Of death, dolls, and inspiration

Got your attention with that title, I’ll bet!

I had a truly wonderful experience this past weekend. On Saturday, my critique group partners and I joined about 40 other mystery/thriller writers from our Sisters in Crime chapter for a presentation and tour of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, MD.

This trip was billed as a chance to see the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, 18 miniature dioramas of crime scenes from the 1940s that were the brainchild of Frances Glessner Lee, a millionaire heiress with a passion for crime investigation.

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What I didn’t know was that our visit also would include a great presentation by Bruce Goldfarb, the special assistant to Chief Medical Examiner himself. Bruce walked us through the history of death investigations in the US, from the coroners of Colonial days to the mixed medical examiner/coroner patchwork we have today. And he described the OCME facility in great detail.

It is amazing, a truly modern, 21st-century facility in every sense of the word, from the mechanisms in place to ensure the best possible medical conclusions to the most advanced technologies and processes. (You can read more about it in this article.) In addition to the lecture hall, the fourth floor also includes the Scarpetta Room, funded by writer Patricia Cornwell, which lets the OCME host training exercises in homicide investigations, such as ritual suicide/murders. (Read more about it here!)

Down on the third floor are the various labs, including the one that overlooks the autopsy suite which is not at all what I’d imagined one would look like. At the OCME, the autopsy rooms are filled with natural light, with windows stretching up at least two floors (shielded with strategically placed and tilted blinds), lots of ceiling lights (which Bruce pointed out translates to no shadows cast at all in the autopsy area), viewing rooms for detectives to observe the autopsy, and a ventilation system that pulls air down and out (no formaldehyde that I could detect). And yes, there were six autopsies in progress down below us, all being conducted (and viewed by us) with utmost respect.

Then it was on to the Nutshells. This is where death, dolls, and inspiration all come together.

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Frances was a perfectionist. Her Nutshells include calendars with the correct month on the walls, two cats on a balcony outside a murder scene, fire escapes out the back windows of tenement apartments, windows and dresser and cabinet drawers that really open. Tiny bullet holes in walls that are just visible, clues scattered here and there for detectives to spot.

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And the Nutshells aren’t just of historical interest; they’re still in active use today in CSI workshops hosted by the OCME and the Harvard Associates in Police Science. (Check out “Of Dolls and Murder” and you’ll see the Nutshells in action.)

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Frances Glassner Lee was a remarkable woman. Born in 1878, she never attended university (just wasn’t done in those days) but she was well-educated by tutors and was passionately interested in investigations.

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She endowed the department of legal medicine at Harvard as well as the Harvard Associates in Police Science, which lobbied to have coroners replaced by (the more professional) medical examiners.

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She is widely considered to be the founder of the modern system of forensic science.

And this is the inspiration part. Because it was on account of her intellectual curiosity, her creative vision, her unshakeable belief that there was a different and better way for detectives to be trained that our modern approach to crime scene investigations came to be back in the 1940s.

May we all be so inspired in our own little corners of the world to pursue our dreams and convictions. Thank you, Frances.

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Filed under CSI, On Writing

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