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Dollhouses used to teach police how to investigate homicides

Dollhouses used to teach police how to investigate homicides

There is an iron on the table near some laundry that needs to be pressed. The refrigerator door is still open. Newspapers are crumpled in the entry way of the door.

And the calendar is flipped to April of 1944.

1944. Barbara Barnes, the woman who is dead on the floor, has- according to this calendar- been there for a very long time.

It makes sense. Barbara is a doll, who lives in a dollhouse created more than 70 years ago.

The house is in fact a diorama, part of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths.

“[They’re] basically 1940s virtual reality that are used to teach homicide detectives how to investigate crime scenes,” said Bruce Goldfarb, Executive Assistant Chief Medical Examiner of Baltimore City.

These 18 doll houses by an heiress.

Frances Glisner Lee.

“She made death investigation a profession. Before then there was no particular training for homicide detectives,” said Goldfarb.

At a time when women did not go to university, Lee pioneered a new craft.

“People did things that now we realize they really shouldn’t do like disturbing the crime scene, moving a weapon or the body,” said Goldfarb.

It was a woman's hobby that became a trade norm.

“The point is that you don’t need to walk through a crime scene and disturb things to learn things. You can learn an awful lot just using your eyes and using your brain,” he adds.

Today, the method is required training for Baltimore City homicide detectives.

The dioramas are still used in an annual teaching seminar.

“We have a saying in homicide- you have one opportunity at the crime scene and you have to do it right the first time,” said Baltimore City Detective Sergeant Robert Ross.

Ross recalls learning from the Nutshells almost a decade ago.

“You always reflect back to what you learned with the Nutshells because you have that opportunity,” said Ross. “It’s almost like an out of body experience- you’re floating around the crime scene and seeing what it is within a nutshell.”

Attention to detail is crucial, and that is what detectives look for when using these dioramas.

“They have molded Baltimore homicide detectives for years,” said Ross. “They have really taught us how to approach a crime scene in a professional manner- in a scientific manner- and were very lucky to have them here in Baltimore. Very lucky.”

Each house is built on a scale of one inch to one foot. They cost about what it would have to build a house back in the day: $3,500 to $6,000.

Hand-crafted pieces mimic real life.

Tiny, readable newspapers copied from real stories of the day.

Dolls wearing unique clothes, every stitch done by Lee herself.

“What she said is that everything you see actually happened but not necessarily in the same context,” said Goldfarb.

A man apparently hanging in a barn. Another woman dead in a bathtub.

The causes of their deaths remain a mystery.

The solutions to the cases are kept under lock and key. Only one person in the building has access to them. Goldfarb does not say who.

Barbara Barnes’ death is contained in a Nutshell.

But solving the crime, requires thinking outside the box.

The dioramas will be on public exhibit for the first time ever this October at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

After that time, they will be returned to Baltimore to continue being used as teaching tools.

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