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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dollhouses and Deaths

The Chessie Chapter of Sisters in Crime arranged for their latest meeting to be held in state-of-the-art home of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.

Anyone who dies unexpectedly in Maryland is likely to end up here, as do certain other cases that meet specific criteria, such as any death of a child under the age of two or the death of anyone in state or county custody at the time of death. The focus is to determine the cause and manner of death, which is usually completed within 24 hours. The body can then be released to the family, or, if unclaimed, to the Anatomy Board, where it can be used for medical training.

Since the Chapter had requested a Saturday tour, and no funds are available for weekend tours, administrator Bruce Goldfarb generously donated his time.

He gave us a brief history of the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner. Although requirements vary in different jurisdictions, the office of coroner had its origins in 11 century England, and his main responsibility was to ensure that the Crown got any property accruing to it after a death. A medical examiner’s chief responsibility is to determine the cause and manner of death.

“It’s really not like it’s portrayed on TV,” Mr. Goldfarb said. “None of our medical examiners run around in
Frances Glessner Lee at work on
a Nutshell crime scene
Glessner House Museum
Chicago, IL
high heel and go out into the field to chase down people to interview.”

The facility averages twelve cases a day. On the day we were there, a hot midsummer Saturday, seventeen cases had been referred by the time of our tour. Mr. Goldfarb read a list of cases, omitting names but giving us the location in the state and a brief summary of what was known about the deceased. Several were victims of gunshot wounds. One was a baby who died while sleeping in bed with her mother.

From an observation area above the airy, bright autopsy facilities, we were able to view six autopsies in progress. Mr. Goldfarb warned us that some people found the sight disturbing, and told us about someone who had recently fainted during a tour, hit his head and needed to be taken to a hospital in an ambulance. He asked us to try to avoid such a complication, since his family was waiting for him to return to set off on their vacation.

No one in our group reacted that way, although several people didn’t do more than glance at the scene below.

The building houses several training tools. A fascinating one is called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These 18 glass cases holding tiny replicas of crime scenes from the 1930s and 1940s were created by Frances Glessner Lee, one of the first people to insist that crime scenes should be evaluated for scientific evidence to reach reasonable conclusions.

Bedroom in a crime scene diorama
created by Frances Glessner Lee
for training of investigators
She donated these macabre dioramas—dollhouses of death—to Harvard University, along with generous donations to establish a training program for investigators. They are still used today for training purposes in Baltimore.

Another training facility is the Scarpetta House, donated by Patricia Cornwell, who frequently visits the center and bases much of the factual background of her work on what goes on in this building.
Mr. Goldfarb assured us that he or other staff members would be willing to answer questions and give information to any author who asked.

The tour was fascinating and informative, and left me with a new appreciation for the people who work diligently to correctly classify mysterious deaths.

Have you had opportunities to visit facilities that help with your research for crime novels?


Barb Goffman said...

I didn't attend the Baltimore event (I definitely would have averted my eyes during the autopsies). But I have visited a couple of funeral homes over the years to get details for stories -- information about coffins and keeping bodies on ice and burial and what happens when you have to dig up a body. I know some people might find it morbid, but I found it all fascinating.

Warren Bull said...

Great blog. I learned a lot.

Grace Topping said...

Thanks, Kathleen, for your report. It was interesting. You have to admire the people who can do this important work. I definitely would have been the one looking through my fingers.

Kara Cerise said...

Great information! The tour sounds fascinating although I'd probably only glance at the autopsies. But I'd love to see the dollhouses of death.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

The miniature murder scenes seem so familiar. I wonder if I've seen them in Chicago. Fascinating to read about your field trip.

Gloria Alden said...

Our SinC chapter visited the Cleveland morgue this past year and found it immensely interesting, too, but we didn't get to see an actual autopsy, because the medical examiner and just finished one shortly before and was just cleaning up then. We went over by several hours the time we were to spend in there with so many places inside to visit and so many people to talk about their specialties in solving crimes.

Shari Randall said...

I wish I could have seen the nutshells! Thank you for this detailed report, Kathleen. I feel like I was there!

KM Rockwood said...

This was a great tour, and Mr. Goldfarb answered all our questions. The autopsies were fascinating, but not everyone wanted to look at them.

The miniature houses were not used at Harvard for a while before the Baltimore facility obtained them, so it's certainly possible they were displayed other places. Or someone may have made similar ones.

Sisters in Crime is a great resource, and the individual chapters arrange interesting events.

Jim Jackson said...

Fascinating stuff indeed. I’m hoping I can join an equivalent tour—not because I’ll use it in one of my novels—but because I’m the curious sort.

~ Jim