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The legacy of Frances Glessner Lee

How a Gilded Age heiress became the mother of forensic science

Created date

July 20th, 2018
Frances Glessner Lee became a bit of a celebrity in her later years.

Frances Glessner Lee became a bit of a celebrity in her later years.

Born in 1878, Frances Glessner was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Like most young ladies born into high society at the time, she was educated in her Chicago home and taught the life skills she would need for a successful future. 

She learned the fundamentals of tasteful interior design, how to plan menus and throw successful parties, and how to establish herself as a worthwhile bride for a young man from a similarly wealthy family.

Smart and curious, young Frances devoured the Sherlock Holmes mysteries that were all the rage. She longed to follow her brother to Harvard and study medicine, but in those days, well-bred young ladies did not attend college.

Early years

At the age of 19, Glessner followed tradition and her parents’ wishes by marrying Blewett Lee, a lawyer. They had three children together but Frances was unhappy. Despite the social stigma assigned to divorcées, Glessner Lee fought to permanently end the union.

After the divorce, she dabbled in antiques and ran the family’s dairy farm in New Hampshire.

Her closest friend at the time was George Burgess Magrath, a friend of her brother’s from Harvard. As one of the nation’s first medical examiners, Magrath was an expert in ballistics and other methods of investigating suspicious deaths. Magrath’s work fascinated Glessner Lee. She peppered him with questions about his work and, in the process, learned quite a lot.

She was so taken with the subject, she used part of her large inheritance to establish Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine. It was the first school of its kind, and her good friend Magrath was named its chair.

First female police captain

Glessner Lee’s keen interest in forensics and her natural intelligence soon made her an expert in the field. In 1943 she became the nation’s first female police captain when she was commissioned by the New Hampshire State Police.

She oversaw the department’s education program where she observed how little police officers knew about protecting the scene of a crime. To remedy the matter, Glessner Lee started teaching seminars on investigative techniques.

She quickly realized that lectures alone could not adequately convey her message. She wrote, “Since visual studies of actual cases seem a most valuable teaching tool, some method of providing that means of study had to be found.”

The desire to employ visual aides led Glessner Lee to undertake a project that would become her magnum opus.

She named it “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” and it ultimately consisted of 20 highly detailed dioramas depicting crime scenes.

As for the peculiar name, it comes from one of Glessner Lee’s favorite investigator sayings, “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”

The dioramas

At first glance, the dioramas may look like any other well-appointed dollhouse scenes, but look closer and you’ll see red splatters on the walls or that the doll lying on the kitchen floor looks unusually blue. You may notice things in disarray, a bloodied knife on a bed, or overturned furniture.   

Glessner Lee’s dioramas were miniature recreations of actual crime scenes, and the details were painstakingly accurate, from the pattern of blood splatters to the location of the murder weapon or other relevant evidence.

She wanted her scenes to be as realistic as possible, so she crafted miniscule keys that protrude from the door-locks, electric lights that turn on and off, and teeny pencils with real lead that actually write.

Glessner Lee employed a carpenter to help her build the dioramas and she put her sewing skills to work making curtains and bedspreads. She also knitted clothing and used a special machine to print tiny newspapers.

Alongside each diorama, Glessner Lee included a brief description of the facts to help students spot relevant clues. She didn’t expect them to determine “who done it.” She wanted them to explore the scene and determine whether it showed evidence of an accident, a murder, or a suicide.

Recognition

After Popular Mechanics magazine ran a cover story about Glessner Lee, her seminar, which by now she was teaching at Harvard, became a cause célèbre—attracting top law enforcement officers from around the country and writers like Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels.

She is said to have inspired the Jessica Fletcher character on the long-running show Murder She Wrote, and more than a few episodes of C.S.I. were directly inspired by Glessner Lee’s dioramas.

Glessner Lee continued teaching until shortly before her death in 1962 and is widely regarded as the “mother of forensic science.”

When Harvard closed its Department of Legal Medicine, the dioramas were moved to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Md.

Despite all the technological advances in forensic science, Glessner Lee’s 19 surviving dioramas are still used to teach new recruits the fundamentals of crime scene investigation.

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