Category Archives: History

An Absurdly Brief Look at the History and Economics of The Bahamas

The Bahamas are a cultural and economic crossroads and have been for centuries. It is one of many places Christopher Columbus is given credit for “discovering,” ignoring millennia of native history and culture. The indigenous Lucayans were largely wiped out by European invaders. The islands were claimed for Spain but were later ceded to Britain in 1783 in exchange for East Florida. On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom.

Nassau, on New Providence Island, was established as a commercial port in 1670. The island is approximately 80 square miles, 21 miles long at its widest point. For centuries it was a hub for pirates, slave traders, and British and other European colonists. With the southern blockade during the American Civil War, British merchants used the Bahamas as a trading post for cotton. The Bahamas also benefited from the US’s prohibition on alcohol.

About 85% of the Bahamian population is descended from slaves, mostly African, brought or escaping to the islands. Many were freed when Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, some were brought to the islands by British loyalists who left America after the American Revolution, and others escaped the US to gain freedom. About 70% of the population of the Bahamas lives on New Providence Island (approx. 250K people). Of the 6.2 million people who visit the Bahamas annually, well more than half visit the nation’s capital, Nassau.

The Bahamas is among the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean. Due of the lack of abundant natural resources, the Bahamas has long depended on location and outsiders to fuel the economy, essentially importing tourists along with many other commodities. While the Bahamian dollar is tied to the US dollar for exchange rates, most food and other goods are imported resulting in increased retail costs. (On average, I’d say we spent about 35% more on the grocery items we purchased, especially pre-packaged foods.) Currently, tourism accounts for about 45% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about half of the working population. Banking is the other major industry. The GDP per capita in the Bahamas in 2010 was $24,312. In 2016, it was down to $20,568, which is a sizable decline, showing the ongoing effects of the world economic downturn that started in 2007.

The Hotel and Steam Ship Service Act of 1898 launched the Bahamas tourism industry. After Cuba was closed to American tourists, there was an additional increase of tourism. In 1959, work began to transform Hog Island, once owned by Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren, a wealthy a Swedish entrepreneur, into Paradise Island. The bulk of tourists either see Nassau from the cruise ship dock or from one of the many hotels and resorts on Paradise Island. Approximately 3.6 million people visited New Providence in 2016, with over 70% arriving via cruise ship. The remaining one million arrive by air and most stay at the Paradise Island resorts.

We spent the week exploring as much of the island as possible. There are sections so manicured and veneered to impress tourists that you’d expect to see Mr. Roarke standing outside waiting to greet them in his white suit. We drove through other sections where a hand-to-mouth existence was evident. We passed gates where the 1% of the 1% vacation, and others where the only thing left of the house was a gate hanging askew on the hinges. We saw past hurricane damage and areas obviously hit by the recession. We visited Adelaide Village, where 157 freed African slaves settled the area in 1831. We drove past refineries belching a chemical stink on the east end of the island. These places are all part of New Providence Island. At times it felt like guidebooks, and even locals, wanted to pretend that areas outside of Nassau didn’t exist to outsiders. There was a sharp contrast in the quality of the roads that lead away from the airport and those on the fringes.

In 2012, tourists brought approximately $2.3 billion into the Bahamian economy. The bulk of visitors report wanting to go to the beach, relax, snorkel, dive, and tour the islands. It is also worth noting that some of the primary environmental concerns include coral reef decay, waste disposal, and water pollution, all of which are negatively impacted by tourism. On the other hand, some of the tourist activities teach visitors about endemic endangered animals and respect for the reefs and oceans, so nothing is black and white.

It is also worth noting the climate’s influence on culture. It is hot, it rains regularly, temperatures only fluctuate about 10 degrees each day, and for half of the year, there is the threat of hurricanes. It is easy to mistake the stereotypical laid-back island persona as a result of living in paradise. It may instead be a result of accepting life as it comes, including the predictably unpredictable weather and knowing it is too fucking hot to get worked up over nothing. Understanding that problems occur. Pragmatic fatalism? All I know is that it is an attitude I can get behind and it forces me to realize I often get stressed over meaningless bullshit. That laid-back persona is also a way for locals to test attitudes. Underestimating other people is a fool’s game, but I saw it happen, so I get why people are guarded.

The majority of the people we interacted with were in some way dependent on tourism for their livelihood. It creates an odd socioeconomic dynamic. You see the same love-hate at shore towns in the states overrun by wealthy outsiders three months out of the year. We recognized the economy for what it is and did what we could to stay, eat, and shop locally, and tried not to be assholes. While the resorts most definitely provide jobs, the owners are foreign investors and some of that money leaves the islands. We also made additional efforts to tip, figuring that if we could afford to be there we could likewise afford to tip appropriately; that money goes straight into the local economy.

When we visited Grand Bahama Island in 2004 I knew little about the history and culture of the Bahamas. This time I paid more attention. I thought about the duality of how the Bahamas are perceived by outsiders and had just a glimpse of the other side thanks to locals who took the time to talk with us. Traveling with blinders may be appealing, but ultimately you don’t learn about place. Explore a little, meet locals, read – there will still be time for Bahama Mamas and snorkel charters.

Up next, we start exploring the island and introduce you to Orange Hill Beach and the Orange Hill Beach Inn.

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Indian Key

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View from the tower on Indian Key

With the prospect of a three- to four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, flying directly to the southernmost point in the US offers a convenient, if costly, option for those travelers on tight schedules. But the balmy, flat, and winding 110 miles of the Overseas Highway that run from the Florida mainland to the bottom of US-1 will yield wild and weird corners for those able (or willing) to take the time.

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Paddling up to Indian Key

From the geological wonders of Devil’s Milhopper to the picturesque sands of Bahia Honda, Florida has a varied and truly amazing state park system. One of its most distinctive parks is also one all too easily overlooked on a drive through the Keys. Located a half-mile, ocean-side, off Islamorada lies the lush but unassuming Indian Key Historic State Park. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited 11-acre island was, two centuries ago, the original county seat for Dade County.

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The old streets are still evident.

But that simple historical fact doesn’t begin to belie the tranquil key’s colorful and, at times, lurid history. From here, Jacob Housman built a formidable “wrecking” business in the early 19th century, salvaging valuable cargoes from ships that met their ends on the treacherous reefs in the surrounding waters. In 1838, the Philadelphia botanist Dr. Henry Perrine moved to the island, bringing with him a host of non-indigenous flora, including agave (used in the manufacturing of sisal), tamarind, and large yucca plants. By the close of that decade, the island boasted a population of about 60, and even a nationally advertised resort hotel. Later, Henry Flagler would use the key as a base for dredging operations during the construction of his Overseas Railroad.

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Cochineal insects – the red dye carmine is made from them

But Indian Key’s golden heyday drew its last breaths in the wee hours of August 7, 1840, when an invasion force of more than 130 Spanish-speaking Seminoles descended upon the island from nearby Lower Matecumbe Key. Twelve hours later, six people were dead (including Perrine) and much of the looted settlement laid in smoldering ruins. The United States Navy subsequently used Indian Key as a base of operations for the Second Seminole War, but the island’s halcyon days as a thriving, self-sustaining commercial center were effectively done.

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Brad Bertelli and WPT

Today, visitors may rent canoes and kayaks from Robbie’s of Islamorada and paddle out to Indian Key. Make the most of the trip by enlisting the services of historian, author, and tour guide Brad Bertelli of Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours to bring the island’s crumbling foundations and crunching gravel streets back to bustling life. If you appreciate vivid detail, humor, and a healthy overdose of enthusiasm for esoterica in your docent, then the affable Bertelli – who, with co-author David Sloan, recently published Bloodline: A Local’s Guide to 50 Famous Film Locations in the Florida Keys, an indispensable, trivia-packed self-guided tour for fans of the Netflix Original Series Bloodline – is your man.

Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore
Small shark resting in the shallows, just offshore

Back in Islamorada, at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, where Bertelli also serves as the Curator/Historian, a fine scale model of Housman-era Indian Key provides additional perspective.

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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center
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Model of Indian Key at Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

It is worth noting that there are no restroom facilities, nor fresh water, nor trash cans on Indian Key. But there is some decent snorkeling off its craggy northeastern shore. So any which way, plan accordingly.

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Florida Keys History & Discovery Center

Out and Back

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The official motto of the United States Coast Guard is “Semper Paratus,” or “Always Ready.” But, since the heyday of the United States Life-Saving Service (which merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to form our modern USCG), at least, another phrase has adorned the flipside of that figurative coin: “The rules say you have to go out, but they do not say you have to come back.”

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On February 18, 1952, four young men with those words in mind set out from the Chatham (Massachusetts) Lifeboat Station in a 36-foot self-righting, self-bailing wooden motor lifeboat – clinically named CG36500 – into a hellish nor’easter, and the annals of lifesaving lore. In what has since been considered the greatest small-boat rescue in USCG history, Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber and his crew of three – Andrew Fitzgerald, Richard Livesey, and Ervin Maske – battled at-times hurricane-force winds and frigid, 60-foot seas to rescue the crew of the S.S. Pendleton, a 500-foot World War II-era tanker which had broken in half several miles offshore.

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En route, the CG36500’s engine briefly quit, and the angry seas smashed the boat’s windshield and tore away her compass. Yet, somehow, Webber and his crew successfully reached the stern of the mortally wounded Pendleton, and despite the odds, successfully rescued 32 of the ship’s crew in a boat designed to hold a maximum of 12 (including its own crew).

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Not surprisingly, this seemingly impossible feat became the stuff of Coast Guard legend, yet Webber, Fitzgerald, Livesey, and Maske did not consider themselves “heroes”, per se; rather, they regarded their actions simply as a fulfillment of duty. By the late 1960s, the old 36-footers, including CG36500, had been decommissioned, and the slick, new 44-foot motor lifeboat became the Coast Guard’s standby.

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The CG36500 languished in dry-dock, neglected, for more than a decade, until a collective of intrepid locals, recognizing her historical value, set about painstakingly restoring her. Today, the fully restored and operational CG36500 is maintained under the auspices of the Orleans Historical Society and Museum, which features an impressive exhibit on the famed rescue in its nearby museum. As the son of a career Coast Guardsman, having the opportunity to visit the boat was a borderline spiritual experience. The 2016 movie The Finest Hours – based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 book of the same name – faithfully recreates the Pendleton rescue. While the film was not a commercial success, in this era of hyperbolic action movies that inexorably seek inspiration through the spilling of blood, it is good to see the four lifesavers from Chatham Station – and, by proxy, all who have come before or since – finally get their due.

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Orleans Historical Society and Museum
3 River Rd, Orleans, MA 02653
http://www.orleanshistoricalsociety.org/
orleanshs@verizon.net
call 508-240-1329

Hours:
Tuesdays and Wednesdays 9:00 – noon and 1:00 – 5:00 or by appointment

The boat moves seasonally, so please visit the website to check on its location.

The Boys No Man Dares Dun

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We had planned to bypass Limerick completely. Irish friends had recommended skipping the historically industrial hub, given the scale of our trip and improbably limited amount of time, in favor of more epic destinations like the Burren and Newgrange.

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Yet one unlikely nook of Limerick still beckoned – a rough, working-class suburb on the city’s eastside called Garryowen. The area’s Irish name, Garraí Eoin, translates to “the garden of John”, a reference to John the Baptist. Indeed, St. John’s Cathedral, built in 1861, towers fortress-like over the heart of Garryowen, and, at 94 meters (or about 308 feet), boasts the tallest spire in all of Ireland.

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However, my interest in Garryowen was not grounded in religious history or its renowned rugby club, but rather an eponymous tune whose origins may be traced back two or three centuries. Today, the song is probably best known in America as a march favored by the U.S. Army, and it often emanates from bagpipes during St. Patrick’s Day parades. But, in fact, “Garryowen” began life purely as a hooligan’s refrain:

[VERSE]

Let Bacchus’s sons be not dismayed

But join with me each jovial blade

Come booze and sing and lend your aid

To help me with the chorus

[CHORUS]

Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale

And pay the reckoning on the nail

For debt no man shall go to jail

From Garryowen in glory

[VERSE]

We are the boys who take delight

In smashing Limerick lamps at night

And through the street like sportsters fight

Tearing all before us

[CHORUS]

[VERSE]

We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors

The watch knock down by threes and fours

Then let the doctors work their cures

And tinker up our bruises

[CHORUS]

[VERSE]

We’ll make the mayor and sheriff run

We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun

We are the boys no man dares dun

If he regards a whole skin

[CHORUS]

[VERSE]

Our hearts so stout have got us fame

For soon ’tis known from whence we came

Where’er we go they dread the name

Of Garryowen in glory

[CHORUS]

I was about 12 when I first heard “Garryowen”, on an album of Civil War-era music performed by folk musician Jim Taylor. The rowdy, infectious tune appears, ironically, as part of an instrumental medley that includes “Haste to the Wedding” and “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning”.

“Garryowen” was part of a canon of traditional music that accompanied an unprecedented wave of Irish immigration to America during the mid to late 19th century and, before long, manifested throughout Union Army camps in the War Between the States. It was there, so the story goes, that General George A. Custer first heard “Garryowen”, and favored it so greatly that his Seventh Cavalry took the jaunty air west with them during the Indian Wars, adopting it as its official theme – one which they still play today. Indeed, “Garryowen” (both instrumentally and with lyrics) is ubiquitous throughout the 1941 Errol Flynn vehicle They Died with Their Boots On.

Surely, a rough-and-tumble town with such an inspired musical heritage must merit a brief detour. Hell, for all I knew, Garryowen was now a gentrified hipster haven sporting Thai restaurants and art galleries on every block…

***

IMG_7962We rolled into Garryowen shortly before the local afternoon rush hour, and while I wasn’t sure of the precise whereabouts of St. John’s Cathedral, one thing soon became clear: if 300-year-old lyrics are to be believed, Garryowen has remained true to itself. I’ve lived and worked in Baltimore long enough to recognize a tourist destination…and this certainly is not one. From ubiquitous security cameras and graffiti to ruins both new and ancient, Garryowen bears all the scars and hallmarks of an area still awaiting a ship that is several centuries overdue.

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Yet the towering architecture of Garryowen’s centerpiece, St. John’s Cathedral, remains an awe-inspiring sight for the intrepid (and streetwise) traveler. Garryowen itself stands as a resilient and sobering reminder of the truths that ground the most elaborate mythologies.

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Maritime Museum of San Diego

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Several times each year, I attend work conferences that take me to cities all across America. Between educational programming, receptions, and catching up with old friends and colleagues, it can be quite exhausting. Still, I try to make the most of the small bits of personal time allotted by exploring points beyond the antiseptic confines of a conference hotel.

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Given my limited free time, I assigned utmost priority to visiting the Maritime Museum of San Diego during a recent trip to that city – particularly the Museum’s centerpiece, the tall ship Star of India. The Museum bills the 212-foot “Iron Lady” – launched as the Euterpe from the Isle of Man in 1863 – as “the world’s oldest active sailing ship.” (NOTE: Following a recent overhaul, the wooden whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, left her home port of Mystic, Connecticut, for an extensive tour of the New England coastline. However, even if this fact muddies the superlative waters, that both ships are so well-maintained, never mind operational, is nothing short of commendable.) The Star of India hauled everything from salmon to timber to New Zealand-bound immigrants until her retirement in the 1920s. Following a half-century of idle decay, she put to sea again in 1976. Today, the Star tells her illustrious story (which includes collision and mutiny) through a host of exhibits both below deck and topside. Visitors may take note of the ship’s ubiquitous knot-work, whose decorative aesthetic was in fact secondary, in nearly all cases, to serving practical purposes.

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But for me, the most pleasantly unexpected moment of my visit came aboard the in-this-case-aptly-named H.M.S. Surprise. You see, the ship, launched in 1970, is a replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate, the H.M.S. Rose, a name she bore for the next three decades. A substantial portion of that time was spent berthed in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was during this time that an uncle of mine volunteered on the ship, and in fact was aboard when she sailed for New York in 1986 in commemoration of the Statue of Liberty’s centennial.

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At the dawn of the 21st century, 20th Century Fox purchased the ship for use in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, renaming her H.M.S. Surprise. The Maritime Museum acquired the Surprise/Rose in 2006. But to this day the ship’s engraved bell belies her original namesake.

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Other Maritime Museum highlights include the 1898 steam ferry Berkeley, which evacuated survivors of the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Oakland; the Californian, a replica of the 1847 Revenue Cutter C.W. Lawrence and the official tall ship of the state of California; the B-39, a Cold War-era “Foxtrot” class Soviet submarine; and the U.S.S. Dolphin, a deep-diving diesel-electric U.S. Navy research submarine decommissioned in 2007. Fans of all things nautical will revel in the Museum’s collection, unparalleled, in my experience, this side of Mystic Seaport.

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The Road to Ocracoke Island

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With Sunday’s wind and lashing rain behind us, we decided to venture down Route 12 to Ocracoke Island. Saturday’s balmy weather was replaced by Sunday’s almost tantrum-like storm only to be followed by a clear, cold day. It was like having three different seasons on as many consecutive days.

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Route 12

We piled into the car, snacks at the ready, and headed south. Ocracoke Island is a little over 85 miles from Nags Head, but Route 12 isn’t exactly contiguous. Our first stop was Bodie Island Lighthouse, at the start of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Bodie Island Lighthouse
Bodie Island Lighthouse

After crossing the Oregon Inlet Bridge the land becomes more sparsely populated, especially in winter. Inspired by the visit to the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, we stopped just after the bridge to attempt a bit of beachcombing. There were indeed a great many shells washed ashore, but unfortunately the winds were still blowing and the 20-ish degree temps drove us back to the warmth of the car. Continuing south we passed through Rodanthe, Waves, and Avon, eventually reaching Hatteras and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

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Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Patrick, a lover of all things nautical, has told me about the lighthouse for years, perpetually impressed that the lighthouse was physically moved. All 12-stories were shifted 2,900 feet inland in 1999 due to increasing erosion. The Outer Banks are barrier islands and as such, they are subject to the whims of the sea. If the sea decides she wants to reclaim the land as hers she will and as such, the lighthouse was in jeopardy. The lighthouse is open in summer and visitors are invited to climb the 257 steps.

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We continued on to the ferry dock and got in line for the 11am ferry to Ocracoke. The ferry is free to the public, transporting locals and tourists daily. In winter the ferries run hourly, weather permitting. During the high season they run more frequently, with locals taking priority. The crossing takes about an hour and even in winter there were a fair number of water birds to watch – including gannets, cormorants, and several kinds of terns and gulls.

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Ocracoke was frequented by Native American tribes, explorers, and pirates before being permanently settled in 1750. It was a favorite spot of Blackbeard and it is where he met his end at the hands of Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. After 250 years, locals are now quite fond of Blackbeard’s tourism dollars.

Once off the ferry there is a long stretch of road with dunes threatening to overtake the blacktop. Our first stop was the pony pens, where the remaining descendants of horses brought to America by Spanish sailors still roam semi-free. The horses have been in the care of the National Parks Service since 1960.

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We drove around the small town of Ocracoke. There are homes, vacation spots, hotels, restaurants, and more surrounding the natural harbor of Silver Lake. We found the squat Ocracoke Lighthouse and visited the grounds. Then we found some majestic looking roosters. We stopped at Books to Be Red, a local bookstore with an impressive array of sidelines and local goods. I added to my bird reference guides, Garnet found a Boxcar Children book, and Patrick found two local histories. The store and grounds were welcoming and Garnet played on the tire swing cut into the shape of a shark.

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Ocracoke Lighthouse
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Majestic Rooster

It was warmer than it had been when we attempted to go beachcombing, but was nevertheless January and we walked across the street to The Magic Bean for coffee and hot drinks. Fortified, and with fresh reading material in hand, we headed north again.

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Books to Be Red
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Books to Be Red

It is easy to imagine how much fun it would be to visit the island in summer, but visiting in winter meant no crowds, no waiting to get on a ferry, no sunburn, and no traffic. Then again, the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival is in August and that sounds just weird enough to warrant another visit.

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The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

A friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years was coming to Baltimore. Her only tourist request was to see Edgar Allan Poe-related spots. We only had a few hours before her conference started, so the challenge was to put together a 3-hour tour (one that did not strand us on the island). The Poe House is closed until May 2015, so that left the graveyard at Westminster Hall and possibly areas around Fells Point.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death 
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

I knew of another delightfully macabre site not far from Westminster Hall, which I thought might make for a fun surprise, and asked for a tour. And so it was that early one Saturday morning we arrived at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for a tour of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. (Note to self – you should probably tell people why you are taking them to the ME’s office in advance.)

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Bruce Goldfarb, Special Assistant to the Medical Examiner, graciously agreed to provide a tour on his day off. The Nutshells are miniatures of crime scenes – essentially dollhouses of death – created in the 1940s by Frances Glessner Lee. She’s one of the founders of forensic science. Each scene shows a corpse in situ and students are expected to deduce if the death is homicide, suicide, accidental, or natural. The answers to the cases are closely guarded and only a few have ever read them.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The 18 diorama dollhouses include barns, bedrooms, living rooms, apartment buildings, suburban homes, a bar, an attic, and more, all done on a 1-inch to 1-foot scale. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are unbelievable, from printed newspapers to blood-spatter and buckshot camouflaged on patterned wallpaper to working light fixtures. The windows open, clothes are aged, and shoes just sitting in a closet are hand-beaded.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Glessner created the scenes to train investigators how to study a room. In addition to the Nutshells, she also created models of bullet wounds – showing the impact on flesh using various distances and calibers. She used her substantial inheritance to not only create these teaching tools, but she also helped fund the creation of a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. It was there the Nutshells were used until the department was disbanded in 1966. They then moved to Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore. They are still used to train investigators.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Highly recommended for lovers of that wondrous combination of history, art, and the macabre. Baltimoreans, next time you have an out-of-town guest, take them here instead of Café Hon.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
900 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21223
Phone: 410-333-3225
Website: http://welcometobaltimorehon.com/places/museumsattractions/the-nutshell-studies-of-unexplained-death
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Nutshell-Studies-of-Unexplained-Death
Documentary: http://www.ofdollsandmurder.com/
Admission: Free
Hours: Call for tour