Lots of people who are born rich spend their lives laying about, wasting their time, perhaps inventing the speedball, like Harry Kendall Thaw (this whole entry is really worth reading), the heir to a railroad and coal fortune. Not so with Frances Glessner Lee. Mrs. Lee, called Fanny by her friends, was born extremely rich, the heir of the International Harvester machine company. She dedicated her time and fortune to studying criminology, however, which is pretty much the opposite of inventing the speedball.
Fanny’s favorite pastime was creating miniatures, so much so that she had a full-time carpenter to build houses and rooms to her specification for her dolls. After she caught the criminology bug, she used her skills to create little scenes of death. Mrs. Glessner created about 20 miniatures that she called her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death and they were exquisite in their detail and gore. In some people are hanged. In one particularly ghastly one, an entire family, including the baby, have been shot to death. In another a woman has died from exposure to gas fumes from her kitchen oven.
In each of these dioramas, these bird’s-eye views of scenes of death, Mrs. Glessner has left behind a number of vital clues. And while they may be compiled into some obvious solutions for the mysteries of how these people died, they are accurate only so far as the viewer believes them to be. Mrs. Glessner cobbled these scenes together based on accounts by cops, morgue workers and newspaper stories of several cases and she never intended them to be solved, only to teach the police how to better search for clues that they may have otherwise missed.
There’s a great documentary on Fanny Glessner called Of Dolls and Murder and it’s narrated, strangely appropriately, by John Waters. It’s worth watching. Here’s a YouTube clip of a PBS story on the documentary – all embedded in a blog post!: