seemed to be completed. Bridget was "wild and deranged," according to her cousin Johanna, but her husband seemed satisfied, and her relatives thought there had been some sort of catharsis. The following morning, at Michael's request, the priest said mass in Bridget's bedroom in order to banish the "evil spirits" that were left in the house.

"IT IS NOT BRIDGET I AM BURNING."

An image of fairies from fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
Fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
British Library, Europeana // Public Domain

On Friday, March 15, for the first time in 11 days, Bridget got out of bed and dressed in her usual, fashionable clothes "to give her courage when she would go among the people," as Johanna later told the magistrates. Several family members had joined them in their cottage for tea later in the day when an argument erupted. Bridget had asked for some milk, which had rekindled Michael’s suspicions; fairies are known in folklore to yearn for fresh milk.

Bridget was probably exhausted, and she didn't want to be questioned any more. "Your mother used to go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them," she told her husband. Michael was furious. He demanded that she eat three pieces of bread and jam—perhaps to reinforce his control over her—asking her to say her name again. She answered twice and ate two of the three pieces, but when she hesitated for a moment with the third, her husband flung her on the ground and threatened her: "If you won't take it, down you will go."

Michael jabbed his knee into her chest, forcing the bread and jam down Bridget's throat. He began tearing off her clothes, leaving only her chemise, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. He struck her head against the floor, then set her chemise alight. Within a few minutes, he had also poured paraffin lamp oil over her, encouraging the flames.

As her body was burning, Michael said in front of shocked relatives: "She's not my wife. She's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." Relatives yelled at Michael to put out the flames, but Bridget "blazed up all in a minute," according to their later testimony. They huddled in fear in a nearby bedroom, the flames soon barricading their way.

Once the flames had died down, Michael wrapped her body in a sheet and shoved it in an old bag. Then he left the house, locking Bridget's relatives inside with the corpse. They waited for about an hour, praying. When Michael returned, he was wielding a knife and threatened to kill Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy if he didn't help him bury Bridget's body. "Come on out here now," he shouted. "I have the hole nearly made." The two men carried the body to a boggy area about a quarter-mile uphill from the cottage, and buried it in a shallow hole. Back in the cottage, Michael made the rest of the family swear they wouldn't tell the authorities.

ON A WHITE HORSE

The following morning, an agitated Michael arrived at Drangan church with Dunne. Dunne wanted Michael to speak to a priest, but when the priest saw him kneeling in front of the altar—weeping, tearing his hair, and asking to go to confession—he thought he wasn't fit to receive the sacrament. He spoke to Dunne instead, who hadn't been at the cottage at the time of Bridget's death, but told the priest that Michael had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial," Dunne added. Bewildered, thinking them both insane, the church minister reported their conversation to a police sergeant.

For the next few days, the police searched for Bridget and questioned her friends and relatives. Even though Michael spoke about emigrating or committing suicide to escape the law, he still hoped his "real wife" would come back: For three consecutive nights starting the day after visiting the priest, he waited at the ringfort on Kylenagranagh Hill, where he believed she would appear, galloping on a white horse. He said he would only have to cut the ropes that bound her to the animal so she would be his forever.

On Wednesday, March 20, the Royal Irish Constables issued arrest warrants for eight people from Bridget's circle, as well as Denis Ganey, the "fairy doctor." Two days later, police found Bridget's body. The prisoners were brought before the magistrates on March 25, ushered in by the angry screams of a crowd who had learned of the case through extensive press coverage. On July 5, 1895, after a two-day trial, Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned, along with Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins, including Patrick Kennedy. The judge ruled out a verdict of murder, explaining they all had acted out of genuine belief.

Michael was released in 1910, after which he boarded ship for Montreal. Dunne served a three-year prison sentence before returning to the area, where he kept working as a laborer. "God knows I would never do it but for Jack Dunne," Michael had reportedly said not long after burning Bridget. "It was he who told me my wife was a fairy."

ILLNESS—OR INFIDELITY?

During her illness, Bridget was visited by her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and told her, "He [Michael]'s making a fairy of me now. He thought to burn me about three months ago." Her words suggest this wasn't the first crisis of its kind.

Although we can only speculate about the couple's disagreements, there were rumors in Ballyvadlea that Bridget had a lover. Contemporary newspapers reported Michael saying his wife "used to be meeting an egg-man on the low road" [sic], but the rumors pointed to young caretaker William Simpson, who had visited the Clearys' cottage with his wife the night before Bridget’s death. In his court testimony, Simpson explained he had arrived as the four men were restraining Bridget, and he had asked them to leave her alone.

Although Michael and the other people involved in the killing were never formally psychiatrically assessed, a 2006 article from the Irish Journal of Medical Science suggested that Michael may have been suffering from a psychotic state known as Capgras syndrome, which involves the belief that a person has been replaced by an impostor. The authors suggest Michael "may have developed a brief psychotic episode" as he struggled to deal with his wife's illness, sleep deprivation, and the recent death of his father—news of which had reached him in the middle of his attempted "cure" on Thursday night. In Capgras syndrome, the socio-cultural context of the sufferer determines the nature of the impostor, which can be another person or even a supernatural being, such as an alien or a fairy changeling.

In her discussion of the supernatural beliefs related to the case, Bourke notes that the message of fairy legends is that "the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society's rules." Bridget Cleary was ambitious, independent, and childless; a modern woman. She didn't conform to the patriarchal norm, which may have made her appear, to some in her life, as closer to the fairy realm than to their own.

Even today in Tipperary, her story hasn't been entirely forgotten. The local children have a nursery rhyme that runs: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?"

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Queen Anne of Brittany's Heart Stolen From French Museum
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

Bringing new meaning to the idea of stealing someone's heart, thieves in France made off with a 16th-century gold relic containing the once-beating organ of Anne of Brittany, the only woman to ever have been twice crowned the queen of France.

Over the weekend, burglars smashed a window of the Thomas-Dobrée museum in Nantes and lifted the six-inch case from its display, The Telegraph reports.

Anne was crowned queen when she was just 12 years old after marrying Charles VIII of France in 1491. After his death in 1498, she married Louis XII and once again ascended the throne, where she stayed until her death at age 36. Although her body was buried at the Basilica of Saint Denis, she requested that her heart be kept alongside her parents’ tomb in Brittany.

“The thieves attacked our common heritage and stole an item of inestimable value," Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, which owns the museum, told The Telegraph. "Much more than a symbol, the case containing the heart of Anne of Brittany belongs to our history.”

The gold relic was saved from being melted down after the French Revolution, and it has been kept safe at the Thomas-Dobrée museum for more than 130 years. The case contains an inscription in old French, which translates to: “In this small vessel of pure, fine gold rests the greatest heart of any woman in the world.”

This practice of burying the heart apart from the rest of the body was not entirely uncommon among European aristocrats in the Middle Ages. The hearts of both Richard I and Anne Boleyn were kept in lead boxes, and the hearts of 22 former popes are stored in marble urns at Rome's Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi church.

It's also far from the only instance of relic theft. In a slightly more bizarre case, fragments of the brain of John Bosco, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest, were contained in a reliquary at his basilica in Castelnuovo, central Italy, until they were snatched by a thief in 2017. The reliquary was ultimately recovered by police from the suspect’s kitchen cupboard.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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