Welcome to the dollhouse

Documentary highlights local ties to murder investigations' past

03/21/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Writer

5 Comments - Add Your Comment

Of Dolls and Murder

Cold Case. Bones. Criminal Minds. CSIs stretching from New York to Miami. A bajillion incarnations of Law and Order. The list goes on and on.

Television is overrun with police procedurals. Week after week, slick programs pump out near-perfect crimes that are in turn solved by crack teams of expert investigators with state-of-the-art equipment (and usually in record time).

These programs exist in a world of their own.

In reality, criminal investigations aren’t wrapped up in speedy little packages like they are on TV. Of course, television can’t be blamed entirely for the exaggerations — after all, they’re in the entertainment biz. However, such shows have changed public opinion about how crimes are solved and how investigators approach their work. They’ve made the populace more informed, but not always in the right way.

It’s a fascinating dichotomy and one that is explored in the new documentary, Of Dolls and Murder, which screens on Sunday, March 25th at the South Loop’s Glessner House Museum.

The location is apropos, as the film frames its profile on modern American forensics around the story of Chicagoan Francis Glessner Lee, a pioneer in the field of homicide investigation and the first female state police captain in the country, who created grisly, but vital miniature crime scene dioramas that are still used as teaching tools today.

Born in 1878, Glessner was the daughter of millionaire industrialist John Jacob Glessner. A child of privilege, she was expected to live her life according to polite society’s norms. But she wanted more. Forbidden from attending college, Glessner had to wait until she well into her 50s before pursuing her interest in criminology. The science of forensics would be forever changed.

In 1931, Glessner donated $250,000 to establish the nation’s first department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical School, and she constructed a series of hand-made dioramas for use in the forensic pathology program. Specifically named “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths,” the dioramas recreated actual crime scenes down to the smallest detail, with blank-faced porcelain dolls standing-in for individuals killed under suspicious circumstances. They allowed detectives to minutely examine cases with a frequency previously unavailable.

Of Dolls and Murder takes viewers insides Glessner’s Nutshells, which are now housed at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore. Filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray) narrates the specifics, his distinct voice adding an ironic tone to the pint-sized scenes of domestic turbulence — stabbings, drownings, hangings, suspicious fires, shotgun murders and more. It’s all beautifully creepy.

Interweaved amongst the creepiness are examinations of the Nutshells’ contemporary applications that elevate the film from a mere retrospective to an analysis and critique of modern forensics and its often misunderstood public face. It’s a brilliant balance.

Director Susan Marks joins Baltimore detectives as they use today’s science to solve (or rather, resolve) the long-dead crimes. She also joins them at crime scenes on the rough Baltimore streets where dolls are replaced by decomposing bodies.

The immersion shows how methodologies used to solve real crimes differ from those celebrated on television dramas: DNA isn’t available at every crime scene. Tests take weeks, not hours to process. Finger-printing isn’t always an option. In short, it’s far from glamorous work. Experts ranging from CSI executive producer Naren Shankar to Dr. Katherine Ramsland, author of The CSI Effect, further detail how television has both eroded and elevated perceptions of modern forensics.

A visit to the University of Tennesse’s Forensic Anthropology Center further illustrates the differences.

Also known as “The Body Farm,” the Center is an isolated swath populated by dead bodies — lying on the ground, stuffed in garbage cans, locked in car trunks and more. The recreated crime scenes allow for the systematic study of decomposing corpses in real-world settings. Glessner’s spirit runs strong here. The Farm’s tableaus are Nutshells brought to life, but enlarged and covered in maggots.

We are no longer accepting new comments on ChicagoJournal.com

By Cheryl Powell from Ravenswood Manor
Posted: 03/27/2012 4:29 PM

Elizabeth Molloy, I couldn't see it either, so I bought a copy. I can't wait for it to show up.

By Phil Morehart from Chicago
Posted: 03/22/2012 2:40 PM

That should read "Merriam Webster lists both WORDS as acceptable", of course.

By Phil Morehart from Chicago
Posted: 03/22/2012 2:38 PM

In my defense, Merriam Webster lists both films as acceptable. Thank you for the input, though. Sincerely. It is good to see readers from Texas and the UK, as well!

By Rick Staub from Texas
Posted: 03/22/2012 12:12 PM

In the spirit of Elizabeth Molloy, I must also point out to the author that there is no such word as interweaved. I believe it should say interwoven.

By Elizabeth Molloy from UK
Posted: 03/22/2012 8:53 AM

I must just point out to the author that there is no such word as 'tableaus' – it's 'tableaux'. Looks like a great documentary. I wish I could come and see it :)