Peer into these intricate miniature crime scenes that inspired 'Perry Mason'

The "mother of forensic science" was also a 'Perry Mason' muse.

Back in the 1940s and '50s, crime scene investigators were just beginning to understand how forensic science could be applied to solve cases. Enter the heiress Frances Glessner Lee. She saw flaws in police work, and she wanted to change the way investigators approached a crime scene. So she began construction on her famous "Nutshells," miniature crime scenes that ultimately went on to be used as training tools for investigators.

These "Nutshells" are intricate and thoughtful. To compose them, she'd create a complete backstory, including mock police reports, witness statements, everything that an investigator would need to consider when dealing with a case. By constructing these elaborate scenarios, she helped crime scene investigators step up their game, improving how they handled evidence and instructing them on how to avoid being duped by red herrings and false leads.

In that way, she was just as thorough as the most inventive minds spinning crime drama for hit TV shows and movies. And she actually crossed paths with some of the most celebrated crime writers in history, including Alfred Hitchcock, who The New York Times notes, shared Lee's interest in dealing with death in eerily familiar settings. Her hobby, which grew into actual training sessions held in top-tier universities, also put Lee in touch with Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner.

According to The New York Times, Gardner dedicated his Perry Mason novel and subsequent episode "The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom" to Lee, then went on to distinguish the artist who came to be known as the "mother of forensic science" as "one of the few women who ever kept Perry Mason guessing." 

Currently, Lee's "Nutshells" are on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 28, if you happen to be in Washington, D.C. this month. For everyone else, the museum offers a virtual tour of the miniature crime scenes here.

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