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Death Becomes Her: How Frances Glessner Lee Pioneered Modern Forensics with Her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths

Lee's murders in miniature changed the way we interpret crime scenes.

Born in 1878, Frances Glessner Lee's fascination with crime scene investigations stretched all the way back to her earliest girlhood days of reading Sherlock Holmes. Though she couldn’t know it at the time, her passion would one day lead to a groundbreaking career in criminology. By the time of her death in 1962, Lee had invented an astonishing new teaching tool for rookie detectives in the investigation of violent crimes—a contribution that earned her the nickname of "the mother of forensic science."

The daughter of a successful industrialist, Frances Glessner Lee was raised by a wealthy family in late nineteenth-century Chicago. Her brother went to Harvard, but Lee was barred from higher education because of her gender. Instead, she did what was expected of a young woman of her social standing: she pursued traditionally feminine hobbies like sewing and crafting miniatures, went on a lengthy tour of Europe in her late teens, and made her debut into society upon her return. Lee married a lawyer friend of her brother’s in 1898, but their marriage was an unhappy one and they divorced in 1914. By the 1930s, Lee had taken up residence in New Hampshire and inherited the family fortune.

It was around this time that Lee began to earnestly pursue a career in forensics, a field then in its infancy. Her friendship with Dr. George Burgess Magrath, a chief medical examiner in Boston, was a great inspiration to her. Magrath was particularly interested in death investigations, and recognized a fellow enthusiast in Lee. An alumnus of Harvard Medical School, Magrath welcomed Lee into the field and made the appropriate introductions for her to get her foot in the door in what was then a male-dominated industry. Lee subsequently used her inheritance to help establish the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine in 1931, the first department of its kind in the country.

As she learned more about crime scene investigations, Lee recognized a recurring problem with the investigative process. Detectives who arrived at the scene of a mysterious death didn’t understand the importance of preserving physical evidence. While examining a crime scene, they tainted the area and destroyed key evidence, often rendering the mystery unsolvable. Lee puzzled over how she could change this, and came to a unique solution.

Related: 9 Engrossing Books About the Science of Death 

Lee reasoned that the purpose of a crime scene investigation was to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” Armed with that objective, she created the aptly named Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths: a series of dioramas that depict realistic crime scenes on a miniature scale. Complete with tiny hand-made victims, detailed blood spatter patterns, and other minute features, these three-dimensional snapshots of death are remarkably faithful to the real-life cases that inspired them. Lee even created fictional police reports and witness statements to accompany each diorama. These innovative teaching tools, the first of which was donated to Harvard in 1946, allowed students to practice their powers of deduction by observing a crime scene that’s frozen in time, without the risk of mucking up a real-life investigation.

Bruce Goldfarb’s riveting new book 18 Tiny Deaths sheds more light on Frances Glessner Lee and her remarkable contributions to forensics. Hailed as “genuinely compelling” (Kirkus Reviews) and “captivating” (Booklist), this is one read that true crime fans won’t want to miss. Read the following excerpt to get a glimpse into how Lee went above and beyond to make her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths as realistic as possible. Then, download 18 Tiny Deaths today for more fascinating insight into this overlooked figure in true crime history.

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18 Tiny Deaths

By Bruce Goldfarb

18 Tiny Deaths

By Bruce Goldfarb

As Frances Glessner Lee well knew, no aspect of any investigation was more important than the crime scene. There was only one opportunity to process a crime scene the right way. An error or oversight at the scene could alter the trajectory of an investigation. Police had to be taught to use their powers of observation before stumbling through a crime scene and disturbing the facts. They needed to know how to recognize evidence that may be significant in order for it to be preserved and documented. How does one teach how to observe? Lee pondered.

“The matter of providing students with first-hand experience in at-the-scene observation became of paramount importance and was under frequent discussion” between Lee and her close colleague Dr. Alan R. Moritz. Using an actual crime scene would be ideal but not practical.

“The problem of teaching a group of students was insurmountable as they could not, in a body, be taken to the scene of an unexplained death to study at their leisure,” Lee said. “Why not? Because time was important, conditions changed, crowds of ‘interested bystanders’ get in the way, but chiefly because until a case has cleared the courts it should not be a matter for free public discussion. And once it has cleared the courts, the clinical material has undergone such changes as to be valueless for teaching purposes, and the scene and its surroundings have been practically wrecked.”

Related: Tennessee's Body Farm: A Journey to the Forensic Land of the Dead 

Students could be shown photographs or movies from crime scenes, but that process would be leading them by the nose, pointing out evidence to them. That was very different from the process of finding evidence at an actual crime scene, with no photographic framing to direct the attention.

“It has been found that visual teaching is the most valuable, but lantern slides and motion pictures, although important, do not give the third dimension, nor the opportunity for prolonged study that is requisite,” Lee said.

Out of the blue, Lee thought of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra diorama she had created for her mother and the boxes of dollhouse furnishings and bisque pieces in the attic of the Rocks. “Why not let me make a model that will contain the settings for a scene and the body in its place,” she said to Moritz. “Could you not teach from that?”

18 tiny deaths
  • Photo Credit: Bruce Goldfarb

Lee envisioned creating a series of dioramas presenting crime scenarios that were purposefully ambiguous, forcing the student to observe and ponder. She believed it was important that the dioramas look as realistic as possible, lest police officers think they were being asked to play with dollhouses. She decided early on to work in a familiar scale—one inch to one foot, the same proportions she had used for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Flonzaley Quartet models. Lee’s dioramas would be designed for an investigator about six inches tall.

Related: The Best True Crime Documentaries on Netflix You Need to See 

The first diorama Lee made was based on a case of a man who hanged himself under curious circumstances. The dead man had been an unpleasant, manipulative fellow who repeatedly coerced his wife by threatening suicide until he got his way.

“In the original the old man went to the cellar carrying a rope in his hand—he placed the rope over some overhead piping and attached one end of it thereto, the other end containing a noose,” she said to Moritz. “After that he stood on a convenient box, bucket or crate with the noose around his neck and waited to be coaxed down.” One day, his stand broke, unexpectedly resulting in his strangulation.

In order to conceal the real decedent’s identity in the diorama, Lee decided to have the death take place in a typical New England barn rather than a cellar. To build the barn, Lee had her carpenter, Ralph Mosher, salvage aged wood from an old barn building that had been on the Rocks property when it was acquired. Mosher used a saw to carefully remove the naturally bleached and worn surface of the lumber, creating sheets of wood one-twelfth of an inch thick. The sheets were cut into half-inch strips, then glued together to make scale-model 2” x 6” planks with aged wood on both sides.

Related: 9 Haunting Cases from Unsolved Mysteries That Have Since Been Solved 

Mosher’s barn was twenty-seven inches tall from the base to the weather vane and about two feet on each side. Lee filled the interior with straw and an assortment of farm implements, including a scythe made from an oyster knife. Through the back window is a view of the Franconia Mountains from Bethlehem Junction, Lee’s local railroad station. Over the barn door hangs a horseshoe with the open side down—the unlucky way. An inch-tall hornet’s nest, camouflaged so well it is easily overlooked, is tucked beneath the eaves.

Inside the barn, the lifeless body of Eben Wallace (the name Lee invented for the tiny decedent) dangles from the hoist, a flimsy wooden crate crushed beneath his feet.

18 tiny deaths
  • "Barn" (15 July 1939)

  • Photo Credit: Bruce Goldfarb

Lee spared no effort or expense to give her dioramas authenticity. For whiskey bottles to ornament the models, she acquired labels of Town Tavern and Crab Orchard brand liquor from the National Distillers Products Corporation from which she made miniatures. She hired an artist to paint backdrops and another to create a miniature oil painting of her cottage at the Rocks, an inch tall and twice as wide, to hang over a living room fireplace.

For a kitchen scene, Lee purchased a working hand mixer made of gold, a small bauble meant to hang from a charm bracelet, which she painted gray to look like steel. This one piece of jewelry, just a prop, likely cost more than a day’s wages for the typical worker at the time.

Unlike the beautiful dioramas of fancy rooms produced as a hobby by Lee’s friend and Prairie Avenue neighbor, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, Lee wanted her models to look realistic—lived-in and shabbily cluttered. The deaths Lee chose to depict were those of people of modest means, far removed from the social circles of her upbringing. Her dioramas included prostitutes, a prisoner, the poor, and the marginalized. Finding furniture and other furnishings for such humble settings proved difficult. Lee wrote a miniature furniture maker in Dunstable, Massachusetts, that while “I have never seen more exquisite work not more faithful replicas than yours, not even Mrs. Thorne’s,” his work was too good for her purposes.

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“I am not representing the finest pieces nor period pieces, but am trying to show the typical furnishings in lower middle-class homes, or in poverty-stricken shacks or tenements,” she wrote the craftsman, “mostly the furniture of that nondescript type which one cannot imagine as even having been procurable at any place but a secondhand store.”

Many of the furniture pieces were handmade by Mosher: scale-sized wardrobes, bedside tables, chairs. To make sure that the results were as realistic as possible, Lee asked a forestry professor at Yale for a list of varieties of wood with a grain fine enough to be plausible at 1:12 scale.

Realistic human figures for Lee’s death scenes did not exist commercially either. All the figures available in the dollhouse supply catalogs were posed in a fixed position with the feet on a base to stand upright. This was not at all suitable for Lee’s purposes, so she made her own. The heads, left over from the miniatures she had made decades previously, were finished with wigs or painted plaster to simulate hair. Torsos and limbs were filled with sawdust, cotton, sand, or lead shot as necessary to give the body the proper heft and appearance. Stiff wire was employed to hold a body in position and represent rigor mortis. Lee carefully painted the porcelain skin of the figures to show lividity, carbon monoxide poisoning, decomposition, and signs of violence.

18 tiny deaths
  • "Red Bedroom" (29 June 1944)

  • Photo Credit: Bruce Goldfarb

Lee reveled in the most minute details. “Most of the furniture and small objects work—doors and dressers open, stove lids lift, corks come out of bottles, grind-stone is a real one and turns, halter and belt buckles work, some books open and have printed pages inside, the knitting is real,” she wrote. The figures, although fully clothed, had underwear on beneath. Anything less would be indecent.

Lee carefully applied red nail polish to simulate blood spatter on walls, puddles of blood, and bloody footprints on the floor. The walls around light switches were smudged with fingerprints. With cloth wrapped around her fingertip, Lee spent hours rubbing a worn spot on a piece of linoleum to make it look authentically aged. She included things that would never be seen by observers—a stamp-size poster for a boxing match inside a saloon that is only visible to a six-inch-tall patron walking inside and graffiti scrawled on a jail cell wall.

“I found myself constantly tempted to add more clues and details and am afraid I may get too ‘gadgety’ in the process,” Lee said to Moritz. “I hope you will watch me and stop me when I go too far.”

Within months, Lee and Mosher had made a barn, a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, and at least three other dioramas. In honor of Isaac Scott, Mosher built a log cabin based on Lee’s childhood playhouse built by the designer. Another model was inspired by the garage at her parent’s Prairie Avenue home. Many more dioramas were planned. “I have in prospect, or completed, two hangings; two shootings; two assaults with blunt weapon; one natural cause; one drowning; one found dead; one arson (I do not know yet how that gentleman was killed—am open to suggestions); and one poison,” she told Moritz. “I need more traffic accidents—hit and run, collision and non-collision with some good evidence (shreds of clothing et cetera, but not too commonplace or obvious), also another shooting or two, a stabbing, more poisonings, carbon monoxide, and a couple of puzzling Found Deads.”

Want to read more? Download 18 Tiny Deaths today!

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18 Tiny Deaths

By Bruce Goldfarb

18 Tiny Deaths

By Bruce Goldfarb

Today, Frances Glessner Lee’s contributions to forensics are still acutely felt by students in the field. After Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine was dissolved, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths were donated to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, where they are still in use today. They are studied during forensic seminars, and the solutions are carefully guarded. Before her death, Lee also had the honor of being named the first female police captain in the United States, and the first woman to join the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 Tiny Deaths is an invaluable resource for true crime fans who are eager to learn more about this endlessly fascinating woman and her forensics career. For a unique and engrossing read, download 18 Tiny Deaths today!

Interested in exploring Lee's Nutshell Studies? Take a virtual tour courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Published on 10 Mar 2020

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