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Peek Into Tiny Crime Scenes Hand-Built by an Obsessed Millionaire

At first glance, the miniatures in the Maryland medical examiner’s office look like ordinary dollhouses. But look inside, and each is a carefully crafted crime scene, right down to the tiny murder weapons and minuscule clues.

And it’s all based on true crimes. Frances Glessner Lee, heir to International Harvester’s tractor and farm equipment fortune, was transfixed by criminal investigations. Much to her family’s dismay, she spent much of her life—and a small fortune—building dioramas depicting the scenes of real crimes in New England, incorporating evidence that’s still used to train investigators in crime scene analysis. Even today, the clues woven into her dioramas are closely guarded secrets.

Glessner Lee called the scenes Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and she built them with a grand purpose: to elevate gumshoe cops into an elite squad of homicide detectives. She founded a department of legal medicine at Harvard and a weeklong seminar, still held annually in Baltimore, using the dioramas to teach the art of observation and the science of crime scene analysis.

(To see more of the dioramas, click through the gallery at the top of this story, with photos by National Geographic photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg.)

Not only are the Nutshell dioramas still used to train investigators, but Glessner Lee overcame her outsider status to become a well-regarded criminalist of her day. Today she’s often called the “mother of forensic science.”  

She built the deathly dioramas in the 1940s and ‘50s on a scale of one inch to one foot, shrinking down details that she pulled from autopsy reports, police records, and witnesses—tempered with a dose of obfuscation. Sometimes she changed names and dates in her scene descriptions, and she took liberties with details that weren’t essential as evidence, such as wallpaper and decor. She spent as much on some of the miniatures as a full-size house cost at the time, says Bruce Goldfarb, executive assistant to the chief medical examiner of Maryland and de facto curator of the dioramas.

Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Glessner Lee built the dioramas from her home in New Hampshire, and mostly depicted crimes in New England. Here, a teenager was stabbed in a parsonage.
Photograph by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

“It couldn’t be toylike at all. They had to be as gritty and realistic as possible,” Goldfarb says.

In one, a woman lies dead in a bathtub, plastic water frozen in time as it streams across her face. Her home is shabby. The linoleum in front of the wooden commode is rubbed bare as if from years of use.

“What blows my mind is the boards under the sink are water-stained. It has no significance at all, but nothing escaped her observation,” says Goldfarb.

Glessner Lee’s attention to detail is legendary. Sometimes entire rooms were constructed that couldn’t even be seen without taking the diorama apart, and she once insisted, Goldfarb says, that a tiny rocking chair should rock the same number of times after being pushed as its full-size counterpart. “There was real plaster and lath; those walls have studs, and the doors are framed,” he says.

The dioramas speak not just to a macabre obsession, but to Glessner Lee’s passion for and fascination with the victims she depicted, many of which were women, in her 19 known dioramas (she’s thought to have made at least 20).

“This was a society woman, a millionairess, and it’s striking who’s portrayed,” says Goldfarb. “Most are marginalized, alcoholics or prostitutes—poor people living quite desperate lives. She chose to document the lives of people who were far removed from her social circles.”

Max Aguilera-Hellweg is the photographer who shot the images above for National Geographic’s July feature story on forensic science. His eerie photos spotlight the victims in the dioramas as well.

“I look at photography as mathematics, and this was using light and subtraction to reveal what’s important to me,” he says. No one is allowed to touch the fragile dioramas, so the photographer spent hours setting up each shot using tiny flashlights and positioning the camera to put the viewer inside the crime scenes.

As a former medical doctor who had declared death, Aguilera-Hellweg thought he had seen it all. He has photographed autopsies, surgeries, and dead bodies, but says he was shocked to learn of the Nutshell dioramas for the first time. “I didn’t know they existed,” he says.

After three days of staring at the scenes, Aguilera-Hellweg says he thinks he may have picked up on a few important clues. “What can the crime scene tell you by looking at what’s there? That what Frances Glessner Lee wanted to teach,” he says. “It’s all about the art of observation.”

Read more about the state of forensic science today in “How Science Is Putting a New Face on Crime Solving” and a companion quiz feature, “Can You Rule Out Suspects Using Faces Drawn From DNA?”

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Flies Could Falsely Place Someone at a Crime Scene

The Australian sheep blowfly doesn't just eat nectar. It has a taste for a particular human body fluid—and it’s not blood.
The Australian sheep blowfly doesn’t just eat nectar. It has a taste for a particular human body fluid—and it’s not blood.

This might be the grossest science experiment I’ve ever written about—which is really saying something on a blog called Gory Details—but it’s also one of the most fascinating. It has to do with the taste a certain type of fly has for human bodily fluids.

Blowflies, in case you’re not familiar with them, are the flies of death. As I learned when rats died in my ceiling, these big shiny flies have an amazing ability to appear seemingly out of nowhere within moments of blood being spilled or at the slightest whiff of decay.

So, a lot of blowflies are sometimes found buzzing around a gory crime scene. That got forensic expert Annalisa Durdle wondering: With all those flies doing what flies do—flying around and pooping on stuff—could they be contaminating crime scenes?

“Interestingly, fly poo can also look very similar to blood spatter,” says Durdle, who studied forensic science at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

“Anyhow,” she e-mailed in response to my indelicate questions about her research, “it turns out that you can get full human DNA profiles from a single piece of fly poo. (I tend to refer to poo rather than vomit because in my experience flies tend to eat their vomit and most of what you have left is poo—although they do eat that too!)”

Clearly, blowflies are gross.

But could they falsely incriminate someone? To find out, Durdle needed to know what blowflies would really eat at a crime scene.  

So she did the experiment. Her team offered Australian sheep blowflies a crime scene buffet, with body fluids collected from volunteers—blood, saliva, and semen—plus other snacks that flies might find in a victim’s home: pet food, canned tuna, and even honey.

“You draw more flies with honey,” my mother always told me. But in this case, she was wrong.

What you draw more flies with, it turns out, is semen.

“It’s the crack cocaine of the fly world,” Durdle says. “They gorge on it; it makes them drunk (they stumble around, partly paralyzed—I’ve even seen one fly give up hope of cleaning itself properly and sit down on its bum!). Then they gorge some more and then it kills them. But they die happy!”

Video: Meet Annalisa Durdle, the coolest fly-poop scientist ever.

The flies liked pet food too, but weren’t much into blood, and they were really uninterested in saliva. Maybe they go for semen’s higher protein content—it contains more than 200 different proteins, at much higher levels than in blood. (Update: or maybe not. Protein levels vary, and Annalisa Durdle notes that “flies are like people—they don’t necessarily eat what is good for them!” Flies are attracted to various aromas, including sulphur-based ones, so it may be that semen is simply more alluring than other food sources.)

Another thing semen has plenty of: DNA.

Durdle tested flies’ poop after various meals. “If the flies had fed on semen or a combination with semen in it, then you got a full human DNA profile almost every time. With blood, it was maybe a third of the time and with saliva, never.”

“It was also interesting to find the flies generally preferred dry blood or semen to wet blood or semen,” Durdle says. “This could be important, because it means flies could continue to cause problems at a scene long after the biological material had dried.”

How big a deal is this? Durdle says, “You really need to look at the probabilities… the chances that a fly might feed on some poor guy’s semen (after he’s had some innocent quiet time to himself), and then fly into a crime scene and poo, potentially incriminating him.”

There’s also the chance that a forensic investigator could sample fly poop thinking it’s blood spatter, she says, and find DNA that’s not from the victim.

A fly might occasionally be helpful to the cause of criminal justice. If a fly eats bodily fluids from a crime scene and then flies away into another room and poops there, it might save a sample of DNA from the perpetrator’s attempts to clean up.

Flies aren’t the only potential problem for interpreting DNA. As the technology used in forensic labs has become more sensitive, there’s greater risk of picking up tiny bits of DNA transferred to a crime scene, forensic scientist Cynthia Cale argued last year in Nature.

In fact, Cale showed that one person can transfer another person’s DNA to a knife handle after two minutes of holding hands. (Next she says she’ll try shorter times, to see if even a brief encounter could transfer DNA.)  

The fly-poop research is interesting, Cale says. Blowflies would probably be more likely to transfer DNA within a crime scene rather than bringing it in from outside, but even that could confuse the reconstruction of a crime.

“I think the biggest impact might be when a defense lawyer uses it to raise doubt in the mind of a jury,” Durdle says.  


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Do You Have a Face-Finding Superpower for Fighting Crime?

At a crowded tourist site, a young man in a yellow T-shirt angles for a spot on a bench. He sits, removes his backpack, and places it on the ground. After riffling through a blue plastic shopping bag, he walks away, leaving the backpack behind. A few minutes later, a bomb explodes. Twenty people die.

All that’s known about the young man in the yellow T-shirt is contained in a snippet of dim, grainy footage from a CCTV camera. Would anyone recognize his face?

This really happened. Just a couple weeks ago, Thai police launched a search for the young man in a yellow T-shirt, whom they believe blew up Bangkok’s Erawan shrine on August 16. They arrested a man at the Cambodian border and say he matches the description of the yellow-shirted bomber. But based on that grainy footage, they hesitate to say for sure.

Photograph by REUTERS, Thai Police/Handout via Reuters
This man was spotted dropping a backpack just before the bombing of a Bangkok shrine. Photograph by REUTERS, Thai Police/Handout via Reuters
Police captures this image of a man in a yellow shirt dropping a backpack just before the bombing of a shrine in Bangkok.

It’s just this kind of situation that prompted Scotland Yard to form a team of super-recognizers.  These London police officers have an amazing ability to recognize and match faces, even from rough CCTV footage. 

“Gary Collins is so good that he ID’d three people over his Sunday roast,” says Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, speaking about one member of the super-recognizer team who likes to relax on weekends with an iPad loaded with photos of criminal suspects. After London’s 2011 riots, the superrecognizers combed through thousands of hours of footage; Collins alone identified an incredible 190 faces among the rioters. Today, Neville heads London’s central forensic image team, which has tested thousands of police officers and identified 152 super-recognizers. These face-spotting stars normally work in their local stations, building up a mental library of the area’s criminals, and periodically attach to New Scotland Yard to solve crimes.

So far, among their wins they’ve helped to solve the murder of 14-year-old Alice Gross, spotted a serial molester on different city bus routes (he was tracked to particular routes and arrested) and are now working to link at least 30 different thefts, including major art and jewel heists, to one perpetrator.    

London’s super-recognizers were out in force at this week’s Notting Hill Carnival, the world’s biggest street fair outside Rio de Janeiro. “We’ve had a lot of problems with crime at the carnival,” Neville says. So super-recognizers sat in CCTV control centers this year and scanned the crowd, where they spotted members of rival gangs edging close to one another. Officers on the scene found and disarmed the men, averting a potential fight. “The senior detective was amazed at their ability to spot suspects in dense crowds,” Neville says.

You might share this superpower, too, and not even know it. The ability to recognize faces, it turns out, falls along a spectrum, says David White of the University of New South Wales’ forensic psychology laboratory. At the lowest end are people who are “face-blind,” a condition called prosopagnosia. (Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who recently died, had this condition. He said he recognized his best friend Eric by his “heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles.”) On the other end are super-recognizers.

Most people overestimate their skills, White says. “When people think of face recognition, they think of recognizing people they know,” he says—like spotting a friend in the grocery store. But recognizing the face of a stranger, say from two different photos laid side-by-side: That’s much, much harder.

You can take a test to get an idea of where you fall on the spectrum. Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich, devised both a short, simple test—meant as an extremely rough first pass for fun—and a more detailed test that will help researchers map out how many people fall along each part of the spectrum.  (Go here to take the simple test and find a link to the longer test.)

So far, Davis says, it appears that face recognition is an innate ability—not learned, for the most part—and that it’s distributed on a bell curve, like IQ. No particular genes have been linked to the ability, but a 2010 study found that face-recognition ability was very similar in identical twins, compared with fraternal twins, a first indicator of a genetic link to this skill. What’s more, prosopagnosia or “face-blindness” is tied to the fusiform face region, slivers that run along the bottom of the brain near the back of your head. That’s probably a good place to look for evidence of differential brain activity in super-recognizers as well.

London's police super-recognizers identified Arnis Zalkalns as the potential killer of Alice Gross based on CCTV images. Photograph courtesy of Metropolitan Police/PA Wire
London’s police super-recognizers identified Arnis Zalkalns as the potential killer of Alice Gross based on CCTV images. Photograph courtesy of Metropolitan Police/PA Wire

So what percentage of people might be super-recognizers? Davis says that depends where you decide to draw the line, but certainly fewer than 1 percent of people fall into the tail end of the bell curve where the truly exceptional lie.

Next is the question of how to take advantage of people with natural face-sighting superpowers. Detective Neville says that he’s had phone calls from police around the world interested in learning about his team. And White has been working with the Australian passport office to develop tests for face-matching ability and training for passport officers, who in their day-to-day work have to determine whether the stranger in front of them is the same person shown in a tiny passport photo.

In a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, White’s team tested a group of crack forensic examiners who specialize in face image analysis to see whether they would perform better than average, and to begin understanding whether training might help to improve the skills of people who match faces for a living.

The experts, it turned out, did perform better than either untrained students or forensic experts who don’t match faces regularly. (And, by the way, did far better on tasks where facial-recognition computer algorithms typically fail.) Perhaps people with above-average skills gravitated into these positions based on their abilities. But surprisingly, the expert face-matchers showed another ability, unusual in those with “natural” face-matching skills, to identify faces that were shown upside-down. That suggests to White that the experts’ training, which emphasized breaking a face down into component parts and matching each one, may be boosting their skills beyond their natural abilities.

So perhaps there’s still some hope for those who, like me, score a pathetic 7 out of 14 on the simple face-matching test.

A bit murkier, though, is how courts around the world might respond to the introduction of evidence based on a positive ID by a super-recognizer. In the United States, judges use a legal precedent called the Daubert standard to determine whether  evidence is scientifically supported, and eyewitness IDs of all sorts have come under scrutiny. But Neville says his team’s matches are usually just the starting point for developing a criminal case, pointing police toward a suspect who can then be investigated using DNA or good old gumshoe police work, in which case the ID is more of an investigative tool than direct evidence of criminal misdeeds.

Meanwhile, the Thai police say they’re looking for more eyewitnesses in the case of their suspected bomber, and say they will “perform further tests related to existing evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA, and photos.”