Miniatures have always intrigued and impressed me, whether individual glass creations or furniture/decorative pieces made for dollhouses. The detail and craftsmanship needed for the exquisite designs requires a steady hand, lots of patience, and really good eyesight. A great magnifier comes in handy as well.
Not long ago, I binge-watched an old police procedural show, Rizzoli & Isles, that usually got the details right and often featured interesting forensic tools used during the investigations. One of the episodes showcased crime scene dioramas, an item new to me, but not to the field of forensics.
I researched the method of replicating specific scenes as shown in R & I and found that the technique originated back in the 1940s with Frances Glessner Lee, a woman fascinated by, and well versed in, miniatures. The first woman police captain in the U.S., she devised the dollhouse sized true crime scenes to “find the truth in a nutshell,” and to assist in training investigators to search for details they might otherwise miss. Her work in this area earned her the name of “mother of forensic science” as well helping to found the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University, where the dioramas were kept and studied.
The dioramas are so true to life that they contain details like teeny bullet holes, blood pools, headlines on newspapers, ‘rope’ made from thread, made-to-scale (one inch to one foot) bodies with accurately placed wounds, fully stocked kitchens, and much more. This fascinating way of studying grim crime scenes, preserved the information gleaned from the evidence in a way that no other method at the time did. Some crime scene photographs were taken back then, but not with the inch by inch digital coverage or video that we employ today. Lee took meticulous notes at the actual scenes and transferred that to her dioramas, sometimes taking five years to complete.
After Lee’s death in 1962, the nineteen remaining dioramas were transferred to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, and were on display at the Smithsonian in 2017-18. Modern day homicide investigation trainees can still benefit from these re-creations and in fact participate in classes where they study the dioramas and come up with solutions to the crimes depicted. Emily Rancourt, former police crime scene investigator now teaching at George Mason University, toured the Smithsonian exhibit with colleagues and said, “You don’t want your first time coming on a crime scene to be a real crime scene.” Trainees have an opportunity to develop observational skills before having to do so in the field.
The 21st century has brought a renewed interest to crime scene dioramas. One person in this specialized arena, Abigail Goldman, creates modern day ‘Dieoramas’ that have been featured in art galleries, on radio shows, and in newspapers in the United States. She has worked as an investigator for the public defender in Bellingham, Washington, re-creating murder scenes. Her larger dieoramas are 1:87 scale — the human figures in each work are under an inch tall. The scenes range from 8 inches square to more than 3 feet long.
Interested in making a diorama of your own? Some high schools and colleges assign the projects, requiring the work to be done with miniatures readily available in toy stores and to be presented in shoe boxes. If you do make one, let us know the challenges in doing so.
*Dioramas by Lee photos: courtesy of the Smithsonian
*Rancourt quote: Washington Post, November, 2017. “Can bloody dioramas show how to investigate a murder? These forensic experts say yes.” By Tom Jackman
*Abigail Goldman – check out her website http://abigailgoldman.com/
More bodies seem to pop up on TV at Halloween than at any other time of year. Cop shows usually add a spooky element to body discovery, with ghostly noises and haunted-house sound effects. Standards & Practices (network oversight departments that determine whether certain material is appropriate for public viewing) apparently looks the other way during October when a bit more blood and gore is added to the crime scenes.
One popular plot hook is to stow bodies in a wall. In general, the fictional bodies are discovered by accident when a building is being demolished, but in a second season episode of a Canadian P.I. show, Private Eyes, “Brew the Right Thing,” a family brewery is the target of repeated sabotage. An investigation into the puzzling incidents leads to the P.I.s swinging sledgehammers into a wall constructed decades before.
Why stow the bodies inside a wall? It would seem safer for the perpetrator to remove the body from the scene of the crime and bury it elsewhere. But consider this scenario: perhaps the murder was a crime of passion and the perpetrator had not planned to ‘off’ anyone at a construction site. A confrontation got out of hand and somebody wound up dead. Not wanting to go to jail, the perpetrator seizes the opportunity right in front of him, grabs some plastic tarp, and rolls the body into it. An unfinished wall turns into a burial hideaway.
Let’s take a look at the restrictions of hiding a body at home inside a wall with the help of Kelley, our resident 5-foot skeleton. Standard two-by-four studs actually measure about 1 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. Kelley is 5-6 inches thick, front to back through the sternum. Sooooo, unless the victim’s ribs have been crushed, his chest will poke out past the studs, requiring an adjustment to the hiding place.
Note: the normal distance between most studs is 16-24 inches. A big man’s shoulders wouldn’t fit straight in the narrower space, even discounting the thickness of the chest.
In a Hawaii 5-0 (modern version) 4th season episode, “Buried Secrets,” a wall is extended out into the room to create a thicker wall space that accommodates a body. More than one TV or movie crime boss has had his/her henchmen place new drywall over dead snitches, even using abandoned real estate properties as a final destination.
The assumption is that nobody will find the body once it’s in the wall. Honestly, there is really no reason to think otherwise, unless the criminals are caught in the act while mudding the drywall, or a guilty party is overcome with remorse and points a finger, or a homeowner decides to knock down a wall during a renovation.
Death in Paradise, a super popular British series, featured a disgruntled husband who buried his wife in the patio cement, after much was made of the construction site at his remote house. That cement truck raised no suspicions.
Other popular spaces to stuff a fictional TV body:
The bottom of an elevator shaft
The bottom of a dumb waiter
Cinder block construction
Foundation cement at a new construction site
Imagine the guys on This Old House discovering a body while doing a big remodel. They might start using thermal imaging devices to thoroughly inspect walls and foundations before agreeing to take on new projects. (this is not meant to imply that there ever was a body found on a This Old House site)
Has your favorite mystery/crime show featured a body-in-the-wall plot? Let us know in the comments below.
Please enjoy a safe, Happy Halloween!
Photos: by Patti Phillips
NOTE: This was updated in August, 2019 to reflect new information. 🙂
Part 2 – information about Evidence Collection Training Classes held at SIRCHIE.
Click here for Part 1 – PW: “Have you been fingerprinted?”
During the first two days of Evidence Collection Training, we used a number of chemicals, fingerprint powders, and brushes, and employed several different fingerprint lifting techniques on a variety of tricky surfaces. We discussed the benefits of both cheap and costly Alternate Light Sources.
Our notebooks were filling up and theories of the perfect crime were flying around the class. We kept quizzing Robert Skiff, our instructor, (Sirchie Training Manager/Technical Training Specialist) about ways to ‘get away with the murder of the decade.’ But, as we learned, there is no perfect crime. That pesky trace evidence will always be waiting at every scene for the investigator to discover it, photograph it, tag it, bag it, and transport it without losing the integrity of the sample.
It was time to visit the plant – see how the powders, brushes, and other crime scene paraphernalia were made.
Sirchie manufactures most of its products in-house. The specialized vehicles for SWAT, bomb rescue, arson investigation, and surveillance work, etc., will now be built in North Carolina, along with the smaller products.
Security was carefully controlled throughout our tour. Most of our group writes crime fiction, so we are always looking for a way our fictional criminals can break in (or out of) a wild assortment of locations. As we walked through the stacks and aisles of products, we commented to each other on the smooth organization and many checks Sirchie had in place. Cameras everywhere. Limited access to the assembly floor. Labyrinths a person could easily get turned around in. If we got separated from the group while taking an extra photo or two, we were found and escorted back by an always friendly employee.
Of course, we couldn’t turn into rogue students anyway. Our fingerprints littered the classroom and they knew where we lived.
Security plays a part in the assembly model as well. Each product they create is put together from start to finish by hand. There are no assembly lines because of trade secrets and a dedication to preserving product integrity. Personnel are carefully screened before being hired and qualification for employment includes graduate degrees. No criminal history whatsoever is allowed. Every employee comes through the Evidence Collection Training Class so that they understand what Sirchie does as a whole.
Templates for the various products are created in-house. The operators of these machines are highly trained experts. Quality control is paramount, so training is constant.
All the printing is done in-house. The printing area was stacked with cases of items being packaged for shipment. We saw strips large enough to process tire treads.
Field Kits are created for general use by investigators, but can be specifically designed for a special need. The small vials contain enough chemicals to test unknown stains and substances at the scene. Note the dense foam holding the vials and bottles firmly in place. The kits are usually kept in the trunk and probably get tossed around quite a bit. The foam insures against breakage during car chases and while bumping across uneven road surfaces.
There are fiberglass brushes, feather dusters for the very light powder, regular stiffer brushes, and magnetic powder brush applicators.
We were lucky enough to see fiberglass brushes being made.
If a handgun is seized for evidence, there needs to be a simple, yet effective way to track chain of possession.
*Bag the gun to preserve the fingerprints and
*drop the gun in the box.
*Then fill in the blanks on the box.
*Easy to stack and store until needed.
Think of all the cases that may be ongoing in a large jurisdiction – the evidence is not sitting at the police station. It’s in a warehouse someplace, and needs to be easily identified when required for court. In addition to several sized boxes for guns and knives, etc. Sirchie also provides an incredible assortment of resealable plastic bags for preserving evidence like clothing, unidentified fibers, etc.
Magnetic powder was being processed that day and then put into rows and rows of jars and jugs. Before it is sent out to the customers, each lot is tested for moisture content, appropriate ratio of ingredients and other trade secret tests. We joked about taking some back to class for the next round of fingerprint study and were surprised by how heavy the jugs were.
No, she’s not making bullets. She is assembling the cyanowand cartridges used for fuming with superglue.
SIRCHIE makes riot gear.
This is not a photo of something from a SyFy movie. At the center of the shot is a helmet template. The drills encircling the template are aimed at spots where holes are needed for each helmet, depending on the type of helmet in production. All the holes are drilled at the same time.
The Optical Comparator, as well as the other machines, is built to order by hand.
While in the warehouse, we learned that if a product is discontinued, it is still supported by Sirchie. That means that if a law enforcement officer calls up with a problem a few years after purchasing a machine, he can still get help. Reassuring for jurisdictions with a tight budget that can’t afford to replace expensive equipment every year or two.
Sirchie sends supplies to TV shows, so next time you’re watching a fave detective or examiner lift prints with a hinge lifter, it may have come from Sirchie.
*Photos taken by Patti Phillips at the Sirchie Education and Training Center in Youngsville, North Carolina.