The Nutshell Studies

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
So a quick announcement before we start. Earlier this year, I went to the TED Conference in Vancouver, and I gave a talk about flag design. It was an incredible experience. Even though there was a little bit of skepticism when I started the talk, you know, when everyone learned that it was really going to be about flag design, the talk totally won over the crowd and I got a standing ovation. It was a real highlight of my career, and last week the video was finally released. So I really hope everyone who listens to this show will go watch it and share it. You’re going to dig it.

Roman Mars:
The cool part is they let me perform the talk like a radio piece instead of the normal TED talk. I’m sitting down and playing audio clips and talking over music. And for once, you get to see my face while I do it. If you’ve been listening to 99% Invisible for a while, you know that one of the thorns in my side is the city flag of San Francisco. If you’re not familiar with that flag, you’ll see it in the video. It’s not good. Anyway, 99PI has some fans at the company Autodesk, and if you don’t know Autodesk, all you need to know is this.

Roman Mars:
If the thing you’re looking at exists in three dimensions in the real world, that object was probably designed on Autodesk software. So Autodesk has this big office in San Francisco, and they saw the TED Talk and suggested that we partner together to help plan a redesign of the San Francisco flag. I’m really excited. We have a website, sanfranciscoflag.com. You can watch the TED talk there. Sign up, learn more, get involved. That’s sanfranciscoflag.com. Please visit. Watch the video. Share the link. I am trying to get my TED talk to become the most-watched TED talk in history. So we just need 33 million more views to get there. So if each of you who download the show, watch the video between 60 and 70 times. We can make it. Or you can just share it a lot and make your friends watch it. All right. Thanks so much.

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. The office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland is a busy place. Anyone who dies unexpectedly in the state of Maryland will end up there for an autopsy. On an average day, they might perform 12 autopsies. On a heavier day, they might do more than 20. The building is six stories tall. Around 80 people are employed there. All day long, police are coming in and out. People are calling about their deceased loved ones. The press is calling with inquiries.

Katie Mingle:
But there’s this one room on the fourth floor that sits apart from the buzz of normal activity in the building.

Roman Mars:
Producer Katie Mingle was just there in Baltimore.

Katie Mingle:
This room feels a bit more like an art gallery because, well, it is kind of an art gallery. It houses the nutshell studies, which are these miniature dollhouse-like diorama’s, and each one is a different scene.

Roman Mars:
There’s a kitchen, a log cabin, a barn, a bathroom. There are 18 different scenes.

Katie Mingle:
And each scene has different tiny features, tiny furniture, tiny windows and doors and lamps. And there are also tiny people, dolls in each scene. And all of the tiny people in these scenes have one thing in common.

Roman Mars:
They’re all dead.

Katie Mingle:
When you look at a nutshell diorama, you’re looking for clues about how the person or persons died. Was it a suicide, a homicide and accidental death?

Seminar Participant:
“The gun’s there, you’re obviously going to get a lot of evidence off the gun. Why would someone that came in to murder them, why would they leave a gun if they know that that’s going to happen…”

Katie Mingle:
So I said a minute ago that the nutshell room is usually a quiet sanctuary and an otherwise busy office. And it is usually, but this week there are quite a few people in here. They’re mostly police, a few FBI, and they’re here for a week-long seminar on homicide investigation.

Seminar Participant:
“One of the other theories is that you know, maybe he wakes up and…”

Roman Mars:
While they’re there, the attendees will hear speakers, they’ll see an autopsy and there’ll be broken into groups and assigned a nutshell diorama. At the end of the week, there’ll be asked to present their theories of what happened in their diorama’s.

Katie Mingle:
This group is looking at one of the few multi-room natural studies.

Seminar Participant:
“And then he stumbles in here. He’s crawling at this point, gets in the bed, and then falls in. That’s where he dies.”

Seminar Participant:
“But he drags the comforter under him.”

Seminar Participant:
“He might’ve thrown it the off beforehand.”

Katie Mingle:
Now most nutshells are just one room and about the size of a shoebox, and this one is a little bigger. It has three rooms plus a porch. It’s in a glass case, so you can look down and see the interior of the house from above.

Seminar Participant:
“He doesn’t inject the round until he comes into the… baby’s room. I think there’s a lot…”

Roman Mars:
The scene is of a lovely, well-kept suburban home. There are lace doilies on the tables, flower print linoleum in the kitchen and blood everywhere. In the bedroom, a husband and wife are dead from gunshot wounds. In another room, a baby has been shot dead in her crib. Blood is spattered all over the pink wallpaper. It’s a gruesome scene.

Seminar Participant:
“It was supposed to be a murder-suicide with him and his wife and he wanted the neighbors – because he knows the neighbors are going to come in the morning…”

Katie Mingle:
The seminar that brought these folks here has been happening every year for the last 70 years, and the person who started it is the same person who made the little death scene dioramas.

Roman Mars:
Her name was Frances Glessner Lee and her work in the field of forensics has shaped just about everything that happens inside the office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore, Maryland.

Katie Mingle:
To tell her story, I want to introduce to a couple of people.

Bruce Goldfarb:
Medical examiner’s office. Or you can call it ‘investigations department.’

Katie Mingle:
That’s Bruce Goldfarb.

Bruce Goldfarb:
And I’m the Executive Assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland.

Katie Mingle:
And this is Corrine.

Corinne Botz:
Hi, I’m Corrine Botz, I’m an artist and photographer and I’m the author of ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.’

Katie Mingle:
Corrine spent seven years researching Frances Glessner Lee.

Corinne Botz:
So Frances Glessner Lee would have loved the opportunity to study medicine and go on to college, but her parents were not supportive of that.

Roman Mars:
This was around 1900. Women weren’t really going to medical school. Her brother got to go though.

Katie Mingle:
Of course, and he brought a friend home once, a guy by the name of George McGrath.

Bruce Goldfarb:
Who was a pioneering medical examiner.

Katie Mingle:
McGrath and Lee became great friends and when he’d come to visit, he’d tell her stories about cases he was working on.

Bruce Goldfarb:
And she was just absolutely fascinated. She loved it.

Katie Mingle:
Now Lee came from a wealthy Chicago family and she was supposed to be a proper society lady with lady hobbies like needlework. So her interest in death wasn’t really encouraged by her family, which meant for years she quietly studied it.

Corinne Botz:
She was voracious reader, talking to experts, getting firsthand experience by going to crime scenes-

Bruce Goldfarb:
And then came to realize that people were getting away with murder. Literally.

Katie Mingle:
Police would routinely botch investigations.

Bruce Goldfarb:
They would contaminate crime scenes, move bodies, do things that today it would be obviously, ‘don’t do that.’ But at the time they didn’t know any better.

Katie Mingle:
And beyond that, the police just didn’t know how to get information from these scenes.

Corinne Botz:
They might not realize the significance of, a pile of cigarettes or the positioning of a firearm.

Katie Mingle:
And the other thing was autopsies either weren’t being done at all or were being done by doctors with no specific training in forensics.

Roman Mars:
Eventually Lee’s parents and her brother passed away. She was in her fifties by then and she finally had access to the family money and agency to do what she wanted. So in 1936…

Bruce Goldfarb:
She gave a bunch of money to Harvard University to establish the first program of legal medicine to train doctors and make them medical examiners.

Roman Mars:
And then in 1945, Lee starts and presides over these week-long training seminars for police. The ones that are still going on today. She wanted to teach police among other things, how to gather clues from a crime scene.

Corinne Botz:
Of course in terms of the legalities and time constraints. They weren’t actually able to visit a crime scene during the seminars.

Katie Mingle:
So Lee decided she’ll build miniature death scenes for the police to study. Each one will be based on a real death, she’ll call them the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Corinne Botz:
Basically, she would come up with the concept and the design and her carpenter would draw the blueprints, a scale of an inch to a foot.

Roman Mars:
Lee’s carpenter built the structures, framed the rooms exactly as you would a real life-sized room. Real studs, real doors with real locks that worked.

Katie Mingle:
Lee handled all the figures and the textiles, the rugs and drapes and tiny clothes on the tiny figures. Finally, those society lady skills were being put to use.

Corinne Botz:
She would knit the stockings with needles the size of straight pins using a magnifying glass and of course she could only work for like a few seconds before her eyes would fatigue.

Roman Mars:
The figures in the nutshells also sometimes show rigor mortis, which is a post mortem stiffening of the body, and lividity, which is the way the blood pools or settles in the body after death. Both provide clues as to how and when a person died.

Katie Mingle:
The detail in the nutshells is a bordering on obsessive. In one, an ashtray overflows with tiny cigarettes made with real tobacco hand-rolled by Lee herself. Each one burned and then stubbed out.

Corinne Botz:
The coffee pot she has, there’s a strainer inside and coffee grounds in it.

Bruce Goldfarb:
They’re full of extraneous information cause that’s the way real life is. You go into somebody’s home, they could have a bag of drugs and a weapon over here and die of a heart attack. It may or may not mean anything.

Roman Mars:
Frances Glessner Lee spared no expense on her diorama.

Corinne Botz:
Like she sort of lavished love onto these brutal crime scenes.

Roman Mars:
Each one took about six months and around $6,000 to build. That’s about the same amount of time and money it would cost to build a real house in the 1940s.

Corinne Botz:
Lee felt like if the policeman looked at them and saw any fault or didn’t take them seriously, they wouldn’t learn from them. So that’s why she felt like everything had to be done perfectly. Of course, Frances Glessner Lee was always trying to be taken seriously in the all-male world she had entered. She was ultimately both respected and adored by the police that she worked with. The week-long seminars she led were thought to be the best training homicide detectives could receive. And they’re still thought of that way actually, even today,

Roman Mars:
After Frances Glessner Lee died in 1962, the programs she funded at Harvard, including the week-long seminars were ended and the nutshells were put in storage, possibly headed for the trash.

Katie Mingle:
And then the medical examiner in Baltimore at the time, a guy named Russell Fisher, who was a former student of Lee’s programs at Harvard, stepped in and said…

Bruce Goldfarb:
We’ll do it. We’ll do the seminar. You know, we’ll just pick it up here in Maryland. And they brought the nutshells down. And so it’s been the seminar and the nutshell’s been used here since 1968.

Roman Mars:
The building that houses the medical examiners office in Baltimore is fairly new. It was built in 2010.

Katie Mingle:
Bruce is giving me a tour of the building. It has some unique features including a full-size apartment that investigators can use to stage death scenes.

Bruce Goldfarb:
“Back behind this, we’ve got an old dining area kitchen.”

Katie Mingle:
Bruce refers to it as a life-size nutshell study and the most violent room in Baltimore.

Bruce Goldfarb:
“This is the most violent room in Baltimore.”

Katie Mingle:
They also have a parking garage that in an emergency can quickly turn into a huge morgue and they have a biosafety facility to deal with death from highly contagious diseases.

Bruce Goldfarb:
“There’s the whole isolation suite and its own power generation, its own ventilation, its own drainage.”

Katie Mingle:
As we walk around the autopsy floor, the second floor, I’m on high alert. I’m basically terrified of running into something I’m not prepared to see or smell.

Bruce Goldfarb:
“You have to go through the decamp area. If you want to stop, turn around, that’s absolutely fine.”

Katie Mingle:
“Wait, what is that? What am I going to… what’s going to happen? I’ll see some stuff or I’ll smell from stuff?”

Bruce Goldfarb:
“No, smell some stuff.”

Roman Mars:
Hold it together, Mingle. Be cool!

Katie Mingle:
I know, I’m totally not being cool, but we go through and it’s fine. I mean, yes, there are dead bodies and I have many existential feelings about that that I won’t share here. But mainly this place feels like a really clean hospital for dead people. It feels like, yeah, this is how it should be.

Bruce Goldfarb:
Frances believed in science-based death investigation, the whole institution top to bottom I think is probably the fullest embodiment of her philosophy and her approach.

Katie Mingle:
Bruce is talking of course about Frances Glessner Lee. He says, not only is this building and embodiment of her philosophies but so is the whole Maryland system for dealing with death investigation.

Roman Mars:
If you die unexpectedly in the state of Maryland, your death is likely to undergo a thorough investigation including an autopsy by a medical examiner. It’s specific forensic training.

Katie Mingle:
But this is not what you get everywhere. Depending on where you die, you can end up in a facility like Maryland or you could literally end up on a makeshift table in someone’s garage. From state to state and even county to county, there can be huge variations in quality and there are definitely no federal regulations.

A.C. Thompson:
There’s a lot of substandard work, unfortunately being done in that field. It’s not like CSI. It’s not like what you see on TV very often.

Katie Mingle:
That’s A.C. Thompson. He did a bunch of reporting on this for ProPublica a few years ago.

A.C. Thompson:
Very often it’s people working under dismal conditions for very little money with very little oversight.

Roman Mars:
When someone dies in the U.S., an authority has to issue a death certificate with a cause of death. If you die from an illness in hospital, this is something your doctor would do. If you die unexpectedly, like if you’re murdered, fall down some steps, a death certificate is issued by either a coroner or a medical examiner.

Katie Mingle:
Maryland is on a medical examiner system. South Carolina, Colorado and several other states are on coroner systems and then you have states that are a weird mix of both depending on what county you’re in.

Roman Mars:
And Frances Glessner Lee was actually really passionate about abolishing coroners in favor of medical examiners because, well, I don’t know if she would have put it like this, but basically…

A.C. Thompson:
The corner system is crazy. It’s bonkers and it’s an ascientific thing from another era.

Roman Mars:
First of all, you don’t necessarily have to be a doctor to be a coroner. That is to be the person who issues a death certificate with a cause of death.

A.C. Thompson:
Like I’m a high school graduate and a lot of places I could just roll out and say, oh, I’m running for coroner and be the county coroner. Now I would typically work with an MD who would do the autopsies, but I’d be the one who would make the final decision.

Katie Mingle:
And that’s the other thing. The coroner is an elected office.

A.C. Thompson:
When you have medical professionals or even non-medical professionals who have to run for office based on what happens in the morgue, it sets up potential conflicts of interest.

Katie Mingle:
One of the situations where you might see conflicts of interest are cases where someone dies in police custody. A.C. actually did some reporting on this very thing in New Orleans.

A.C. Thompson:
And what you see in New Orleans over and over and over again is that when people died in police custody or when people died in jail custody, there would be pretty good evidence that something untoward had happened. They’d been neglected, they’d been severely beaten, they’d been attacked, and what was happening was the coroner there was basically trying to pretend that these things didn’t happen.

Katie Mingle:
He was ruling deaths to be accidental that should have been ruled as homicides. His name was Frank Minyard. He actually was a doctor, but he wasn’t trained as a medical examiner. He was an OBGYN and he seemed to have a bias toward protecting the police. Maybe because he constantly had to campaign to keep his job.

Bruce Goldfarb:
Who does he want to endorse him? Well, he wants the police to endorse him and if he’s got a big spat with the police, is that going to look good for voters?

Roman Mars:
In New Orleans, the FBI finally stepped in and did some of their own investigations and some police did eventually go to jail for some of those deaths. But Minyard was never fired by the voters or anyone else. He served as coroner for 40 years and finally retired in 2014.

A.C. Thompson:
So it’s worth noting when you’re talking about incidents involving the police that if the police shoot somebody, the coroner medical examiner is going to say it was a homicide. You can’t really get around that. And then the question will be is it justified or not?

Roman Mars:
But then there are cases that are less cut and dry and those are the ones where an impartial scientific death investigation might matter the most.

Katie Mingle:
And actually while I was in Baltimore, one of these cases was playing out, you probably heard about it.

Crowd Chanting:
“Freddie Gray didn’t have to die.”

News Report:
“For a second day in Baltimore, a demand for answers and to how 25-year-old Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody.”

Roman Mars:
Freddie Gray sustained his fatal injury on April 12th. He died a week later on the 19th

Katie Mingle:
And for days after his death, people protested and waited to see if the state’s attorney Marilyn Mosby would bring charges against the police involved in the incident. And Mosby was waiting too. She was waiting to see how the medical examiner would rule the death. As soon as she got their findings, she made her announcement.

Marilyn Mosby:
“The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr Gray’s death was a homicide which we received today has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges.”

Roman Mars:
We don’t know if the officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death will be convicted, but they were charged. And for a lot of people this was an important first step.

Katie Mingle:
I had left Baltimore by the time the medical examiners office released their findings on Freddie Gray. But I have to say that having just been there and seeing the way they do things, I felt pretty confident in their process. It felt like their findings would be based in science and not tied to politics. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Frances Glessner Lee had something to do with that.

Bruce Goldfarb:
You know, if she were to walk around, see what we do, how we do things here, I think she’d be very pleased. And you know, she really is, I don’t know if we believe in guiding spirits or that sort of thing, but she is very definitely a presence here every day.

Roman Mars:
At the end of the Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation, the attendees present their theories about what happened in each of their nutshell studies and then they get to find out the actual solutions.

Katie Mingle:
Was it a homicide staged to look like a suicide or a suicide stage to look like a homicide or something else entirely?

Jerry Dziecichowicz:
This is the folder that contains the solutions to the nutshells. Da-da-da-dun.

Katie Mingle:
The guy that has the answers to these questions might be the most Baltimore guy I met in Baltimore.

Jerry Dziecichowicz:
Yeah. Hi, my name is Jerry Dziecichowicz, also known as Jerry D. Sometimes the police will come up with their own solution and since they’re all wearing guns, I don’t challenge them to say you’re wrong. I just say that’s not how Frances saw it, but I do have the answers.

Katie Mingle:
Jerry D. is not going to let me see the folder or record when he tells the solutions.

Roman Mars:
They guard the nutshell secrets like the recipe for Coke or the code for the Google search algorithm because there’s still valuable secrets. As long as the solutions aren’t easily searchable, the nutshells are still great tools for teaching homicide investigation, and that is something that the medical examiners office in Baltimore, Maryland takes very, very seriously.

Roman Mars:
Thanks to everyone at the office of the chief medical examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, especially Bruce Goldfarb for letting us come to visit. Corinne Botz’s book, ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,’ is full of amazing photographs with the nutshells, some of which you can see on our website at 99PI.org

Seminar Speaker:
“Being that this is the 70th anniversary, in order to celebrate, we’ve actually had a 70th anniversary challenge coin with Frances Glessner Lee on the back and Harvard Associates on the front.”

Roman Mars:
Yep. Katie got a Frances Glessner Lee challenge coin when she was there and Avery is so jealous. Make sure you coin check Katie when you see her.

  1. Ali O

    One of the best pieces I’ve heard from you guys. Heard it live in Oakland a few weeks ago and couldn’t WAIT to be able to share it with friends/family. :)

  2. That Boards of Canada, though. As soon as I heard the first note start to fade in, I realized (again) why this is my favorite podcast these days. Roman Mars, I’m glad you do what you do.

    1. @Ian…i’m right there with you! and what’s more, as i was walking to work this morning (where i do my podcast listenin’) i had a notion to listen to just that track (In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country) at some point today – and i haven’t done so for about…10 years…
      of course, once i heard those first couple notes: instant reminder! listening now…

  3. In the photo of Lee examining a human skull — is she wearing a watch-ring on her left hand? She’s, what, James Bond, too? Truly enjoyable episode as always, thanks so much!

  4. Ellen Chase

    Frances Lee must have been my mother in my previous life! Having recently built a couple of rooms on the same scale with the same obsession with accuracy, I am inspired to keep on! I did knit a couple of sweaters on toothpicks as a kid, but stockings on pins? No thanks. You have to draw the line somewhere!

  5. Thank you for focusing on death investigation and the coroner/medical examiner system, and for highlighting some of the problems in the underfunded patchwork of a coroner system. I am deeply familiar with this system, because I was a deputy coroner and then county coroner in my county. I am not a doctor; by background is in anthropology with a focus in forensic anthropology and pre-medicine. However, I really doubt one could get a doctor to work for the wage of the coroner in my county. In fact, for about the last 40 years, the coroners here have either been anthropologists or funeral home directors (another potential conflict of interest that occurs frequently in smaller counties).

    Do bear in mind that most coroners are required to be trained and undergo continuing education in medicolegal death investigation. Many offices are working on accreditation through the IAC&ME, the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. Many investigators are certified through the ABMDI, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. I am a member of and certified through both, as well as through my state’s Peace Officer Standards Training Board of Coroners.

    However, the problem is the patchwork nature of the coroner system, and that not all investigators or county coroner officials are uniformly certified. Each county has to make their own protocols on when to perform an autopsy and when not to. Many counties have to travel to perform autopsies with contract forensic pathologists. At least one entire state, Wyoming, is entirely devoid of forensic pathologists, so each county must contract and travel out of state for every single autopsy. Many offices have to struggle with county commissioners to explain the value of maintaining an autopsy budget and for paying their employees a living wage.

    Thank you for highlighting some of the problems with the election of a county coroner, in which coroners candidates are forced to choose a party, then court votes and endorsements from police, funeral homes, sheriff’s departments, former professors, former county coroners, and other prominent members in their communities. To make matters even harder, how does a coroner candidate court regular, non-law enforcement voters when most voters are not even aware of what the coroner does?

  6. jKH

    You know what is super annoying and super rude? Anyone telling anyone they should change their voice. You are entitled to your opinion; you are not entitled to demand that others conform to your taste.

  7. Rahul

    I would be so interested in solution for “The three room dwelling” mystery. Just hate an unsolved problem.
    As always, another great episode.

  8. Alexander

    Does anyone know what the piano motif at ~08:00 is? I also hear it sometimes on This American Life I think and it’s stuck in my head!

  9. Nicole

    As a medical student who has been dreaming about becoming a forensic pathologist since high school, I am a huge fan of this episode and have now added, “See the Nutshell Studies” to my Bucket List! Awesome that y’all are spreading awareness about the dismal state of medico-legal death investigation as a whole in the US.

  10. I love these podcasts! Always learning something :) In CBS’s Elementary, Holmes trains Watson using something very similar to the nutshell studies!

  11. I saw these in person this earlier today! They have been on display at the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC for months and I only just found out about it this week. My wife and I went to see them with a couple thousand of our closest friends.

    They were beautiful and amazing to see in detail. The exhibit was packed and according to the staff there has been like that for months. Sadly, this is the last weekend of the exhibit. I don’t know if they’re going anywhere else but it was such a treat to see them in person and I thought back immediately to this episode of 99pi where I first learned about them.

    Thank you so much for introducing me to them and their history! They’re amazing works of art and forensic science.

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