Crime Scene Dioramas Revolutionized the Science of Crime Scene Investigation

Crime scene investigation was in its infancy during the early 1900s. Investigators sometimes walked through pools of blood and even moved bodies around. Coroners had little training and sometimes didn’t even have medical degrees.

This type of behavior drew the ire of criminologists who realized the importance of preserving the integrity of crime scenes. Chicago heiress and self-taught criminologist Frances Glessner Lee was fascinated by forensics and medicine after discussions with family friend and pathologist George Burgess Magrath.

As a woman in the 1930s, Lee could not formally pursue a career in forensics, but nonetheless she proved pivotal to the science of crime scene investigation. She financed and helped found a legal medicine department at Harvard in 1934.

Lee came up with a solution to better train police officers and coroners in the science of forensics: she created dioramas of crime scenes. In the 1940s, Lee created 18 murder scenes by using dolls and miniature furniture. She drew from real case files, crime scene visits, and court records for the miniature crime scenes and used them in seminars at Harvard.

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While this approach may seem antiquated, it introduced principles that are still used today. Surveying a room in a clockwise spiral towards the victim and an emphasis on crime scene integrity are standard protocol for today’s CSIs. Lee’s dioramas are still used today in annual training workshops in Baltimore.

Criminologist Thomas Mauriello of the University of Maryland was inspired by Lee’s dioramas and created his own in the 1990s. Using the same principles, Mauriello uses regular-sized houses and stages crime scenes in one of the rooms or in the trunk of a car. His goal is to get CSI students to ask the right questions such as how the suspect entered and left the crime scene and whether a death was an accident or a homicide.

Lee’s miniature crime scenes are preserved and on display in Baltimore. If you want to see these highly influential dioramas for yourself, you can request to do so at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland.