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Rocks Estate relic headed to Smithsonian for exhibit

The deceased subject of Lee's nutshell Case No. 20, located about a dozen years ago in a storage area at the Rocks Estate in Bethlehem. (Photo by Chris Jensen — Courtesy of The Rocks Estate) (click for larger version)
April 19, 2017
BETHLEHEM — At first glance, one might determine the miniature, ornately decorated room to be a child's plaything from long ago. But it would only take a moment of peering closely to realize that this was not a toy for gleeful children to unwrap on Christmas morning.

That's because the dolls were obviously, convincingly rendered, dead.

A toppled lamp, a one-inch-long rolling pin next to a floured cutting board, curtains adorned with miniscule riff-raff, an open refrigerator with a marble sized head of lettuce on the shelf. Magazines the size of a postage stamp. Impossibly small bottles with hand painted labels. Functioning doors, windows and lights.

Items such as these were the components of Frances Glessner Lee's Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death — dioramas of murder scenes designed as training tools for crime scene investigators. They were created at her workshop at the Rock's Estate in Bethlehem throughout the 1940's and 1950's.

Clare Brown, an employee of the Rock's Estate, didn't know what had caught her eye in the corner of a storage room that day about a dozen years ago.

When she removed the object, a tiny living room with a wood stove, furniture, telephone, framed pictures on the wall, and a dead man on the couch lying next to an overturned bottle of whiskey, she was baffled.

Brown brought the item to the Rock's Estate Manager, Nigel Manley, who knew exactly what they were looking at; one of Lee's "Nutshells."

Born in Chicago in 1878, Lee was the daughter of industrialist John Jacob Glessner, who became wealthy as co-founder of International Harvester.

She began summering in Bethlehem with her family as a child when her father's physician suggested he may find some relief from his severe hay fever allergy in the crisp mountain air.

The family continued to make Bethlehem their summer destination, and after the death of their parents, both Lee and her brother became permanent residents.

Lee had been forbidden to attend college by her father, but had developed a keen interest in murder, which she enjoyed discussing at length with family friend George Magrath, who was studying medicine at Harvard and was particularly interested in death investigation.

Magrath went on to become a professor of medicine and pathology at Harvard, but it would be many years before Lee would be able to pursue her own interest in forensic investigation as an heiress to her father's fortune in her 50's.

In 1936, Lee founded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. Six years later she was made a captain of the New Hampshire State Police, and in 1945, Harvard installed the first of Lee's models and she began delivering biannual, weeklong seminars that used them as training tools.

Invitations to Lee's seminars were highly sought after. Participants were allowed 90 minutes to examine a nutshell using only tools that would be used at the actual crime scene. The week culminated in a lavish banquet at the Ritz Carlton.

With astonishing attention to detail, Lee eventually built 20 Nutshells at the Rocks Estate, employing the carpentry skills of Ralph Mosher and his son Alton. Lee sewed, painted and whittled other objects with lifelike detail to construct the macabre settings, which she reconstructed from real crime scene photographs, sketches and statements from police and witnesses.

After Lee's death in 1962, the endowment for the Harvard program stopped and their forensics program ended with it. The Nutshells came into the possession of Professor Russell Fisher who took them with him to his new job as Maryland's Chief Medical Examiner.

Fisher continued to use them in teaching seminars and they were eventually installed permanently at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Unavailable for public viewing, they have continued to be used as teaching tools over the years.

Lee became widely regarded as "The Mother of Forensic Science" and has been said to be the inspiration for the character Angela Lansbury of "Murder, She Wrote."

Of the 20 dioramas Lee built, one was destroyed and the missing nutshell was located by Brown at the Rock's Estate. Owner of The Rocks, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, loaned it to the Bethlehem Heritage Society, where it has been the only nutshell available for public viewing.

But soon, it will be reunited with the other 18 nutshells for exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery.

As stated on the museum's Web site, "'Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death' is the first public display of the complete series of nineteen studies still known to exist, reuniting eighteen pieces on loan from the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office with the 'lost nutshell' on loan to the museum from the Bethlehem Heritage Foundation for the first time since 1966."

The nutshells will be on exhibit from Oct. 20 to Jan. 28.

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