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/
Our local TV station provider has one channel dedicated to movies from the late 1940s, 50s and 60s – mostly westerns and mysteries. Last week, a screening of “Arsenic and Old Lace” was in the listing, so we grabbed some snacks and settled in for an evening of murder most nefarious, with a side of laughter.
After discovering a body in his aunts’ house, the sweet little old ladies reveal to their nephew (played by the horrified Cary Grant) that they had spiked their dead guest’s elderberry wine with arsenic, strychnine, and a “just a pinch of cyanide.” And there are more bodies in the cellar.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” was a hit on Broadway in the early 1940s before making it to the big screen, where it became a success as well.
There are several other popular movies that have featured poison as a method of dispatching the victims, but instead of the tried and true ASC (arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide) combo, employ poisonous mushrooms. The victims eat their way to nausea, gastric distress, and death, instead of drinking a ‘lovely’ cup of ‘tea.’
1971’s “The Beguiled” (remake 2017): Confederate soldier takes refuge at a girl’s school, but when he betrays two of the women, he is fed toxic mushrooms.
2017’s “Phantom Thread”: dress designer falls in love with the wrong woman. She makes him toxic mushroom tea, nurses him back to health, and when he doesn’t do what she expects, cooks him a mushroom infused meal. He remains sick enough for her to control him.
Important dating rule to remember: if your girlfriend cooks for you, always treat her well.
Mushroom poisoning symptoms range from the less severe upset stomach to renal failure and death, which may take days. It all depends on which mushroom is chosen for the deed. Agatha Christie had her favorite chemical poisons in her books and selected them according to whether or not the poison was readily available to the criminal and how much time was needed for the bad guy to get away. Read “What poisons were in Agatha Christie’s books?” here.
All poisonous mushrooms cause vomiting and abdominal pain. Testing and experience has shown that mushrooms causing symptoms within two hours are less dangerous than those that cause symptoms after six hours.
Other movies with poisons in the forefront:
In 1949’s “D.O.A.” (remake 1988): a man, lethally poisoned, rushes around trying to find out who poisoned him and why.
“The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” (1995) was based on a real case. The “Teacup Murderer” kills two of his co-workers by poisoning their tea with thallium, a highly toxic ingredient used at the camera factory where he works. He continues to select and at least sicken targeted people until new cups are put in place, confusing his plan.
I mentioned “White Oleander,” a movie from 2002, in Kerrian’s Notebook, Volume 2: Fun, Facts and a Few Dead Bodies. Oleanders grow all over the southern United States, so it’s a really good idea to stay on great terms with that neighbor with the oleander hedges. Don’t bug her about returning the weed whacker. Seriously.
Photo credits: taken by Patti Phillips at The Ferguson House, Antiques and Collectibles in Cameron, NC.
Our local TV station anchors mentioned an upcoming segment dealing with Seniors who were being targeted by telemarketing scammers. They stated that law enforcement was very concerned that scams against the elderly were on the rise. Who would do such a thing to people at a more vulnerable stage in their lives? Unprincipled, greedy people who see our Senior Citizens as easy marks.
The phony telemarketers promise ‘Senior Emily’ a “super-duper whatsit” for a mere twenty dollars. The caller lets Emily in on a *secret* – this is half the normal price for this item and she is one of a few handful of lucky people to get this offer – then asks for a credit card # to expedite the sale. “We need to add shipping charges to get it to your house by tomorrow.” Sounds reasonable to Emily. Tomorrow comes and there is no product on the doorstep. But, the scammer now has the credit card # and is already buying electronics and whatever else his/her heart fancies. They won’t be delivered to Emily either.
Our Emily mentions to her son that she never got her half-price whatsit and alarm bells go off as the conversation continues. The credit card is cancelled and counseling is given, but not before thousands of dollars of merchandise has been purchased.
Sadly, this happens day after day all over the country, and is such a big problem in some areas that law enforcement has task forces whose sole purpose is to catch the scammers.
This seems like a simple problem for the family to handle. Have a chat with the Emily in your life about not giving credit card numbers over the phone to anyone? Done. The problem goes away, right? Except that most ‘Emilys’ never mention the phone call until the bill comes in. The scammers keep spending until the credit card limit is reached or the card is closed. These days, credit card companies don’t hold their customers liable for fraudulent purchases, but there are other phone scams that have the potential of wiping out Emily’s life savings with no possibility of ever recovering the money.
The scams include Medicare and other insurance scams, cemetery plot purchases, investment schemes, reverse mortgages, lottery scams, and in my opinion, the lousiest of all, the “relative” scam. In this one, a supposed relative calls the Senior on the phone and without identifying themselves, asks if they know who is calling. The Senior makes a guess from among the younger relatives who would call and the caller now has a real name to work with. Now they can impersonate the relative and ask for money from the Senior for a car repair, late rent, etc. and arrange to have the money sent by wire somewhere. And, sweet Emily promises not to tell the rest of the family that ‘the relative’ is experiencing tough times.
How despicable to prey on family connections!
There are many, many more scams involving Senior Citizens. The National Council on Aging lists the most common, and several of these have multiple variations.
And get this: According to the National Council on Aging, 60% of the financial abuse against Seniors is perpetrated by members of the victim’s own family. Not-so-nice children or siblings or grandchildren cash social security checks and keep part or all of the money. Grocery money goes missing, and the list goes on. Seniors that live alone are especially vulnerable if they have caregivers with them for part of the day who so very ‘kindly’ offer to help with finances.
So, what is an honest family member to do to protect Emily? The next post will reveal some tips.
P.S. The ‘Emily’ in the photo has a lovely family that takes excellent care of her needs.