Skip to main content
Menu

Book

A wealthy patron’s vision and macabre models helped forge the field of forensic medicine

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics

Bruce Goldfarb
Sourcebooks
2020
368 pp.
Purchase this item now

Frances Glessner Lee is best known for crafting a curious set of macabre dollhouses, each portraying a miniature diorama of a real crime scene in accurate and gory detail. These unusual teaching aids—referred to as “the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”—are still in use in police departments and forensic training programs. Nevertheless, as Bruce Goldfarb reveals in 18 Tiny Deaths, Glessner Lee’s contribution to the development of forensic medicine and crime scene investigation was considerably wider in scope than her dollhouses of death. Goldfarb’s unprecedented access to her family’s papers has enabled him not only to paint a full picture of Glessner Lee’s life and background but also to uncover less well-known aspects of her impact on the development of forensic science.

Glessner Lee was born into a very wealthy Chicago family in 1878. She was educated at home and—like many women at the time—never attended college. Although she was aware of her educational deficiencies, she had an acute intellect and an unusual eye for detail. She also happened to be as capable with arts and crafts as she was with science and medicine.

The nutshell studies Glessner Lee created were tiny models of real crime scenes rendered with all the details needed to infer what had occurred. They were inspired by the dollhouses she made as a child. She designed all the models herself and enlisted the help of a skilled carpenter to bring them to life. Despite facing a shortage of materials—early models were produced during World War II—Glessner Lee made sure that every detail was accounted for. The first model, for example, which depicted a death by hanging in a New England barn, included such details as a 1-inch-tall hornet’s nest clinging to the eaves and a horseshoe hanging with the open side down (the unlucky way, of course) over the barn door.

But Glessner Lee’s impact on the field would go beyond the nutshell studies. She vigorously championed the cause of “legal” or, as it is now known, forensic medicine, compelled by the belief that the coroner system in use in the United States was prone to corruption and lacked appropriate input from those qualified in forensic medicine. She also used her fortune to endow a medicolegal library at Harvard and helped to found the university’s Department of Legal Medicine, the first of its kind in the United States.

One of the goals of the Department of Legal Medicine was to act as a resource for criminal investigations throughout Massachusetts and to ultimately become a national resource for forensic medicine. To this end, Glessner Lee established and ran a series of police homicide seminars, not only arranging speakers but also paying their travel expenses and overseeing arrangements for the classroom and seminar banquets.

The seminars were an unqualified success. Indeed, their fame was such that Erle Stanley Gardner, the prolific author of the Perry Mason detective novels, wrangled a place in one. The experience prompted him to convert to the cause of legal medicine.

While the university was eager to accept Glessner Lee’s money, it was sometimes reluctant to accept her advice, and the two parties frequently clashed. The lavish dinners she hosted after her seminars, for example, were criticized by some in the medical school. She argued that such events were essential for networking purposes, but the university made it clear that it would have preferred to have spent the money on other priorities.

Glessner Lee eventually grew frustrated with what she saw as “a long, discouraging struggle against petty jealousies, crass stupidities, and an obstinate unwillingness to learn that has required all the enthusiasm, patience, courage and tact that I could muster.” Having initially venerated Harvard, she was ultimately disappointed with its “old fogeyish” approach and lack of gratitude. Yet, realizing that the work would not continue unless it was well funded, she left a substantial amount of money to the Department of Legal Medicine in her will, and the homicide seminars continued after her death in 1962 until 1967. (They were moved to Baltimore in 1968 and continue to be held at the State of Maryland Forensic Medical Center to this day.)

Although her career was bedeviled by setbacks, as Goldfarb ably demonstrates, Frances Glessner Lee made a real and lasting contribution to forensic science and medicine.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Cultural, Communication, and Computing Research Institute, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield S1 2NU, UK, and is the author of A History of Forensic Science: British Beginnings in the Twentieth Century (Routledge, 2016).