Tiny Murder Scenes are the Legacy of N.H. Woman Known as 'The Mother of CSI'

Jul 11, 2015

About seventy years ago, a North Country woman was one of the earliest proponents of forensics and an  analytical approach to crime investigation best known to many from the television program CSI. 

Her approach was unusual—she created tiny dollhouses with murder scenes and used them as models to train police officers. The only model that can be seen by the public has just returned from being loaned to a museum in England and it is back on display in Bethlehem.

It is one of “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” and it was created by Frances Glessner Lee, who once lived at The Rocks, her family’s enormous estate in Bethlehem.

Can you solve the lost mystery behind Lee's nutshell? Scroll to the bottom of the story to find out - or click here to get there!

“She genuinely is the mother of CSI,” said Bruce Goldfarb, an official with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland. The office has eighteen of the nutshells and still uses them for training.

Originally there were twenty nutshell studies. One was destroyed. The last one was missing until just over a decade ago.

That’s when Clare Brown was digging through a storage area at The Rocks. There was something in a far corner – where the roof slants down so much you can’t stand upright.

"I said, "Hmmm. I wonder what that is."

Brown pulled out what looked like a doll house. But when she looked inside there wasn’t a happy, domestic scene. There was a tiny dead man on a tiny couch. Brown wasn’t sure what to make of the bizarre object.

"I didn't know - I didn't know what to think."

She took it to Nigel Manley, who manages The Rocks for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which owns the estate. He identified it.

The nutshell now on display in Bethlehem is called "Case No. 20" and described as "Sitting Room and Woodshed."
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

The Mother of CSI

The nutshell was as unique as the woman who created it. Born in 1878, Lee grew up wealthy, the only daughter of John Jacob Glessner, who made his fortune as one of the founders of International Harvester.

In the 1930s, she became intensely interested in murder.  That’s when she began a series of conversations with George Magrath, a family friend and Harvard pathologist who studied crime. 

William Tyre knows the story well.  He manages the Glessner House Museum in Chicago and says Magrath pointed out how limited forensic science was at the time.

"He shared with her on many occasions his frustration with the lack of training that state police captains and medical examiners receive. The fact that he felt many, many crimes went unsolved as a result."

So in 1945 Lee decided to hold classes in Boston for top police officials and medical examiners. But Tyre says the question was, what to use as a teaching tool?

"She jokingly indicated at one time there would typically not be a fresh crime scene available at the time of the seminars. So she had to find another way for the state police captains to be able to study crime scenes and that was when she came up with the idea for the models."

She called them “nutshells.” The idea was finding “truth in a nutshell.”

The studies were inspired by real cases but Lee made up many of the details in each tiny scene, says Tyre.

The models focused on violent death. Tiny, bloody figures. Murder. Or maybe suicide or an accident. And, the scenes had incredible details and working parts.

Lee crammed her nutshells with details. Some clues. Some distractions. Some just decorative. Details in the Bethlehem nutshell include a calendar with flippable pages, a telephone off its hook, and a tiny Life magazine.
Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

Clare Brown, who found the missing nutshell at the Rocks, also works with the Bethlehem Heritage Society.  She remembers talking to one of the local craftsmen – Alton Mosher

One day he finished a tiny rocking chair.

"He brought it to Mrs. Lee for her approval and he rocked it and she rocked it. And apparently, she had rocked the original chair in the real crime scene and it didn't rock as many times as the one in the real crime scene and he had to take it back."

The scenes were packed with details. Some were clues. Some were meant to distract. Others were just bits of everyday life.

“There is a tremendous amount of detail. You can’t take it in all at once,” says Susan Marks, whose documentary - “Of Dolls and Murder” – tells the story of the nutshells and who is working on a new documentary on Lee.

“You have to keep asking yourself what the purpose of that detail might be?”

Katherine Ramsland is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she also teaches criminal justice.

One of her favorite nutshells shows a cottage burned out in a late night fire. There’s a dead man in the room. The story is that a nephew says he was awakened by the fire and had to flee.

"A man died in it and his nephew is standing outside telling police that he just barely got out in time and wasn't able to save his uncle. But, there he is. Fully dressed. Oh, really. You had time to dress, but not get your uncle out."

A burnt cabin was the crime scene in one of Lee's nutshells. Photo courtesy of Corinne May Botz' book "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death."

Lee had answers for each nutshell mystery, a "who-really-dun-it." But they’re kept secret because the macabre little scenes are still used as a teaching tool.

Many of the nutshell victims are women, says documentary film maker Marks. And she thinks she knows why women are included so often.

“She felt police officers had too many prejudices when it came to women victims. For example, they might be prostitutes. And, she wanted people, when they were investigating these crimes to check these prejudices at the door because they might not be what you think it is.”

Invitations to Lee’s seminars became highly sought after and she reflected on her strategy in a speech to the Institute of Medicine of Chicago.

“Perhaps you would like to know – and I would like to tell you – a little about what I have been trying to accomplish in these last twenty years. In that time the medical, chemical and toxicological sciences have taken giant strides forward, but it appeared to me that all the knowledge and skills they had accumulated were not being put to all possible practical uses, especially along the lines of the detection of crime.”

Was the woman hanging in the attic a suicide or murder victim? Photo courtesy of Corinne May Botz' book "The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death."

The police officers and medical examiners met with Lee for a week. They sat around a long table and Lee noted,“The greatest informality prevails – indeed. I supply them with cigarettes and in the event of a very hot day they are permitted to take off their coats.”

Halfway through the week Lee took them all to dinner at the Ritz-Carlton noting “I do all in my power to make it handsome.”

“We know that the banquets typically cost around $3,000 and they were served on china that was specifically made for those events and kept at the Ritz-Carlton where the annual banquets were,” says Glessner House curator Tyre.

That would be about $40,000 today.

But it wasn’t just money that made Lee such a force in the medical and police communities, in which she held honorary ranks including captain in the New Hampshire State Police.

It was her personality, says Corinne May Botz, who wrote a history and in-depth photographic study of the nutshells.

“She was a power house. She was intimidating,” Botz says. “I think initially creating the dioramas was seen as peculiar or she was considered eccentric. But people, they came around. Her family, policemen, medical colleagues. They recognized them as being amazing and her intentions as serious.”

A Murderous Legacy

Lee died in 1962.  She commissioned twenty nutshell studies.  We know Number 19 was destroyed.

Eighteen are at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where they’re still used to train officers.  But they’re not on public display.

That means the only nutshell that can be seen by the public is the one now kept at Bethlehem’s Heritage Society. It's on long-term loan from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which owns The Rocks estate.

The Bethlehem nutshell shows a tiny man identified as Eugene Black, “town drunkard” dead on a couch. Next to him is a bottle of whiskey. The clues provided by Lee say the setting is a “sitting room and woodshed.”

The nutshell on display in Bethlehem shows a dead man on a couch. Did he really die because he was an alcoholic? The answer has been lost. Do you see clues that hold the answer to Lee's mystery? Send an email to cjensen@nhpr.org. Complete clues and more photos are at the bottom of this story.

A boarder says he found Black passed out on the couch with a .22 caliber rifle next to him. Knowing Black was “dangerous when drunk” he moved the rifle to the shed where it was usually kept.

His daughter says she was upstairs, listening to a radio. The program was a western with lots of shooting. She later heard moans and went downstairs to find her father dying.

The medical examiner made a “brief and hasty” examination and declared “acute alcoholism” as the cause. But what remains missing is the solution to the crime. It’s been lost.

The Heritage Society shares a building at 2182 Main Street with the visitor's center. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. On Sunday it is open from 12:30 to 4 p.m.

Can You Solve This Whodunit?

Click through the photo gallery and read the clues below to see if you can unravel the mystery of nutshell number 20. Think you have it figured out? Let us know by sending us an email.

Want to read submissions sent in by other listener-sleuths? We're posting them here. 

Photos by Chris Jensen for NHPR

The Clues:

Here are the written clues about nutshell number 20 called “Sitting Room and Woodshed” that was “reported to the Nutshell Laboratories, October 25, 1947.”

The People:

  • Eugene Black, town drunkard. Dead.
  • Winifred Black, his daughter. Questioned.
  • David Jackson, roomer in Black’s house. Questioned.

Jackson’s statement:

He had a large room over the woodshed. Coming home about 8 o’clock on Friday October 24 he found Gene Black lying on the couch in the sitting room, very drunk and apparently asleep. On the floor beside him was an uncorked bottle of whiskey and also Gene’s .22 rifle, which usually hung on two spikes on the woodshed wall. Knowing that Gene was dangerous when drunk Jackson, deeming it unsafe for him to have a gun so handy, took the .22 and replaced it in its accustomed place – the shed. He then went up to his room, read a while and then went to bed.

Winifred’s statement:

Her mother was a bedridden invalid who never came downstairs. Winifred did all the work of the house and took care of her mother. She also had a job as clerk in the local 5 & 10. This was necessary as her father had no job and couldn’t get one because of drink.

On the evening of October 24 she and her father had finished supper and he had gone out again. She was upstairs with her mother and they had the radio going, tuned in to a western with lots of shooting. About 9 o’clock they turned off the radio and about a half  hour later were startled to hear groans, apparently downstairs.

Winnie went down and found her father on the couch, evidently dying. She at once telephoned Dr. James Monroe, the family doctor, who happened also to be the deputy medical investigator. Upon his arrival he made a brief and hasty examination of Black, who was dead by this time and ordered the body taken to Coffin & Graves Funeral Parlors. At the same time Dr. Monroe signed the death certificate, giving as cause of death “acute alcoholism.”