The Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee
On the Spot
Oswald writes that, by 1949, some 2,000 doctors and 4,000 lawyers had been educated at the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine. In addition, there had been "several thousand state troopers, city detectives, coroners and district attorneys of all states of the Union, plus insurance men and newspaper reporters" who had attended the week-long seminars put on twice a year. Lee, whose money paid for these educational sessions, would be the only woman in attendance, and once the Nutshells became part of the seminars, one day of each week was set aside to showcase them, with the new ones added each year. They were placed in a temperature-controlled room and officers were given a limited amount of time to take notes of what they observed and report back to the others. The point was not to "solve" the crimes but to notice the important evidence that would make a difference in the investigative decisions.
In a written instruction, Lee urged those preparing to observe a scene to imagine themselves as less than half a foot tall. She also advised that they adopt a geometric search pattern, such as a clockwise spiral, to accomplish a methodical examination. They must look at the entire scene, searching for clues that might not be obvious, such as a bullet caught in a ceiling, a pattern of blood that undermined an obvious theory, a weapon in an odd position, or evidence of behaviors that would point away from a determination of suicide.
Lee would pen a few spare descriptions to assist, such as the one Oswald reports about a crime that "occurred" on April 12, 1944. "Mrs. Fred Barnes, housewife, dead." Lee would provide a bit of background and assure observers that all the clues were evident. They were then on their own to attempt a reconstruction.
In the scene, she had included items that weren't clear at a glance, such as an item under the bed or a smudge of lipstick on a pillow slip, but when these were revealed, they would help to alert detectives and police officers to the need to look for subtle clues. What appears to be a suicide, for example, may change when a key item is noted a fresh-baked cake, a load of freshly-laundered clothing, an ice cube tray beside the body (what woman does all that when she plans to end her life?). Other scenarios included a bound prostitute with a sliced throat, a man hanging in a wooden cabin, a boy dead on a street, and an apparent murder/suicide. Detectives were forced to look at these models as carefully as they would an actual crime scene.
As part of the seminar, Lee always put on a magnificent dinner at the Ritz Carlton, on expensive china that she had purchased, which was used exclusively for this occasion. Those in attendance often had never experienced such luxury and they came to appreciate this woman to whom many referred as "Mother."
Oswald writes that a state trooper told Lee that the Nutshell Studies had helped him to learn how to handle difficult cases. If not for the challenge she had put to him, and the surprises that he'd experienced upon learning about clues he had missed, he might not have been as careful as he'd become. For her, such reports made the endeavor and the $60,000-plus that she had spent on the projects worthwhile.
Once these seminars proved a success, others were organized in other states. On the anniversary of the first one in 1946, graduates came back together to form the Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS), and each graduate thereafter become a member. Lee assured them that she intended to be involved until the day she died.
When her eyesight failed, her doctors forbid her from working, so she had a radio installed in her room to listen to the police reports. But with the poor reception in the White Mountains, she was able to hear only the reports from the Virginia State Police. She wrote encouraging letters, and the chief invited her to Virginia. There she pleaded for support for medico-legal education, and reform soon followed. At that time Lee estimated that it would take her until about 1960 to bring the rest of the country into line with medical examiner systems. She died in 1962 without realizing her vision, but nevertheless left a lasting legacy.
The Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard closed in 1966, and thanks to a professor there, Dr. Russell Fisher, the Nutshells were moved to the Office of the Medical Examiner in Baltimore, MD. In 1992, a grant was offered so they could be restored.
Since it may be difficult or impossible for many interested parties to view them, one can do the next best thing, which is to view them in the book of photographs produced by Corinne May Botz.