Dark Dollhouses

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corrine May Botz. Monacelli Press, 2004. 1580931456.

Sarah: So in the 40s and 50s there was a woman who was born into money, an heiress — this is a true story — she got into forensic criminology and then used some of her money to sponsor forensic criminology classes and a department at Harvard. She ended up working for a police department, training police officers. To do that she made incredibly detailed 1/12th scale dollhouse murder scenes.
G: What???
S: This book is The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which was the name of her project.
G: (flipping through the book) Oh my God.
S: These endpapers are glorious.
G: Silhouettes of murder weapons! That’s great!
S: I’m going to start you with one of the sections…
G: Recreations of crime scenes in dollhouses! Is there a collection of these somewhere?
S: Yes, all of these were held at Harvard for a while. Then the department closed and now they’re at the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s office. They’re still used to train police officers in observing details at crime scenes. They weren’t intended to be whodunits.
G: So she made miniatures of this whole apartment, complete with the pertinent details of the murder.
S: Yes. You can see if you notice anything that indicates when it happened, because this is the crime scene as it was discovered.
G: The first one you’re showing me is a three room dwelling, it’s got facts about the people, a couple and their baby, their neighbors. The crime happened in 1937. It’s got parts of their statements. They were in the middle of breakfast, mom and dad and baby… this is creepy! It’s like you’re in their home. I wonder if that’s what the wallpaper really looked like.
S: She did amazing things. She was buying ready-made furniture for some of this stuff, but things like wallpaper, she would buy wallpaper and cut it into one-inch strips so it would be the right width to be absolutely to scale.
G: How could she make it the right scale?
S: I think she just chose a really small pattern.
G: Oh, the bloodstains are on the carpet, on the linoleum…
S: The bloodstains are super-accurate.
G: Oh my God, what is that?
S: Bloodstains on the side of a table by the bed. There’s a flashlight. And this is horrifying, because at first I was just looking at all the crib stuff…
G: Was the baby dead?
S: Yes.
G: All three were dead? Oh! There’s baby blood spatter there. The dead doll bodies are there… is the dead baby doll here?
S: It’s inside the crib. She made sure make the dolls look like the bodies would have, at the proper level of decomposition.
G: At the time they were found?
S: From that sort of death. So when someone died of carbon monoxide poisoning, she made sure they looked like that. If someone had been dead for several days, she made sure they looked that way.
G: Why do you think she did this?
S: So this was, at the time, the closest to virtual reality police training you could do! Here’s the room, what do you look for, what do you notice, take notes. She taught first responders how to evaluate a crime scene.
G: By showing them miniature crime scenes. What lead her to be the person who made these? The level of detail is insane! The small soup cans, the pattern on the rug, it’s to scale.
S: She was really dedicated. How useful was this as a training tool? So useful they’re still using it. She did things like… there are are knit stockings in here that she knit on actual straight pins.
G: What is all the information at the end?
S: There are notes to bring your attention to different things in the rooms. But this is an art book, it’s not a crime book.
G: So it doesn’t tell who committed each crime?
S: There is some information in the back that… well, I hate to call them solutions, but what you were supposed to notice, but not for each of the crime scenes because they’re still being used for training. They don’t want anyone to cheat!
G: Show me more!
S: This is a woman found in a bathtub with water running over her face.
G: So the miniature is a doll in a doll-size bathtub with resin water “pouring” down from the faucet.
S: You’ll see at the side of the picture there are beer bottles because she was drunk. There are interviews with people on how they found her. Check out her socks and slippers: hand knit!
G: Show me another one. Oh, are you showing me this for the doll-sized bookshelf? That’s beautiful!
S: I already loved this book, then I watched an episode of Elementary where Sherlock was training Watson by sending her photos of a dollhouse he was making with murder scenes in it. I was like “holy crap!” They were doing a tribute to these dollhouses! Inside one of the actual dollhouses in the book, there’s a teeny-tiny copy of The Sign of Four, a little tribute to Sherlock Holmes. It’s in a room where a woman died falling down the stairs. It was an accident, but had to be investigated like any other death.
G: (flipping pages) A woman who fell from a two-story porch…
S: There are some indications of why she probably wasn’t attacked.
G: These are chilling. Can you imagine coming home and finding your child playing with a dollhouse like this… “And this is where she was killed, dad!”
S: Some of the rooms have analysis from present-day police officers, they’ll say what they see in the scene and what next steps they would take, including investigative techniques that weren’t around when the dollhouses were made.
“Nutshell Studies” came from this police saying: “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

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