Frances Glessner Lee, the heir to the International Harvester fortune, became known as the “Mother of Forensic Science.”
Francis was born in Chicago in 1878 into a world of wealth and privilege. Her home was designed by H. H. Richardson, a well-known architect, and it has now become “The Glessner House Museum.” Since her parents were obsessed with decorating and furnishing their mansion, young Frances developed a keen eye for detail.
Her parents were extremely private and protective of her, and she was tutored at home. Despite having an interest in law and medicine, she was mostly taught the domestic arts. She also developed a passion for the stories of Sherlock Holmes, whose plot twists often involved overlooked details.
Instead of being allowed to attend college like her Harvard-bound brother, young Frances was presented to society at the age of 19, and at 20 married attorney Blewett Lee, a distant relative of Robert E. Lee.
Although she continued to harbor dreams of becoming a doctor or nurse or, as she wrote, of “doing something in my lifetime that should be of significant value to the community,” she had three children and, for a while, lived an ordinary life for a woman of the era.
But her marriage with Lee fell apart, and they divorced in 1914, which was a scandalous turn of events at the time. When she expressed an interest in pathology, she was discouraged — and had to wait until after her brother’s death in 1930 to begin taking steps toward her own career.At age 52, she was finally able to pursue her lifelong passion of forensic science.
She became inspired by a conversation with her brother’s Harvard classmate George Burgess Macgrath, who eventually became a Harvard pathology professor and a medical examiner, about the difficulties police and coroners faced at the time related to death investigation and the preservation of evidence.
She began a hobby shared by many women of her era: constructing dioramas of dollhouse miniatures. But instead of regular household scenes, Frances’ tiny rooms were based on real New England crimes. They depicted actual scenes with dead bodies, blood spatter, and evidence needed to solve the case. She chose only the most puzzling cases in order to test aspiring detectives’ powers of observation and logic.
The miniatures, which she called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, were incredibly detailed. Frances even attended autopsies in order to help her accuracy.As writer Laura J. Miller said of the subjects of the Nutshell Studies in a Harvard Magazine article in 2005,
“Many display a tawdry, middle-class décor, or show the marginal spaces society’s disenfranchised might inhabit — seedy rooms, boarding houses — far from the surroundings of her own childhood. She disclosed the dark side of domesticity and its potentially deleterious effects: Many victims were women ‘led astray’ from the cocoon-like security of the home — by men, misfortune, or their own unchecked desires.”
In the 1930s, Francis used some of her inherited wealth to endow the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard with the goal of helping Massachusetts police use skilled medical investigators — rather than elected coroners — to investigate unexplained deaths.Her efforts to ensure quality training for death- and crime-scene investigators encouraged a move away from untrained coroners in many states in favor of highly trained medical examiners.
In recognition of her achievements, in 1943, she was named State Police Captain of New Hampshire, which made her the only woman in the country with the honor at the time.
In 1945, Harvard installed the first of Lee’s models, and she began delivering seminars that used them as training tools. Observers remarked that she was often the only woman in the room. To this day, the Harvard Associates in Police Science training program continues to use the Nutshell Studies to aid in the study of forensics.
In her New York Times obituary from January 28, 1962, Frances was quoted as saying: “Luckily, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It gives me the time and money to follow my hobby of scientific crime detection.”
She continues to inspire popular culture: The Nutshell Studies were reportedly the inspiration for the “Miniature Killer” in the TV show CSI, and Murder She Wrote‘s lead character Jessica Fletcher was also rumored to have been based on Francis.
Main photo: Frances Glessner Lee [Glessner House Museum/Facebook]