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Frances Glessner Lee:
Her "Nutshell Studies in Unexplained Death" Pioneered Crime Scene Investigation

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Nutshell Murder Scene
One of 18 "Nutshell Studies in Unexplained Death" created by Frances Glessner Lee and housed at Baltimore's Forensic Medical Center. This, and all other nutshell images, courtesy of Baltimore Forensic Medical Center.

Frances Glessner Lee experienced a childhood few of us would recognize. Born in Chicago in 1878, she was reared in the family home on Prairie Avenue, the most prestigious address in the city. Frances's father, John Jacob Glessner, was a founder of what would become International Harvester, a giant in the agricultural and construction industries. The Glessner family spent their wealth the way many nouveau riche did: acquiring anything that struck their fancy. Their personal collections included original scores by Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock (conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), lithographs by some of the finest artists of the day, and exquisite antique furniture. So well-versed in such furnishings was John Jacob, in fact, that he wrote a book on the subject.

Both Frances and her brother George were schooled at home, but while George received his final, formal education at Harvard, Frances - like most wealthy young women in the 19th century - was sent abroad. From May 1896 to August 1897 she lived in England, France, and Italy. Before departing, though, she had met a friend of her brother's, medical student George Burgess Magrath, who sparked in Frances a keen interest in death scene investigation. Sadly, her enthusiasm for a career in this profession was stifled by her parents who believed women's roles should lean more toward the social than the scientific.

Frances Glessner Lee
Frances Glessner Lee's passport photo.

In 1898, The Monthly Magazine of Society announced that Frances Glessner was "one of this season's buds." She would, said the magazine, marry attorney Blewett Lee, son of Stephen D. Lee of Mississippi, a former Confederate general. Immediately after their union, the couple set up housekeeping at 1700 Prairie Avenue - one of two twin townhouses John Jacob Glessner built next to the family home specifically for his children.

Whether or how long theirs was a blissful marriage, we cannot guess. What is known is that it produced three children, and ended on July 10, 1914. By then, however, the couple was spending summers at an estate in Littleton, New Hampshire, called "The Rocks." It would become Frances's year-round residence.

With the death of her brother in 1929, Frances seemingly felt a freedom to pursue her own career. Past fifty and with plenty of money, she sank a small fortune into her new hobby of creating miniatures. Dollhouse design and construction was a popular pastime in the 1930s, but Frances took this craft to a new and far more significant level. Her dollhouses were not for children or display - they were recreations of crimes she'd read about in the newspaper. Encouraged by Magrath, these "Nutshell Studies in Unexplained Death" soon caught the deserving attention of both the academic and investigative communities.

To happen upon one of Frances's miniature scenes is at first confusing. Because they initially look like any other dollhouse, you expect the same innocuous representation of everyday life. And then you notice a bit of blood splatter, or a hanging corpse, or a burnt roof and walls. Once you see these details, you are compelled to lean closer. Only then are the true purpose and artistry of these dioramas revealed.

Miniature Kitchen
Lee's nutshells were accurate right down to the boxes and cans in the cupboard.

Frances used a scale of one inch to one foot. She made stockings 1/12 the size of the real thing by knitting them with straight pins. She once spent three days experimenting until she was satisfied she had created a realistic burn mark on a tiny ironing board. She reconstructed 19 death scenes in total, with a dedication to detail extending to wallpaper patterns and carpets. Most of her work was painstakingly completed while viewing it through a magnifying glass. What she couldn't create, she hired out. In one crime scene, a local newspaper was found on the floor. She contracted a printer to produce a minuscule, one-off version of that very same issue, complete with a legible title. Frances hired a carpenter to create the furniture for her dioramas, an assignment for which he had to manufacture his own miniature tools. To clone an oil painting hung above a fireplace, she commissioned an artist to paint a tiny landscape of her own New Hampshire home.

Starting in the 1940s, Frances hosted semi-annual conferences at Harvard University. She invited 30 to 40 leading crime scene investigators to view her nutshell studies. Each investigator was given a printed card offering the case history and allotted 90 minutes to study the assigned scene. The purpose of the exercise was not to solve the crime, but rather to use the clues in the dioramas to determine if cause of death was murder, suicide, accident or natural causes. Conference graduates received a handsome certificate, and were feted at such prestigious venues as the Ritz Carlton.

Miniature Bathtub Scene
Was it murder, or a freak accident?

After Magrath's death, Frances donated the nutshells, her own vast personal research library, and $250,000 to Harvard to create the Department of Legal Medicine - the nation's first formally recognized forensic science training curriculum. Her dioramas, however, were frequently lent out to police departments and other institutions. In 1947 alone, Frances exhibited them in 11 eastern states at the invitation of police officials desiring the benefit of such uniquely effective training. Said Frances of her traveling exhibition, "It keeps me feeling like 20 years of age instead of nearly 70."

It was not, however, just the dioramas these men of law enforcement respected and wanted to see. Frances Glessner Lee, though female, was viewed as an expert in death scene investigation. She was usually the only woman attending her own sessions. When the New Hampshire police named her captain - the first woman in the nation to hold such a title - many reported it as "honorary." In truth, her powers to enforce the law and make arrests in that state were very real, although there is no evidence she ever exercised them. By the end of her life she was named captain in eight police departments in the U.S. and Canada.

Miniature Newspaper
Frances Glessner Lee commissioned this single-issue miniature newspaper just for this nutshell.

Frances died in 1962. Many newspapers ran short death notices calling her a "noted woman criminologist." Some reporters categorized her as simply a "wealthy socialite" with an interest in crime. Few mentions scratched the surface of her real contributions. Worse, upon her death the funding that enabled Harvard to maintain and house the nutshell studies stopped. Fortunately, in 1966 the collection moved to Baltimore, Maryland.

Bruce Goldfarb is the spokesman for Baltimore's Forensic Medical Center where 18 of the dioramas are exhibited, and still utilized to train investigators from around the world. The program is now referred to as the Frances Glessner Lee Seminars. Goldfarb is adamant that Frances did far more than create interesting dollhouses. "She knew what she was talking about. She attended autopsies. She studied decomposition. She made homicide investigation a profession, which it wasn't before." Previous to her efforts, he says, police officers "walked through blood and unwittingly tampered with evidence. And Glessner Lee's method of training crime scene investigation is as relevant today as it's ever been."

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Frances Glessner Lee's accomplishments is that her life could not have been farther removed from the scenes of violence and death she reproduced. Many of the victims were women with little chance of gaining entrance into her social circle. "And yet," says Goldfarb, "she documented the poor and middle class life with dignity, even though she personally never experienced it."

Like Glessner Lee, Baltimore's Forensic Medical Center also places great emphasis on treating the dead with respect. It is the largest, free-standing medical examiner's office in the nation, and one of the most advanced facilities in the world. Many fans of Patricia Cornwell are familiar with it without even knowing it, for it is the inspiration for the high-tech forensics lab in her Kay Scarpetta novels.

Several years ago Cornwell gifted the Forensic Medical Center with a research tool Frances Glessner Lee would surely have delighted in: a life-sized "nutshell." Called the Scarpetta House, the full-scale home replica is utilized to stage crime scenes using human-like, poseable mannequins. Like the tiny dioramas, it forces investigators to hone their powers of observation and deduction. Frances may have questioned the size of the Scarpetta House, but she would, without doubt, appreciate its contribution to the field of homicide investigation - a profession she, in large part, pioneered.