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A Colloquium on Violent Death Brings 30 Detectives to Harvard

By Gerald M. Rosberg

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.

"Have any of you ever seen a dead body left standing for four days in that kind of heat and humidity?" he asked. A few of the detectives grunted. They had seen such bodies. They realized that Dorothy could not have died as early as Monday and that Glass had destroyed the detectives' hypothesis.

Who, then, did kill her? She was found in the parson's home, Glass said; the seminar should begin with that fact. He then led the group, step by step, to the solution. (He later asked that it not be made public, for fear that detectives who will be attending the seminar in the future might read it.)

The other nutshell studies illustrate almost every conceivable variety of death: murder, suicide and accident. They depict hangings, drownings, knifings and, in a few cases, heart attacks.

All of them were built by Mrs. Francis Glessner Lee, a wealthy widow from Chicago, and a cabinet maker she hired. Although the cases are permanently sealed shut to protect the contents, Mrs. Lee insisted that every one be a working model, with miniature doors that open and shut, lights that go on and off, windows that go up and down. Each of the studies shows the victim and his surroundings in exact scale, one inch to the foot, and they are accurate down to the smallest detail, even to the wool stockings that Mrs. Lee knitted herself.

Mrs. Lee did more than construct the replicas. She was also responsible for the creation of the Department of Legal Medicine itself.

A very close friend of Mrs. Lee's brother was Dr. George McGrath, professor of Legal Medicine at Harvard (before the department itself was created), and medical examiner for Boston. Through her brother, Mrs. Lee became interested in McGrath's work, especially in his belief in medical examiners as opposed to coroners.

The medical examiner has no judicial power; the coroner does. The coroner, who in many parts of the country is an elected official, can, after he has investigated a case, select a jury, call witnesses, and advise the jury on its verdict as to the manner of death. Furthermore, in some areas the coroner is not required to be a physician, and undertakers have, on occasion, assumed the position. A medical examiner, on the other hand, must be a doctor, and has no independent authorities. He can only report his findings to the district attorney.

At the turn of the century, Massachusetts established the first medical examiner system in the country. New York City followed soon afterwards. For many years, the two areas were alone.

Then Mrs. Lee decided to promote medical examiners by giving Harvard $250,000 to establish Legal Medicine as an autonomous academic department. (The Cleveland pathologist who was chosen to head the department had to spend two years in Europe studying Legal Medicine before he could assume the post, since there was no school in this country which could teach it to him.) In succeeding years she continued to donate money, much of it going to the department's library--still the best library of Legal Medicine in the country.

The seminars in homicide investigation were also Mrs. Lee's ideas. She hoped to bring detectives from around the country and convince them of the need for medical examiners.

She designed each of the nutshell studies to illustrate some aspect of that basic proposition and, at the same time, to acquaint police officers with a few basic medical principles. One, for example, demonstrates the principle that blood will always settle in the area of the corpse which is closest to the ground at the time of death. Thus, if a person dies while lying on his back, gravity will draw the blood to that area and lividity (an easily observable, red discoloration) will set in. The study shows an apparent suicide, lying face down, yet with obvious lividity in the lower back--demonstrating that someone turned it over after death occurred.

Mrs. Lee attended every seminar, displaying and explaining the studies, until her death. She always hoped that after seeing the advantages of the medical examiner system, the detectives would return to their states and fight to get the coroners replaced. For the present, however, she has failed; there are still coroners in more than 40 states.

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