This Section of Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences appears in each issue of the Journal and is dedicated to
all forms of creative production born of an intimate and individual urge, often secretive, unbound from the
conventional art system rules. Through short descriptions of the Outsider art work of prominent artists and
new protagonists often hosted in community mental health services, this section intends to investigate the
latest developments of the contemporary art scene, where the distances between the edge and the center are
becoming more and more vague.
Carole Tansella, Section Editor
Corpus Delicti: Frances Glessner Lee and the art
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Clinic, Austin, Texas, USA and Office of the Assistant Dean for Research, Steve Hicks School of
Social Work, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Received 6 August 2017; Accepted 8 September 2017
Key words: Art, forensic psychiatry, models/theories of psychiatry, self-taught, violence.
Fig. 1. Kitchen death scene, reported 12 April 1944, courtesy of Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, Maryland.
* Address for correspondence: M. Uebel, U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs, Mental Health Clinic, Austin, Texas, USA.
Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, page 1 of 3. © Cambridge University Press 2017
Though reality may seem to be opaque, there are
privileged zones –signs, clues –which allow us
to penetrate it.
—Carlo Ginzburg, 1989
Miniature is easier to tell than to do.
—Gaston Bachelard, 1964
Difficult psychiatric and medical diagnoses are arrived
at through what has been called an ‘epistemology of
suspicion’(Strowick, 2005), that is, through a para-
digm of clues (Ginzburg, 1989) or traces that are com-
bined and recombined in order to produce a
satisfactory, but always conjectural, hypothesis. The
emergence of scientific models of modern medical
diagnosis emerged with force in the late 18th century,
the same period when the discipline of criminology
arose (Vogl, 1991). Indeed, a figure no less original
than Freud (e.g., 1915–1917) was fond of drawing ana-
logies between the work of the detective or criminolo-
gist and that of the psychoanalyst. Put succinctly, the
work of the psychiatrist, like that of the detective, is
the logic of guessing, a method of abduction,
C. S. Peirce’s term for the production of knowledge,
based on observation, in order to infer otherwise invis-
ible causal relations from visible signs (McKaughan,
Abduction is suited to the methods of the psych-
iatrist detective as well as to those of the artist since
both are concerned not with a scientific method that
generalises from a set of cases to a rule about them
(induction) but with reasoning to the ‘case’itself. If
something is amiss (e.g., there is a dead body in the
kitchen of a house (Fig. 1)), then we want to know
why. Enter the art of Frances Glessner Lee (1878–
1962), who, in the 1930s and 1940s, created 20 diora-
mas (18 are extant) on the scale of 1 inch to 1 foot in
which a dead body and its spatial context become the
objects of suspicion as a method of knowledge (Fig. 2).
Lee, an heiress who was raised with the Victorian-
era expectation that she would be a society matron,
assumed a very different career path when she met
her brother’s friend, Dr George Magrath, who later
became a professor in pathology at Harvard Medical
School and the Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk
Country, Boston. With her interest in crime first fed
by an appetite for detective novels, Lee would become
a pioneer in forensic investigation, taking a feminine
hobby and art, doll-house and miniature making,
and transforming it into a tool for criminology. In
1931, Lee endowed a department of legal medicine at
Harvard, and, in 1943, she was appointed captain of
the New Hampshire State Police, the first woman in
the USA to hold such a position.
Called by Lee ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained
Death’, her meticulously crafted dioramas were to be
used for the invention of explanatory hypotheses.
Beginning in 1945, Harvard University installed the
first dioramas for use in their semi-annual Seminars
on Legal Medicine in which law officers were given
90 min to study carefully one diorama for all clues,
details that seem out of place or provide evidence of
medical significance. According to the nomenclature
of mid-century American coroners, there are just four
manners of death: natural, accidental, suicidal and
homicidal. Determinations of ‘probable’,‘unclassified’
or ‘undetermined’were also used, and they under-
scored the inescapably hypothetical nature of forensic
detective work. Lee knew the ‘answer’to the riddle
of the corpse, but her students were to treat the
Nutshell Studies not as ‘whodunits’but as miniature
fields of speculation. ‘They are not presented’, Lee
insisted, ‘as crimes to be solved –they are, rather,
designed as exercises in observing and evaluating
indirect evidence, especially that which may have
medical importance’(Lee, 2004).
The miniature evidence that she and her carpenter
produced is stunning in its detail. The dioramas’pains-
taking construction is remarkable, with nothing meant
to be taken at face value. If, for example, a murder can
be staged as a suicide or accident, or an accident mis-
construed as murder, then it will be the details –the
traces, clues –that must be placed under the sign of
suspicion. In this, her projects are intensified spectacles
of paranoiac space. The objects in the home –all of
them –are clues or threats, encouraging ever further
scrutiny. Neurotic in their detail, the dioramas, each
taking 4 months to produce with dental and jeweller’s
tools, involved the weathering or ageing of materials,
socks and undergarments knit with a pin, and modi-
fied doll bodies (often antique German bisque figures),
weighted with BB shot in cloth to achieve precise
corpse-like positions and with painted colouration as
clues to mortality.
Fig. 2. Frances Glessner Lee at work on a Nutshell, circa 1945,
courtesy of Glessner House Museum, Chicago, Illinois.
Based on actual crime scenes, reconstructed from
photographs and interviews with witnesses and
police, the dollhouse-like models invite the exploration
of details that are sometimes beyond the normal range
of visual and tactile experience, necessitating the use of
a flashlight, a tweezers, a magnifying glass, a mini-
ature mirror or the dismantling of the model itself. In
one diorama, there is a corpse of a man outside a sal-
oon door, and beyond it, invisible to the outside obser-
ver, is a detailed tavern whose three-dimensionality
offers potential clues. In another diorama, there are
to be discovered 31 major errors committed by an
inept policeman (Dempewolff, 1953).
After Lee’s death, the models were acquired by the
Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore, Maryland,
and are still used as training tools today. The dioramas
have inspired not only other forensic science teachers
such as Tom Mauriello (Sachs, 2003), but many con-
temporary artists, working with miniatures, concerned
with the hermeneutics of suspicion, the fetish of death
and the everyday, and the spectacle of transgression.
These artists include Abigail Goldman and her ‘dieor-
amas’, Canadian physician Jonah Samson, New York
sculptor Thomas Doyle, American artist Cynthia von
Buhler, British artist and film-maker Ilona Gaynor,
and Los Angeles artist Randy Hage.
This research received no specific grant from any fund-
ing agency, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Conflict of Interest
The authors assert that all procedures contributing to
this work comply with the ethical standards of the rele-
vant national and institutional committees on human
experimentation and with the Helsinki Declaration of
1975, as revised in 2008.
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About the author
Michael Uebel, PhD, LCSW, is a researcher and mental
health practitioner in both institutional and private prac-
tice. He has published on Schreber, shame, masochism,
masculinity and gender issues, and a wide range of psy-
choanalytically-informed topics, and is currently at work
on a study of spatiality and the epistemology of murder
in film noir. He has been appointed Lecturer at the
School of Social Work at the University of Texas, and
has taught as professor (Literature, Women’sStudies,
and Social Theory) for over 15 years at the University of
Virginia, Georgetown University, and the University of
Carole Tansella,Section Editor
Corpus Delicti: Frances Glessner Lee and the art of suspicion 3