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
and go out into the field to chase down people to interview.”
|Frances Glessner Lee at work on|
a Nutshell crime scene
Glessner House Museum
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?