An interest in true crime can quickly lead you down a rabbit hole filled with unpleasant, yet interesting information about the dark side of humanity. Though others may not understand this obsession, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. With the growing interest of true crime in the public, more cyber sleuths are even helping the police solve crimes.

There are people out there, like Frances Glessner Lee, whose passion for detail-oriented craftwork turned into a macabre study of criminals. Her dedication to a particular hobby helped change the landscape of crime and how it is studied, even decades later. Frances’ story is an amazing example of how the second chapter of your life isn’t the end. It’s a new beginning. 

Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicago heiress, practiced a hobby she thoroughly enjoyed: building dioramas. These mini-rooms could almost transport the viewer to another world. Frances’ had a special twist, though.

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Frances’ models depicted murder scenes. Her interest in forensic science led her to recreate miniature scenes of killings, violent disagreements, and other unforgettable sights that police investigated and encountered over their years on the force.


What made Frances such an incredible person was her ability to take a traditionally feminine activity and use it to bring new, revolutionary information to a male-dominated field, especially in the 1940s.


This collection of murders and other crimes most foul were known as the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” and went on display for the public at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.


The exhibit, “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” brought together 19 of Frances’ murderous dioramas. Each will be accompanied by crime scene photos to provide background info.


Visitors could use flashlights and magnifying glasses to take in the magnificent detail portrayed in Frances’ models. It’s an unforgettable experience for any true crime fan interested in a hands-on foray into the field.


Frances herself lived quite an interesting life to deserve such an immersive museum exhibit. She was born in 1878. For the first part of her life she was a wife and mother, but this phase wasn’t meant to last.


Her children inevitably grew up and left the house, and, her husband followed soon after, ending their long partnership. Once Frances was free of the bounds of marriage and motherhood, she decided to put her new free time to use.

Frances was always interested in forensic science, and this was her opportunity to study her passion without distraction. In her research, she discovered that investigators and coroners didn’t know much about crime scenes.


She began carefully studying crime scenes herself and painstakingly creating her own that were loosely based on real-life cases. These dollhouse miniatures had murder weapons, blood spatters, and even bodies. Very homey.

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Every element of the dioramas — from real tobacco in miniature … to the discoloration of painstakingly painted miniature corpses — challenges trainees’ powers of observation and deduction,” said a Smithsonian rep.

The Washington Post

Frances also put her inheritance to good use. She funded the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, which instructed local police in solving deaths through medical techniques.

Part of the curriculum focused on the Nutshell Studies to teach police officers how to effectively examine a crime scene for evidence. Key details can easily be destroyed due to careless police work.

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Small-town police often aren’t exposed to murder and can be lacking in their knowledge of how to deal with such difficult and terrible crimes. As a result, criminals are more likely to get away with their crimes — unless investigators are educated.

Frances understood her dioramas could prove a great help. Her goal was to teach investigators how to carefully canvas and assess a crime scene while preserving it. Every minute detail challenged officer’s deductive skills.

In 1943, Frances was named an honorary state police captain in New Hampshire. And she was the first woman in America to receive this title. Later, she earned the title “the godmother of forensic science.”

Two years later, Frances began an annual week-long seminar on forensic science at Harvard, which still continues as the Frances Glessner-Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation.

Though Frances died in 1962 at 83, nineteen of her Nutshell Studies lived on. The majority were safely stored in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are still used for teaching.

These amazingly detailed scenes will receive some conservation work before they are put on display at the Renwick. Frances created the models to shine on a light on society’s “invisible victims.”

By this, Frances meant, “particularly women and the working classes, whose cases she championed, and the way in which her dioramas challenge the association of femininity with order and domestic bliss.”

Compared to the average older person, Frances passed the time in a way far more productive and useful than knitting. And she laid the foundation for a modern project where toys are used for an unusually dark purpose.

By design, toys aren’t very serious. They focus more on having fun than promoting education, especially when it comes to talking about the big issues. One organization, however, is trying to change all that.

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Among the many cultural wonders in Vienna, the Bestattungsmuseum stands out as one of the most bizarre. This institution shines a light on a very peculiar subject, one which sends many tourists heading for the hills.

You see, the Bestattungsmuseum is a funeral museum. Its exhibits reflect on the many death rituals used throughout the years and demonstrate more obscure aspects of the process that most people may not realize.

The museum contains a ton of history, too, as it’s connected to a cemetery where esteemed figures like Ludwig Van Beethoven are buried. Of course, Bestattungsmuseum is looking toward the future too, and the staff has got some friends to help them out.

As a matter of fact, these two could be the most valuable members of the team. But what are Legos doing at a funeral museum, you ask? Well, when it comes to the circle of life, you have to consider the most undereducated segment of the population.

With the infinite combinations made possible by just a handful of bricks, Legos are likely the most versatile toy out there. They can transform into anything, with just a little bit of childhood imagination.

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The good folks at Bestattungsmuseum realized that Legos could even help kids better understand strange and frightening concepts. So, in 2016, a small group started experimenting with custom Lego sets to explore death and burials.


They started off safe with a model from the past, perhaps to keep the first version from hitting too close to home. The museum built a miniature tram based off vehicles used to move bodies around the 1920s and ’30s.

From there, the project continued with another funerary vehicle, this time in the form of a retro hearse. After these pieces spent some time on display, the museum got some surprising responses.


According to Dr. Florian Keusch, spokesman for the Bestattungsmuseum, hordes of parents approached them with questions. Many were stumped about how to best set up a dialogue with grieving children, but there was something to these Legos.

Whereas real funerals and burials came off as scary and alien to kids, Lego models didn’t threaten them at all. Florian took the feedback to heart and chose to expand the Lego project.

The museum staff, confident as ever, went all out with their next batch of Lego sets. They constructed a dynamic burial set with a coffin that could be moved in and out of a grave. From there, the creators addressed the even more taboo sides of dying.


Though it was a gamble, Bestattungsmuseum released sets that featured both living and dead figurines. Controversially, these characters appeared to be members of the same family. But the museum felt it was responsible for not sugarcoating death — at all.


Their boldest Lego configuration has to be a crematorium, complete with a rather disgruntled-looking undertaker holding an urn. Florian admitted that not everyone is on board with their unconventional mission.

“0.00001 percent of people were disgusted because they have only read the headline ‘LEGO crematoria’ and didn’t get the intentions behind these products,” Florian explained. Most people, on the other hand, supported the kid-friendly project.

The museum isn’t diving into these matters without consulting the experts either. They partnered with the Viennese Association of Psychotherapists to ensure their Legos actually help teach children. Recently, an unintended audience also picked up on it.

Once the online community caught wind of the experiment, orders for the funerary Legos boomed. Though many sets cost close to €100, collectors couldn’t get enough of the wholly unique models.

Nevertheless, the Bestattungsmuseum intends to keep the focus on erasing stigmas, and not driving up shock-value profits. Now that they have an array of sets under their belts, they feel they can really tell a full story.

When it comes down to it, the museum knows it’s best to be prepared for the hard facts of life. Thanks to Legos, maybe kids and adults alike can even have a little fun while coming to grips with mortality.

Only time will tell whether these models ever catch on beyond the Bestattungsmuseum. But at least Florian and his colleagues can rest easy knowing they made life a little less frightening.

After all, sometimes the scariest looking toys have the most power. That’s why the people of a quiet Sydney, Australia, shop dedicate their lives to a one-of-a-kind mission the Bestattungsmuseum could be proud of.

Jason Reed

If you glanced through the window of this shop, you would be forgiven for mistaking the experts inside for doctors. Their work does resemble surgery. They even think of themselves as medical professionals, in a sense. That’s probably how they came up with their business name.

Jason Reed

Meet the hard workers behind the Original Doll Hospital. This unusual establishment has served the greater Sydney area for over 100 years now. Of course, a specialized business like this doesn’t just pop up for no good reason.

Back in 1913, an Australian general store owner named Mr. Chapman imported Japanese dolls, which were popular at the time. However, the fragile figurines often cracked and broke during the voyage. Chapman couldn’t make any profit off of damaged goods.

So he turned to his brother, Harold Chapman, for some assistance. A local handyman, Harold had a knack for fixing up just about anything. With his vast array of tools and close attention to detail, he began repairing his brother’s broken dolls.

As more and more Sydneysiders learned of Harold’s skill, he opened up his own repair business in the back of the general store. While he patched up all manner of household goods, toys became his specialty.

Following the end of the Second World War, Australia lifted its importing restrictions and Harold found himself flooded with more business than he could handle. It was a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

With his clientele base growing, Harold needed more hands on deck. He passed along the shop to his son, Harold Jr., who understood they needed more space for their large inventory. He relocated the store to its current location.

Jason Reed

All these years later, the Original Doll Hospital remains a family business. Geoff Chapman, the grandson of the elder Harold, acts as the owner and “surgeon-in-chief.” Even in his 70s, he takes playing with toys quite seriously. But how has he been at it for so long?

Jason Reed

It’s hard to believe how a doll hospital could survive in the age of online shopping, but to put it simply, they are good at what they do. Few other establishments in Australia, or the world, can mend precious items with such surgical precision.

Jason Reed

Plus, they deal in saving highly personal and sentimental possessions. Most are one of a kind. Geoff says it’s not unusual to see a customer burst into tears once they see a previously damaged item restored to mint condition.

Jason Reed

And make no mistake: this is hard work. Each member of Geoff’s team is a trained professional, and any slip-ups could result in an irreversible mistake. They might not be M.D.s, but that doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously. The hospital comparisons don’t end there either.

Jason Reed

The front of the store even presents itself as a type of hospital, with separate areas dedicated to different types of repairs. Whatever the “patient”‘ may be, they will find a place to treat it.

Jason Reed

Naturally, any doll hospital worth its salt has a ward for vintage dollhouses. These masterpieces are among the most detailed items on the antique market, so they require extra care. After all, the most coveted dollhouses sell in the millions!

But the Hospital doesn’t shy away from more ordinary items. Many teddy bears, often the most loved and run-down personal items, come through to get re-stuffed or to get a torn limb reattached.

Of course, the doll remains the true mainstay of Geoff’s Chapman’s business. No two are alike, so employees always have to stay on their toes. Some parts of the repair process are especially challenging.

According to employee Kerry Stuart, “The thing I like least is eyes. It’s a very difficult balancing act to get them right, so it does take a while. Sometimes I have to do them three times before I’m happy with them.”

Jason Reed

Because dolls come in every shape and size imaginable, the shop has to keep a vast array of spare parts in stock. The tinkerers in the back are always linking up different limbs, torsos, and heads. But as much as the workers are like doctors, they are also artists.

Jason Reed

They know the details are what really makes a doll precious. Many of their orders are to replace a toy’s hair or touch up its color. Emotionally speaking, these little things really connect a person to their childhood mementos.

Work at the Original Doll Hospital is far from typical, but the employees certainly take great pleasure in it — and so do their customers. At this hospital, everybody leaves smiling, whether the smiles are genuine or just painted on.

Baltimore Sun / Jerry Jackson