18 Tiny Deaths: The untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics

I discovered the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, while wandering through Atlas Obscura one evening. Vintage dioramas on a 1:12 scale? Of mysterious death scenes? By the first female police captain? I was on my way to Baltimore.  

Witnessing these tiny, unique worlds in all of their macabre glory, I met the curator and guardian of the Nutshells, Bruce Goldfarb. He became interested in the Nutshells’ creator, Frances Glessner Lee, while Bruce was writing for the American Medical News in the 1990s. Since then, the Nutshells underwent a complete restoration and enjoyed an exhibition at the Smithsonian with more than 100,000 spectators. Not since the 1940s have the Nutshells been so popular — at that time, they graced the pages of Life Magazine, the Boston Globe and even the Providence Sunday Journal

This time, though, is different. One hundred-two years after Lee began her career, 18 Tiny Deaths serves Lee the type of justice she fought to see in the world.

Lee was an extremely complex and interesting figure of history. Erle Stanley Gardner, attorney and author of Perry Mason, wrote Lee’s obituary. It read: “…Capt. Lee had a strong individuality, a unique, unforgettable character, was a fiercely competent fighter, and a practical idealist. The cause of legal medicine [ie, modern-day forensics] and law enforcement suffered a great blow with her passing and yet for years the country will benefit because of her dogged determination, her down-to-earth grasp of the problems with which she was confronted, and her unswerving determination to find a solution by persistence, diplomacy, charm, and, if all else fails, by downright battering ram in-fighting. She was a wonderful woman.”

Bruce Goldfarb planned to speak about 18 Tiny Deaths and the Nutshells at URI’s Forensic Science Seminar Series on Friday, April 24th; however, presentations had to be cancelled. Visit for information on online programs.  

The Nutshells are not currently available for public view.