Frances Glessner Lee, Godmother of Forensic Science and Her 18 Tiny Corpses: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Today’s children can find “dollhouses” made to resemble castles and auto garages, horse ranches and hair salons. But when Frances Glessner Lee, the wealthy heiress of the International Harvester fortune, began to design her dollhouse-sized miniatures, they were unique.[1] Each of the original 20 dioramas she created between 1943 and the 1950s portrayed a real death scene. Amid the tiny kitchen tables set for breakfast, the upholstered sofas and the rocking chairs, the brass bedsteads and painted dressers, the papered walls, and tins of food with recognizable labels, small bodies were scattered throughout– hung, slashed, drowned or just dead. Guns and knives and rope and blood spatter looked startlingly real.

Frances Glessner Lee, The Godmother of Forensic Science

Frances Glessner Lee grew up with one brother in an affluent Chicago Prairie Avenue household where she learned art skills from her silversmith mother, crocheted, sewed, and acquired an excellent classical education at home with tutors. By age nine Fanny, as she was known in childhood, was fascinated by science and mystery. After recovering from a tonsillectomy, she began to accompany the family physician on house calls where she sometimes assisted him, and eventually expressed interest in attending Harvard University Medical School to become a doctor or nurse.

Harvard Medical School did not accept women as students at the time; disappointed she pursued the charitable and social activities common to women of her social status, married, and bore three children. Among her other interests, she was enamored by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes murder mysteries and years later, to honor her mother’s 65th birthday and the latter’s interest in orchestral music, she constructed a miniature replica of the 90-member Chicago Symphony Orchestra, each player with his instrument and accurate miniaturized sheet music.

In 1898 she met Dr. George Burgess Magrath, at the time a Harvard pathology student and her brother George’s best friend. By 1929 Lee and Magrath had become good friends; he was the Medical Examiner for Suffolk County in Massachusetts and a professor of pathology at the Harvard University Medical School. Lee was by then the divorced mother of three grown children and had inherited $3.5 million upon the death of an uncle. She thought his work fascinating and he shared stories of his most interesting cases and even let her accompany him to autopsies. She read medical books voraciously and became so expert that it was soon clear that Harvard had not been her only path to forensic knowledge.  She and Magrath shared a common interest in the intersection of science and law enforcement and often discussed the deplorable state of death investigation in the U.S. and how it might be improved.

At that time while 1 in 5 deaths was unexplained, only 2% were examined by qualified medical professionals. The coroner system of death investigation had been adapted from longstanding English tradition. The coroner required no medical training and was elected or appointed to oversee a coroner’s jury of a dozen citizens, many illiterate, who also had no medical background or training. The jury heard testimony and examined the corpse closely, then voted to label the death natural, accidental, suicide, or homicide. Their conclusions were at best uneducated guesses. To complicate matters, crime scene investigators had inadvertently diminished the value of fresh crime scenes by destroying evidence, missing clues, and leaving their own foot and fingerprints at the scene. Death investigation needed to be professionalized with science and the law joining forces Lee and Mcgrath agreed, and they had specific ideas about how that might be accomplished. The coroner system needed to be replaced with qualified medical examiners and death investigators must be well-trained.

Frances thought Harvard University was the ideal place for such education and in 1931 she provided funds to the university for the creation and maintenance of a Department of Legal Medicine and endowed a chair for the Department which was filled immediately by Magrath who Lee said “practically invented his profession.” Three years later she donated her vast collection of books and documents on the subject to create the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. Magrath’s papers were added to the collection upon his death in 1938 and she continued to donate library materials for the rest of her life. That year the legal medicine department began to offer lectures and seminars for medical examiners and police officials, using plaster casts of various wounds and other artifacts found at or used to professionally process crime scenes.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

Lee spent much of her later life at The Rocks, the New Hampshire compound where her family summered. In 1943 the New Hampshire State Police commissioned her as its first female police captain and educational director. From her experiences in the position, she became concerned that patrol officers and investigators did not secure crime scenes adequately and missed evidence that might have helped to close their cases. She visualized a seminar to be held at the Department of Legal Medicine where police from everywhere in the country could learn from one another, using some visual studies of actual cases. She was the first woman in the nation to achieve the rank of Captain and was made a police captain subsequently in several other states. Frances was so pleased that she preferred to be referred to professionally as Captain Lee and her business cards identified her by both her married name and police rank!

Nationwide, most “boots on the ground” death investigators learned their specialty on the job, inheriting the good and bad habits of more experienced police officers. The places where bodies were found—often in their own homes–were accessible to only those few investigators and the coroners, and they could not be preserved long enough for other rookie investigators to gain first-hand experience processing the scene. Frances had an idea: Would miniature models like the orchestra she had crafted for her mother be useful? Magrath thought they would.

Lee began to create her masterpiece,The Nutshell Cases of Unexplained Death, 18-20 dioramas (some have since been lost or damaged) based on actual suspicious death cases. A skilled carpenter, Ralph Mosher built the dioramas according to her design specifications, their working doors and windows, and most of the furniture. She added the homey details, the corpses, and evidence of possible crime. Her grisly scenes were not created to mystify armchair detectives. They were meant to be used as a tool to teach law enforcement investigators and forensics experts how to effectively process a death site to uncover the secrets an undisturbed scene could reveal. Encouraging the use of the scientific method and logical reasoning, their purpose she said was “to convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” To accompany each diorama, she wrote a “police report” including witness statements that students used to assess the site.

By 1945 she initiated the 1-week seminar for law enforcement officers she had dreamt about that included lectures she gave along with other medical and legal experts, and a hands-on exercise using her Nutshells. Trainee pairs were given 90 minutes, a flashlight, and a magnifying glass, to examine two of the dioramas and report their conclusions to the class. They were not meant to solve the cases but to model how an effective investigator could use even the smallest details to construct reasonable theories about the death.  

Her creativity and vivid imagination filled in details not included in the investigative reports. While most dollhouses until this time were patterned after upper class households, Lee’s tiny rooms represented settings generally ignored or viewed unsympathetically by the larger society, the homes of mid-twentieth century working class households, sometimes the abodes of criminals and prostitutes and common sites of unexplained deaths.

She was painstaking in everything she did, and these were no exception. She hand-wrote miniature letters using a 1-bristle brush, painted doll faces to show contusions, livor mortis coloring, and the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, and she positioned bodies to reflect rigor mortis. Wallpaper was hand painted as was a painting of her New Hampshire home hung over a fireplace. She made the clothing victims wore, including stockings she knitted using straight pins. Many biographers have pointed out that Lee was unique in bringing traditional women’s arts and crafts to the use of what had always been men’s province, death investigation and law enforcement.

Frances Glessner Lee’s Legacy

While Lee died in 1962 and her dioramas have been supplemented by life-size crime scene displays and video manipulation, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death remain the gold standard for visual tools used to train death investigators. She inspired Erle Stanley Gardner, the attorney-author who created the character Perry Mason. He attended one of Lee’s seminars in 1948 and quipped that she was the only mystery Perry Mason could not solve! In the 1940s and ‘50s, before DNA analysis, sophisticated radiological scans, and video technology, Frances Glessner Lee’s work was the CSI of its time, bringing the science of forensics into the national attention. One CSI episode actually uses her diorama idea as the basis of an episode where a serial murderer leaves such models of his crimes at his scenes.

While the Department of Legal Medicine no longer exists, the Magrath Library has been subsumed into Harvard’s main collection, and Harvard University is no longer the site or otherwise affiliated with her Seminars, these have continued—using the Nutshell Studies on loan from Harvard, sponsored by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore Maryland. Bruce Fowler, Chief Medical Examiner, had studied at Lee’s Harvard programs. Lee encouraged her seminar alumni to keep in touch; toward that end she created Harvard Associates in Police Science. The group, composed of program graduates, is not affiliated with Harvard University but continues today to provide a forum for forensic and law enforcement collaboration. Post-Covid-19, the next Frances Glessner Lee Homicide Investigation Seminar for Law Enforcement Personnel will be its 69th session.

Resources

My research for this article began by reading 18 TINY DEATHS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF FRANCES GLESSNER LEE AND THE INVENTION OF MODERN FORENSICS (2020, Sourcebooks) written by Bruce Goldfarb, an accomplished journalist and currently the Executive Assistant to the State of Maryland Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. David Fowler. One of Goldfarb’s responsibilities is the oversight of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death[2], a collection of 18 miniature death scenes used to educate police officers and medical examiners on the proper handling and analysis of crime scenes. The book is a wonderful introduction to the history of forensics and a fascinating glimpse into the life and times of an amazing woman. I highly recommend it!

Another priceless source of information was the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery; the Wall Text for Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, an exhibit on display in 2017-18.Images of the exhibit and its notes can still be found online.

Last, I consulted articles published in the Washington Post, Can You Solve This Grisly Dollhouse Murder written by Sadie Dingfelder and published October 19, 2017, and The Woman Who Invented Forensics Training With Doll Houses by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, published in The New Yorker on November 5, 2017.

A You Tube documentary, Of Dolls and Murder remains available and makes interesting connections between the Nutshell Studies and modern programming like CSI. Another documentary by filmmaker Susan Marks also studies Lee and her work and contains interviews with family members.


[1] “Dollhouses first appeared in Europe around the 17th century as a status symbol. As it was popularized, it became a tool to teach upper class young ladies the skills of managing a household. In light of this, gender and status became points of interest in the work of Lee, a wealthy divorcee for whom the role of the domestic never quite fit.”—quotation taken from the wall text of the Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibit 1917—1918, Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

[2] As the Smithsonian American Art Museum noted in the wall text of  its 2017 exhibit “Murder Is Her Hobby,” the Studies were created “to train homicide investigators in the 1940s and ‘50s to ‘convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.’”

About Sue Keefe

I am a freelance writer whose particular topics of interest include true crime and the experience of deafness. I am currently co-writing a book about the triple homicide of a wife and her 4- and 7-year-old daughters with Charlie Wells, the now-retired 23-year veteran sheriff of Manatee County, Florida. I have three adult sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren. My husband Bob Volpe and I divide our time between a lake cottage in Battersea, Ontario, Canada and our condominium in Sarasota, Florida.

5 Responses

  1. Morley Burwash

    What a fascinating woman! This week we had International Women’s Day. Your story highlights how an immensely talent women made her mark in the world despite lacking opportunity.

    Like

  2. CONNIE SHINGLEDECKER

    What an amazing woman! Thanks to her determination and skill we in law enforcement are better at death scene investigations. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing!! Connie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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