In the Baltimore Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, the largest of its kind in the United States, one room has seen more violence than any other room in the city.
The Medical Examiner’s Office is best known for housing the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the faithfully recreated murder scenes in miniature that helped to further forensic science. Though the Nutshell Studies are still used to train detectives, down the hall is their life-sized counterpart: the Scarpetta House, used to train forensic investigators by staging bloody scenes based on real crimes.
One half of a large room in the office is set up as a small model house with white wooden siding. Its furnishings, though bland, are all real, and little details are added to the scenery depending on the case: a box of cereal atop the fridge, children’s toys scattered around the bedroom floor, a trash can full of garbage. The scenes encompass anything and everything medical examiners might encounter in the field. Mothers and children murdered in their beds, mass cult suicides—it has all happened in the Scarpetta House.
The space was donated by mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell and named after Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner character in Cornwell’s books. Occasionally volunteers are required when the victim count exceeds the number of mannequins on hand or when live actors are needed. A little secret is that these are are often the teenage children of the doctors who work in the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.