Frances Glessner Lee grew up in the Gilded Age as the heiress to a fortune made in industrial farm equipment. Her childhood was “sheltered and indulged.” She would marry at age 20, have three children, and then, in a turn against convention, divorce her husband.
It was in her 40s—free of a husband and then free of a brother and father who both died, leaving her a vast fortune—that Lee embarked on the project that would consume the rest of her life. She had become enthralled by the grisly crime stories of George Burgess Magrath, her brother’s friend and a medical examiner in Boston. And so Lee began pouring her family fortune into a project that combined the very unladylike world of crime with the domestic arts: the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
The nutshells are dioramas, based on actual death scenes that Lee painstakingly researched. (“Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell” went a police saying at the time.) Lee finished 20 nutshells before her death in 1962. Eighteen are still used today by Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to train detectives to look for clues, one was destroyed in transit, and the last “lost” nutshell has been recovered from an attic and restored for an upcoming exhibit of Lee’s work at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Lee was fastidious—to the point of obsession. In one nutshell titled “Saloon and Jail,” a man lies facedown in the street. Debris is strewn on the pavement: miniature cigarettes (hand-rolled and filled with paper), a banana peel (painted leather), scraps of paper with visible faces. A storefront in the background displays newspapers and magazines with real covers from the date of the man’s death. A bucket of tiny, colorful lollipops sits under the magazines, each piece of candy individually wrapped in cellophane.