Aging Heiress Plots 19 Grisly Crimes. Investigation Underway.


The Nutshells are whodunits without a ‘‘who,’’ though. They were created to train investigators to observe, weigh and prioritize evidence, and to ignore false leads, hasty conclusions, assumptions and bias. Each scene includes a variety of evidence, motives and potential perpetrators. “Answer sheets” involving specifics of the historical cases cited in the Nutshells are kept under lock and key at the Medical Examiner’s office. Ms. Lee wrote fictitious police reports and witnesses’ statements to accompany each invention.


“Three-Room Dwelling” (detail), around 1944-46. By the rocking chair is a minuscule bullet casing. Credit Harvard University, via Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore

I walked the show with Jenifer Smith, director of the Department of Forensic Sciences in the District of Columbia. I learned a great deal from Ms. Smith, most of which I hope never to have to know.

“Blood splatter can give you indications of the direction that the blood drops, right?” Ms. Smith said, peering into “Three-Room Dwelling” with me, the largest and most complex of the Nutshells. Three people are bloodied and dead in their beds: The Judson family — husband, wife and baby. Splatter punctuates the wallpaper.

The report explains that a car-pooling neighbor, Paul Abbott, claims he tried to pick up Robert Judson for work. Blowing his horn, he got no answer; he drove to the factory without him. Mrs. Abbott, watching, gets curious, checks on the Judsons, sees blood through a kitchen window and calls the police.


Frances Glessner Lee, the first lady of forensic science, crafting one of the Nutshells in the early 1940s. She began working in her 60s. Most of the contents were meticulously handmade, down to the stockings she knitted for corpses. Credit Glessner House Museum

“Sometimes if a weapon is used, there’s castoff patterns you get as you bludgeon somebody,” Ms. Smith continued, illuminating the scene with her flashlight. “Not on the first hit — because the first hit, there is no blood; the head has to bleed — it’s on subsequent hits.” Noted.

“Paul Abbott did it,” Madison Leon, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, declared to me later that day, standing over the scene. Ms. Leon took one sniff and smelled a rat. “I think Mrs. Abbott was having an affair with Bob Judson. Why would she have any reason to know that he didn’t go to work with her husband? She was watching out the window. I think she heard something — why would you just watch for your neighbors?” Ms. Leon gave her theory a spin, and it fell into place like a ball on a roulette wheel. The cracked closet door, the open window.

But then … ”What about the undisturbed bottles of milk on the porch, by the window?” Ms. Smith had observed earlier. “That’s unusual.” She took measure of the tiny clues. “You’re looking for unusual, right?”


“Living Room” (detail), around 1943-48. Credit Harvard University, via Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore

What I would consider unusual is a dinner reservation at 8:00. What Ms. Smith considers unusual is a breakfast that nobody has eaten, and a rifle beside it.

In “Kitchen,” the unusual and usual literally furnish the room. A pie is in progress, with bowl and rolling pin on a table. The sink is piled with pots and pans. A door has been sealed shut with newspaper. A housewife in an apron, with an ice tray at her side, is dead on the floor before an open oven. The handles on the gas are turned on. The husband’s statement: He left on an errand, came back, the door was locked, he saw “what appeared to be” his wife through the window and called the police.

“Kitchen,” like many of the Nutshells, recalls the director Alfred Hitchcock’s comment on his technique of dropping death into “normal, complacent, everyday life.” A motel shower, a sleepy coastal village. Dark things seem darker in bright settings.

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