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Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

2012 April 23

As I shifted about on my wooden chair in the makeshift cinema at the Horse Hospital to watch Susan Marks’ documentary Of Dolls and Murder, I wasn’t expecting to find material for a BadRep post. While I was pretty certain it was going to flick my ‘uncanny’ and ‘macabre’ switches (it did), I wasn’t expecting much on the feminist front. But this absorbing, gruesome documentary is a tribute to the remarkable woman who created the mysterious ‘Nutshells’.

The ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ are intricately designed dioramas on a 1 inch to 1 foot scale. Each detailed dollhouse from hell represents a crime scene composite of several real-life court cases. They were created in the 1930s to help train police in the art of forensic investigation by Frances Glessner Lee, a millionaire heiress who seems to have been more interested in forensic science than ladylike accomplishments and society balls. She used her inheritance to found Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine, and was awarded the honorary title Captain of the New Hampshire State Police.

In an article for Harvard Magazine, Laura J Miller explores Glessner’s background:

“Fanny” was a sheltered and indulged child, raised in a household that epitomized the aesthetic and moral ideals of nineteenth-century domesticity… Architecturally, the house embodied a cherished conceptual divide of the period: between the distinctly masculine public realm and the private, feminine, interior. Fanny and her brother were educated at home. He went on to Harvard; she married a young attorney, Blewett Lee, at 19. The couple had three children and at first appeared happy, but Glessner Lee eventually received a divorce. Their son attributed the failed marriage partly to her “creative urge coupled with high manual dexterity – the desire to make things – which [Lee] did not share.”

This manual dexterity was extraordinary – Glessner reputedly used sewing needles to knit stockings for some of the figures in her ghoulish scenes – and her attention to detail endlessly impressive: she even attended autopsies to ensure the dolls she was creating were accurate. As Miller explains:

Although the crimes depicted in the Nutshells were composites of actual cases, the character and decoration of the dioramas’ interiors were Glessner Lee’s invention. Many display a tawdry, middle-class décor, or show the marginal spaces society’s disenfranchised might inhabit – seedy rooms, boarding houses – far from the surroundings of her own childhood. She 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.

Frances Glessner Lee at her worktable with paints and modelsThis is a theme which emerges in Susan Marks’ documentary too. One of the things that makes the Nutshells so disturbing but also so fascinating is the domesticity of the scenes. The flowery curtains, the cans of soup on a kitchen shelf…

Something the film’s contributors repeatedly mention is the way that Glessner Lee was able to document the extreme violence wrought mostly on women, and mostly in their homes: that notorious private, feminine sphere – ‘where they should have been safe’ – without sentimentality or any attempt to turn away from the truth. With their chintzy, bloody record of domestic violence and prostitution, the Nutshells recognised that the home is not always safe, especially for women.

Frances Glessner Lee managed to achieve professional recognition and high esteem for her supremely unladylike interest in death, crime, medicine and the law, and it tickles me to think that one way she did this was by turning such a traditionally feminine and often trivialised skill as doll-making and decoration to such a dark and ultimately noble end.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012

    Sarah –
    Thanks so much for writing about Frances Glessner Lee and my film, Of Dolls & Murder. It’s interesting to note that female feminists, aside from you, have completely ignored my film. (At least so far). Men, on the other hand, absolutely love it. I’m sure many of those men who engage me in deep conversation about Frances Glessner Lee would also consider themselves feminists.

    All my art and writing is about strong women who are ahead of their time, yet this seems to be absolutely lost on my female peers. Not that I’m whining, per say. It’s wonderful that so many men are moved by Frances Glessner Lee’s story and want the world to know about her.

    Thank you, again, Sarah.

    • Sarah J permalink*
      April 26, 2012

      Hi Susan – thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment! I loved your film, but I must admit it wasn’t quite what I expected. Not just the feminist thread running through it but also because it was more thoughtful and reflective than I thought it was going to be, almost philosophical. I guess I was expecting something a bit more schlocky, but was very pleasantly surprised. Did you have much control over the marketing? I wonder if maybe some feminists just missed the film altogether? I was very glad I didn’t miss it anyway :-)

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