Murder in Miniature

Before 'CSI,' before high-tech forensics, an amateur criminologist crafted tiny crime scenes that police still use and that now are on exhibit.

October 14, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

An elderly woman hangs from a clothesline tied to the rafters of her attic. A prostitute lies crumpled in her bedroom closet, stabbed to death. A cheating husband, shot through the chest, is sprawled on the floor of the mountain cabin where he had gone to meet his lover.

Gruesome scenarios for dollhouses, maybe. But then Frances Glessner Lee was no Barbie. To the contrary, she was a heavyset, dour-looking, middle-aged Chicago heiress - fascinated with forensics and certifiably obsessive when it came to the intricate miniature death scenes she constructed.

Long before the kind of high-tech forensic science depicted in CSI and other TV shows, there was Lee, the bespectacled, fastidious, divorced mother of three who put the "die" in diorama. Her little dollhouses of death have been used to train thousands of police officers for more than half a century - first at her estate in New Hampshire, later at Harvard University, now in the offices of the state medical examiner in Baltimore.

It was there, on the third floor of that generic-looking building on Penn Street, that a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art got her first glance at what Lee called her "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death."

And thus, 42 years after her demise, was Lee's obsession reborn - in the person of Corrine May Botz.

"I went in there thinking I would just take a few pictures and leave," said Botz, who had been photographing dollhouses for a class project.

Instead, Botz spent seven years researching and taking photos of the Nutshell Studies, captivated not just by their artistry and detail, not just by the way they combined the savage with the serene, all within the confines of a child's toy, but by the mind behind them.

Botz, now 27, became a fixture at the medical examiner's office, spending entire days in the normally locked, glassed-in room where the collection is kept, taking photographs from every conceivable angle.

One office administrator, Botz recalls, commented that - in the time she was spending taking pictures - "I could have been married and had five children."

After her graduation from MICA in 1999, Botz hit the road, visiting Lee's family homes and interviewing people who had known her, including eight of her grandchildren and the carpenter who assisted her.

Now working on her master's degree at Bard College in upstate New York, Botz admits she may have become as compulsive as the woman she was researching.

"I have a tendency to be pretty obsessive when I'm researching," she said. "I become totally consumed."

The result of her obsession is The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a book of photographs of the dollhouse crime scenes, along with an essay on Lee by Botz.

In conjunction with the book's release, an exhibit of Botz's photos is opening today at the Bellwether Gallery in Manhattan. In the 25-photo exhibit, some of what Lee shrunk into miniature is blown back up to life-sized proportions, or more.

In the photos, one can see clearly how meticulous Lee was in her work - all done on a scale of 1 inch equaling 1 foot - from placing dates on the postage-stamp-sized wall calendars, to the labels on the inch-tall liquor bottles.

Her quest for realism included putting the word PHILCO on a tiny radio, applying wallpaper in realistically sized strips, and printing actual newspaper front pages from shrunk down versions of the original plates. She was not without imagination, either: for an egg beater, she used a gold jewelry charm, spray painted silver; for a trapped mouse, a pussy willow blossom.

Instant attraction

From the first time she saw the models, Botz was entranced, haunted even.

"The scenes are sweet, nostalgic and very American - pin-up girls, a copy of Life magazine, milk delivered to the backdoor, clothes hanging out to dry," she said. "But of course they represent ruined lives and the homes are all under siege, and this was something that also interested me very much."

Indeed, gazing at the Nutshells is at once fascinating and eerie, calming and disturbing - sort of Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates.

But the most common reaction to them is amazement, says Jerry Dziecihowicz, chief administrator for the medical examiner's office, where, twice a year law enforcement officers from around the country attend a weeklong seminar sponsored by the Harvard Associates in Police Science, an organization Lee created in 1946.

In the seminars, officers study individual dioramas, and the minute clues each holds, to determine whether the deaths they depict are homicides, suicides or accidental.

The studies aren't exhibited to the general public. "You can't just walk in off the street and see them." Dziecihowicz said. "This isn't a museum."

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