Erin Bush is the creator of the website Death In Dioramas. As a Graduate Student at George Mason University, she studies Late 19th/Early 20th Century United States History with minors in Digital Research Methods and Pedagogy, Gender and Law in American Society, and Women and Gender Studies. After coming across the mother of crime scene study, Frances Glessner Lee, Erin Bush delved into the “Nutshell” studies and took to exploring and photographing them for herself. We caught up with Erin in between her classwork and teaching.
drew you to them?
Erin Bush: Other than being awesomely macabre mini crime scenes?! The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are composite crime scene models recreated on a one-inch-to-one-foot scale. These dioramas were purpose-built to function as police training tools to help crime scene investigators learn the art and science of detailed forensics-based detection.
I was drawn to them because they’re incredibly intricate. Francis Glessner Lee thought out every detail or clue when she created them. There is one particular crime scene in which a woman died in bed. If you lift up the pillow, on the bed next to her body, you’ll find lipstick marks on the underside of the pillow. (This Nutshell has been retired, so I can share that bitty detail.) Mrs. Lee laid out every clue carefully and she meticulously considered and crafted every detail. I can picture her painting lipstick on this little doll and then “suffocating” it with a pillow to get the lipstick mark just right. It’s fantastic.
In a broader sense, I was drawn to them because in my own studies, I’m interested in those individuals who existed on the fringes of “proper” society. Francis Glessner grew up at a time when there were specific and prescribed roles for women of her class. She had wanted to attend law or medical school, but that privilege was reserved for her brother and she was pigeonholed into a role she didn’t want. She learned miniature making because it was something little girls of her class learned how to do, but she turned it completely on its head. She didn’t make elaborate dollhouses because they were pretty, she created miniatures that were useful for generations of police detectives. It was a very “improper” undertaking for a women of her standing. I love that about her.
FGN: How did you come across Frances “Mother” Glessner Lee?
Erin Bush: If you read enough history books about early forensics, you’ll come across her name. I’d seen her name for years and knew the dioramas existed. Then one day, randomly, a professor gave me Corinne May Botz’s book, which is phenomenal. When I realized they were in Baltimore, I wrote to the medical examiner, explained my project, and he very kindly let me in to see them. I ended up going there twice, which is a luxury, since they’re not open to the public. I’m incredibly grateful for their generosity.
FGN: Do you feel the dioramas were truly helpful for investigators?
Erin Bush: I’m not a homicide investigator, so I don’t know, but I can tell you that I’ve read quotes by several alumni of the Harvard Associates in Police Science who’ve said that the dioramas were helpful. I also think they’re unexpected. As an educator myself, I find that sometimes the unexpected has a more lasting influence.
FGN: Why do you think human beings are so fascinated by criminal studies and homicide?
Erin Bush: You know, I ponder this question a lot. As mammals, we have a biological drive for self- and species-preservation, so there is something innate about both the fear of and the impending certainty of death. I’m not a theologian, but I also believe as a culture, at least, most of us have internalized the Judeo-Christian ethic of “thou shall not kill.” As humans, we seem to grapple with homicide on both levels.
In my research, I study how we as a culture and a society have responded to violent women. There is definitely a gender aspect to how we process murders committed by women. Women have been constructed as nurturers, so when one commits a violent act, it is anathema to cultural expectations of femininity. Statistically speaking, women have committed far fewer violent crimes when compared to men. Because of they’re lower in volume, the existing scholarship has tended to focus more on the meaning of crimes by men. I think that is what makes female murderers interesting, the fact that (statistically-speaking) so few have done it. Historically, violent and particularly bloody murders by women have spawned a media circus and headline-worthy labels such as “crime of the century” or “half-crazed murderess” (especially after the rise of the penny press in the nineteenth century). Henrietta Robinson, Alice Mitchell, Augusta Nack, Laura Fair, Mary Harris, Ruth Snyder–all these women were tried for violent murders and all generated a frenzy of attention. The media coverage tended to juxtapose their supposed violence with their gender. Look at Lizzie Borden; we’re still captivated with those murders. Did she do it or not? After 122 years, we’re still so fascinated by the details of that crime Hollywood made another movie about it. We’ll never know what really happened—seemingly, she took it to her grave–and because of that, popular interest will continue to churn.
Erin Bush: My research process hinges mostly on reading as much as I can find and a little bit on pure luck. I make friends with the archivists, because they are so important to what historians do. They live with the records and know where the “good stuff” is hidden. If you’ve read enough to recognize how to ask the right questions, you can find answers hidden in unexpected places. A well-crafted question can help you avoid spending months going down a blind alley.
My research is tough because other than the fact that my subjects found themselves in a court hearing, evidence of their lives is incredibly scarce. As a historian, I have to get creative with how I uncover their stories, since these women left very few records of their own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to stumble upon a diary written by one of them! Often I can see when these women enter the court system, but finding evidence of their lives before their crimes is much harder. Frequently, they leave the prison or get released from the asylum and then they disappear forever. The records that do exist have often been distilled through the lenses of popular media coverage (designed to sell papers) or of the institutions that managed them. I always have to take into account who created the records and what inherent biases or skewed perspective they might have of these women. Still, I’m very grateful for the little slices of their lives that I do get to see.
As far as rewards go, I love knowing that I’m telling the lost or forgotten stories of history. These are the subjects that the typical history text books gloss over and I love knowing that I’m giving these topics and these women new life. I also can’t discount the rush of the chase—finding good documents, uncovering stories, solving puzzles. I love it.
Erin Bush: I have. Early in life, I harbored fantasies of going to law school and becoming a kickass litigator. I also thought for a while about becoming a federal agent with a gun and fantastic shoes. Instead I get to study similar topics from the safety of my office or my local archives, and nobody shoots at me.
FGN: What else fascinates you? Are you working on anything in particular now?
Erin Bush: Right now I’m focused on my dissertation research, so I’m looking at women accused of violent crimes in Virginia between the 1870s and the 1930s. I’m very interested in how the status and circumstances of these women affected how they navigated the criminal justice system and where they ended up. For this project, I’m looking at records of the Virginia courts, the state penitentiary, the three asylums here, and various reformatories for younger women. Related to this project, I’m also interested in constructions of insanity, diseases of women, and perceptions of criminal behavior. This would include early gynecology and hysteria, and early neurologists and their diagnoses of a nervous condition called neurasthenia.
Unrelated, I harbor a fascination with early nineteenth-century medical treatments, what we could consider quasi-medicine, such as water, rest, and digestive cures—the early nutrition movement that gave us Kellogg’s cereal and sanitariums. I’m also a little in love with Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the only known female pirates. They sailed with a pirate named Calico Jack.. infinitely fascinating to me, even though they lived well before my time period.
Erin Bush: I have a website/blog where I keep track of my latest research and projects: http://erinbush.org