A dollhouse created by Frances Glessner Lee exhibited at the Renwick Gallery in Washington on January 18, 2018
From DNA analysis to studies of blood projections, we know the sophisticated tools of the American scientific police. We know less, however, that its experts are still formed with doll houses built in the 1940s, by a woman passionate about murder cases.
More than half a century after her death, Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) received a deserved tribute to Washington under the auspices of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution.
The three-dimensional works of this pioneer of criminal investigations have been the subject of an exhibition in recent weeks at the Renwick Gallery, opposite the White House.
The audience has crowded with a host of questions: is it art? Model making? A morbid deviance? But everyone agrees on one point: Ms. Lee’s detail work is extraordinary.
Originally from Chicago, she made from the age of 65, reproductions of theaters of various facts, each barely bigger than a shoebox, where the concern for realism is striking.
With pieces of wood or fabric, the artist reconstructs the interior of a kitchen where the corpse of a housewife, a hovel devoured by the flames, or a bed room contaminated with hemoglobin, the occupant of which appears. perished by firearm.
Each miniature accessory wants to be as faithful as possible, being likely to be a piece of evidence.
Before each of these „dioramas“, whose solution is not given, the spectator is called to decide: is it a natural death, accidental suicide or homicide?
In the „Pink Bathroom“, Ms. Lee reproduced the exact scene that was discovered on March 30, 1942 Samuel Weiss, a building janitor alerted by tenants disturbed by the stench emanating from the apartment of Rose Fishman.
– Strangled … or hung? –
When Mr. Weiss enters the house of this widow, whose mail is piled up in the mailbox, the bathroom door is closed from the inside. The concierge goes through the fire escape stairs attached to the facade.
He finds Mrs Fishman lying near the bathtub, in a dressing gown, a rope cut around her neck, her face cyanotic. Did she want to hang herself? Was she strangled by an attacker coming in through the window? To the viewer to judge.
Frances Lee patiently crafted her „Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death“ to teach Harvard forensic science students how to rake the scene of a potential crime at a time when forensic science was in its infancy.
Created in the 1940s and 1950s, these miniatures, which are inspected with an electric torch, are still used to train the scoundrels of the Baltimore Forensic Science.
Amazing fate as that of Frances Glessner Lee, from an affluent background and forced to marry at 19, she would have wanted to satisfy his curiosity with higher education.
Passionate about murder and the mysteries, but condemned to live a life of mother of the good society, she felt the frustration accumulate, in spite of the relation of equality that she woven with George Burgess Magrath, an eminent medical examiner.
– Sherlock with bun –
„Frances Glessner Lee was generous, progressive, persevering, stubborn and innovative.“ Sherlock Holmes enthusiast and newsmaker, she followed her instinct rather than what society and her father felt was appropriate, „says Professor Katherine. Ramsland, forensic expert.
It was only having divorced and inherited the family fortune, in 1936 that Mrs. Lee was able to impose herself in this exclusively male universe, which nevertheless knew how to recognize its value.
In some archival photographs, she is seen enthroned in the midst of thirty policemen, her hair gathered in a bun and her face stern.
„She created a path for women, becoming the first female guest at the founding meetings of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the first woman invited by the International Association of Chiefs of Police,“ Ramsland recalls.
„As she had the ability to teach observation, deduction, and re-enactment skills, Ms. Lee sensitized thousands of investigators, lawyers, and journalists to criminal details they might have overlooked.“