Most of us, if not all of us, probably have a teeny tiny fantasy about solving crimes. We watch crime shows and documentaries and wish we could place ourselves in the scene. We have daydreams of standing over a corpse, with our cute little badges, brow furrowed as we try to figure out the how and why of what happened.
But, unless we’re planning to join the police academy and work our way up the ranks, we’ll probably never get the chance to cross the police tape.
In the meantime, however, we might have an opportunity in Frances Glessner Lee’s famous dollhouses. You may have heard of her before.
So, ever solved a dollhouse murder? Here, take a look:
Need some help? Here are some details:
Date: November 1896
Deceased: Maggie Wilson
Witness: Lizzie Miller, neighbor
Statement: “I roomed in the same house as Maggie Wilson, but knew her only from when we met in the hall. I think she had ‘fits.’ A couple of male friends came to see her fairly regularly.”
“On Sunday night, the men were there and there was a lot of drinking going on. Some time after the men left, I heard the water running in the bathroom. I opened the door and found her as you see her.”
What do you see? Ms. Wilson is dead in the rub in a small, dark bathroom. The water is running over her face and her legs are splayed over the side of the tub. What happened? Do you notice anything?
How about the bottles on the floor? Why are they knocked over? Is there anything in the sink? Maybe she washed herself off, or maybe her killer did. How about the position of her legs? Do they look natural? And what about the cause of death? Was it an accident? Or was she murdered?
Was there an incident involving her gentlemen suitors? Was her neighbor Ms. Miller more involved than she lead on? Or was it just an accident?
Here’s another one:
Date: June 29, 1944
Deceased: Marie Jones, prostitute
Witness #1: Mrs. Shirley Flanagan, landlord
Statement: “That morning, I passed the open door of Marie’s room and called out ‘hello.’ She didn’t answer, so I looked in and found the room as you see it. Jim Green, her boyfriend and client, came in with Marie the afternoon before. I don’t know when he left. I found her body and called the police.”
Witness #2: Mr. Jim Green, boyfriend, client
Statement: “I met Marie on the sidewalk the afternoon of June 28, and walked her to a nearby package store where she bought two bottles of whiskey. We went to her room and sat smoking and drinking for a while. Marie sat in the big chair and got very drunk. Suddenly, without any warning, she grabbed my open jackknife — I used it to cut the string on the bottles — and ran into the closet and shut the door. When I opened the door, she was lying there just like that. I left immediately.”
Seems pretty open and shut, right? Take a closer look:
Ms. Jones is dead in the closet of her small room. Her throat has been cut and her head is lying on a cardboard box. A bloody knife is by her right hand. What do you notice?
Her dresser drawers are strewn open, perhaps in a rushed attempt to pack. Makes you wonder what’s inside the suitcase by the body.
Are those bangles on her wrists? Or was she bound? Does that look like a natural position to fall in if you’ve cut your own throat? Is the wound consistent with self-infliction?
What about the other room? Notice anything?
There are bottles of whiskey on the floor, one is knocked over. There’s a rag nearby that looks like it might be covered in blood. Is that a box of candy on the floor? The yellow box, by the bottles. Did she eat any?
If you’re hoping to find an answer to this crime, or any of Glessner Lee’s dollhouse scenes, you’re going to be out of luck. There is no solution to any of these scenarios. They’re not designed to be solved. They’re designed to be studied.
The dioramas are so meticulous that you can’t help but analyze every minute detail. It’s infectious.
Glessner Lee’s dioramas were created to train officers to more scientifically search for the truth. While there isn’t a written solution to these scenes, every element, every detail challenges its observers to put together the pieces in front of them and attempt to solve the mystery. They’re so effective that they’re still used today in training seminars at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
If you’d like to see any of these morbid dollhouses in person, they are currently on exhibition at the Renwick Gallery at The Smithsonian until January 28, 2018.
Here’s your opportunity to feel like a detective.