Visiting the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office is, as readers might surmise, an odd experience—but not necessarily in the way one would expect. Located in a generically modern building, it is in some ways like any other medical clinic or hospital—hand sanitizer at strategic spots on the wall, people circulating in white lab coats, a waiting room with a TV tuned to the news, an efficient bustle in the air (albeit without the attendant sense of life-saving urgency)—but there are odd touches. Hallway “art” tends toward oversized informational posters of disease and injury. Glass museum cases display curiosities, like a tattered pair of beige tennis shoes behind what looks like an old typewritten label: “Shoes from victim who was struck by lightning. Note: Condition of heal [sic] of right shoe from concussion of lightning forces.” On another shelf labeled,“Various paraphernalia that can be found at the scene of an autoerotic death” are nestled handcuffs, ropes, a locking chastity belt, and a package of “knee hi” nylons. Nearby sit an X-ray of a hand, a burnt foot, vascular clips retrieved from someone with a brain aneurysm, an identifying tattoo made from a decomposing body (medical examiners like a good tattoo as it makes their job a lot easier when there is not much to go on).
In the same museumlike room is a curious twist on Rodin’s busts. Here, the sculptural series moves from “suicidal hanging” to “cut throat homicide” to “bullet wound .32 at 6.” (See contents page photo.) A nearby wall features a row of plaster casts of oversized gunshot wounds, entry and exit, with educational labels to help MEs in training. In this medical subculture of autopsies and exams a coded language emerges: “Smith & Wesson Revolver .38 Lead Bullet, Spl. Rem Amo Smokeless Powder, Distance 1.” Some objects, like a plaster cast of teeth, have extended narratives next to them, an entire “Cold Case” episode in a nutshell: “A 23 year old woman was stabbed 33 times with a pair of scissors in a drug related homicide. She was also bitten on the left side of the face during this attack. Bite mark impression casts were obtained from a suspect. He later pled guilty to 1st degree murder and received a life sentence.”
And speaking of “nutshells,” adjacent to the meeting room lined with museum cases is a small gallery of miniature dioramas called “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” The 18 small dollhouses constructed by Frances Glessner Lee, an heiress whose family made its fortune in International Harvester, are used to train investigators. Glessner Lee spent the 1940s carefully building them to a 1:12 scale and the meticulously reconstructed houses hold real clues, such as kitchen drawers that have spilled open with tiny utensils, hand-labeled replicas of Campbell’s Soup can boxes, postage-stamp-sized letters with telling script. In one, a man dressed in a white shirt and suspenders hangs from a rope in a hay-filled barn. In another, a woman in pink pajamas lies in a blood-splattered bed, a nearby rocker tipped over, and a bloody trail slicing across the linoleum floor. In yet another, a man in a gray suit lies face down in a primitive cabin. One fellow looks as though he passed out and died in front of a bar—but viewers must study all the existing clues and solve the crime themselves.
Because the Office of the Medical Examiner holds an annual national conference for homicide detectives and investigators (a conference series begun by the aforementioned Lee in 1945 and continuing to this day) and functions under a teaching-hospital model that trains investigators in this work, there is also a full-scale apartment inside the building that echoes the nutshells. Called the Scarpetta House, the training space was built with donations from mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell. Entering this small apartment is like browsing an Ikea floor model—if one overlooks the dead bodies scattered about. Each room is set up as a homicide scene so that, for example, a glance in the bedroom reveals a replica mother murdered in her bed with a doll-like dead baby in a nearby crib. The bathroom has an ersatz body of a child hanging from the tub’s curtain rod.
It sounds macabre, but an air of dispassionate yet respectful professionalism pervades. People are going about quietly doing their business, their business just happens to require a preoccupation with death—or manner of death.