A Colloquium on Violent Death Brings 30 Detectives to Harvard

Each of the studies shows the victim in exact scale, one inch to one foot, and they are accurate down to the smallest detail, even to the wool stockings...

On Monday morning, August 19, 1946, at about 11, a high school girl named Dorothy Dennison left her home to buy some meat for dinner. A few hours later, when she still had not returned, Dorothy's mother telephoned the butcher. He told her he had sold Dorothy a pound of hamburger shortly before noon, but that he had not seen in which direction she was headed.

Police Lt. Robert Peale received a call from Mrs. Dennison at 5:25 p.m. that day and began investigating at once. A careful and systematic search revcaled no trace of Dorothy until Friday, August 23, when Peale entered the deserted home of the town parson -- who had been on vacation for several months -- and found the missing girl.

Flat on her back in the middle of the living room, her head resting in a pool of blood, Dorothy's eyes were open, but surrounded with black stains. Her right car was completely covered with blood. Her dress was ripped down to her waist, exposing her mutilated breasts. Her skirt was also torn and a large red bruise was visible on the inside of her right thigh.

It was a shocking crime, though not an especially difficult one to solve. The murderer was apprehended and the case forgotten -- but not before it came to the attention of Harvard's Department of Legal Medicine, which carefully researched the crime, then constructed a miniature replica of the room in which the body was found.


Not A Museum Piece

The Department was not putting together a museum piece. It needed the replica as a principle tool for perhaps the most unusual course offered by the University.

Since the mid-1930's, the Department of Legal Medicine has twice each year held a seminar on violent death, a seminar open only to qualified police detectives with extensive experience in the investigation of homicide.

The seminars are based on more than 20 "nutshell" studies. Each is based on an actual murder, like the Dennison case, or is compiled from details of several unrelated murders. Each -- with one exception -- has a known solution and is designed to illustrate principles which are discussed in seminar lectures.

The studies require an attention to minute details that would have put Sherlock Holmes to shame. The Dennison replica, for example, has tiny marks, meant to represent hammer dents, in the floor. Though they are easy to miss, they are essential clues to solving the murder.

Last month, 31 detectives from across the country, most of them state police, spent a week at Harvard, using the studies in connection with discussions of everything from abortion and infanticide to gunshot wounds.

The police officers were paired and each pair assigned a different nutshell study. They had two or three days to go over the models and accompanying, background information. At the end of the week, sitting around a table in Building E-1 at the Med School, each pair had to describe how they would have gone about solving their crime and give a reasonable explanation of it. Parker A. Glass, of the Department of Legal Medicine and chairman of the session, sat at the head of the table, a large loose-leaf notebook with information on all the cases opened before him. He cross-examined the detectives as they presented their theories, asking an unexpected question or pointing out some obscure, overlooked detail.

Pick the Butcher

The detectives who studied the Dennison case told the group they had concluded that the butcher had forced Dorothy to the parsonage, where he killed her.

Glass, however, reminded them that the temperature had fluctuated between 86 and 92 degrees during the week that Dorothy was missing, and that humidity had remained extremely high. These conditions, he said, would hasten the deterioration of the body, yet the body was very well preserved when the police finally discovered it. He pointed out that the replica showed the package of hamburger which Dorothy had purchased the previous Monday was covered with maggots.