The Art of Frances Glessner Lee: Reducing Evil


“A small thing can give an analogy to big things and show traces of knowledge. “

Lucretia, By Rerum Natura

Why are we passionate about miniatures?

A snow globe is a world within a world. Looking inside, you see the whole universe at once. Shrinking it to fit in the palm of your hand bestows almighty power. You can shake the globe and make it snow!

Do you want to make a boy the master of the universe? Give him a miniature oar. When he grows up, he can don an engineer cap and fill his basement with rails, switches and stations. The locomotives will cross tiny bridges, pass through tunnels, climb hills and descend valleys to villages. And its trains will run on time.

I never had a dollhouse, but had a battery operated miniature oven that came with tiny baking tins and boxes of cake mix. Both prepared the girls for the “women’s work” of running a large-scale household. But dollhouses are also intimate. Regardless of their educational role, they have always been spaces in which we are meant to feel safe.

In the 1940s, a Chicago heiress turned the notion of the dollhouse upside down. Drawing on the power and privacy of miniature dwellings, Frances Glessner Lee constructed 18 tiny scenes of violent death in rooming houses, rustic cabins, garages, attics, and even a nursery. Lee’s crime scene dioramas may be a bit outdated, but time hasn’t robbed them of their power.

Lee was born in 1878. Strong of a fortune thanks to International Harvester, her parents were prominent members of Chicago’s social and civic elite at the turn of the century. The granite fortress they built on Prairie Avenue had no lawn and few windows facing the street; those in the basement were crossed out. As wedding gifts, Lee’s parents built identical townhouses for her and her brother down the road from each other.

Lee was shy and bright. She wanted to study nursing or medicine, but her parents sent her brother to Harvard instead. Her mother and aunts taught her metalworking, sewing and household arts at home. At twenty, Lee was forced into a worldly marriage from which she fled, returned, and ran away again.

Lee’s interest in crime was sparked by his brother’s Harvard classmate George Burgess Magrath. A medical examiner, Magrath regaled Lee with stories of actual murders and became a longtime friend. Thanks to him, she finally found her goal: to turn dollhouses into miniature crime scenes to train homicide investigators.

Lee designed and built his models to exacting standards of realism on a one inch to one foot scale. All of her “nutshells” except one (she never called them dollhouses) is a dwelling. She drew her crimes from real cases, wrote witness statements, inserted tantalizing clues that sometimes led nowhere, and added tiny victims. Like the snow globe, reducing its crimes to self-sustaining universes created the illusion that all the answers were in front of you.

In their tidy little house, a family is horribly slaughtered. The parents are in their rooms, blood is splashing on the wall behind their baby’s cradle, and the kitchen table is set for breakfast. The murder weapon, a rifle, rests on the floor near the table and the phone is off the hook. But the doors are locked from the inside.

In a squalid rooming house, a woman is face up in the tub with tap water pouring over her head. She had a history of seizures. Did she fall into it or was she drowned by one of the men who visited her the day before?

An old maid hangs from a rafter, with old letters and articles from her past strewn at her feet. But her face is bruised and scratched, and why is one of her shoes resting on the attic step?

Harvard still uses the words of Frances Glessner Lee in forensic seminars. As a training tool, they endure what they make us do: observe the smallest details and convert them into clues, imbue small victims with real lives and unsettling deaths, and create stories about who, how and why. . But their lasting impact is greater.

By depicting the murder in a domestic setting and scaling it down to a 1:12 scale, Lee used the power of miniatures to amplify the human dimensions of crime. Miniaturizing savagery and rage creates existential terror, and inviting us to look through windows and behind doors at violence in intimate spaces makes crime personal. The new narrative Lee has created is the age-old quest to understand the impossible.

She didn’t want us to be left speechless at the evil. She wanted us to make sense of it.

Authors biography :

Stéphanie Kane is the author of Lessons of objects.

For Highbrow Magazine

Image sources:

Laurie Shaull (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Laurie Shaull (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Laurie Shaull (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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