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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
900 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21223
Hours: Call for tour