Deadly dollhouses present miniature crime scenes

Dollhouses aren’t just for happy wannabe homemakers.

A new Twin Cities-made documentary called “Of Dolls and Murder” reveals how important one particular set of dollhouses has been to solving untimely deaths in the U.S. for 70 years.


Detail from a nutshell crime scene

Image courtesy ‘Of Dolls and Murder’

MPR’s Euan Kerr spoke with director Susan Marks, who said she knew she had to make a film about the dioramas the first time she heard about them.

“Well, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death were created by a woman called Frances Glessner Lee who was this wealthy heiress to the International Harvester fortune, who had a life-long interest in crime, and the pursuit of justice, really.”

This was back in the 1930s, when forensics was known as police science. Lee was one of the few women involved in the detective business, but she taught at Harvard.

Marks said Lee realized homicide detectives needed careful training in looking for clues at crime scenes. Over a number of years Lee painstakingly hand-built 20 of the nutshells. Each is based on a real crime and is accurate down to the tiniest of details. Susan Marks said the dioramas are very low tech.

“And yet they are still used today,” she said. “Because no matter how advanced our technology becomes in the realm of forensics, it still all goes back to the investigative skills of what people are observing.”

Marks and her crew got to film The Nutshells at their new home in Baltimore. They also filmed some of the detectives who come from all over the country to train by poring over the miniature scenes of murder.

You can hear more about how the dollhouses help detective work, and about the documentary, by clicking on the audio link below:

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