Forensics in a Nutshell

Welcome to Fun, Freaky, Fiction Friday. Let’s begin with a quiz.

The answer’s pretty easy, isn’t it? Sorry Martian Manhunter.

Bet you noticed that one other option that seemed kinda out of place. The Police dog? No, not that one.  The elderly woman with a home-schooled education? Yes, that one. What in the world would an elderly woman with a very basic education have anything to do with Forensic Science? Oh, not much, you know…if you don’t count being credited for basically establishing the modern ideal of teaching forensics and pathology.

Frances Glessner Lee (1878 – 1962) was FIFTY-TWO years old when she was finally allowed to pursue her passion in life, forensic pathology. Born to a wealthy family in Chicago, she spent half a century being squeezed into a social box that didn’t quite fit her. As an upper-crust lady she was expected to tend to her “feminine” duties like sewing, knitting, ironing, socializing, you know, all of the boring shit people used to make women do to “save their delicate sensibilities.” Even while conforming, she still rebelled in her own little ways, not wearing makeup, wearing plain clothes, flipping people the bird when they weren’t looking (I’d imagine). So when the men controlling her life finally decided they’d rather lay in the dirt for the rest of eternity than deal with her forward thinking attitude, she took their money and invested it in every way she saw fit. That was in the 1930’s.

With the help of her good friend, George Burgess Magrath, she put up serious money to establish the nation’s first department of legal medicine (1931) at Harvard, lobbied to have all coroners replaced by medical professionals, and founded a slew of sleuthy organizations. One was even named after her, the Frances Glessner Lee Homicide School.

There are 3 in this dollhouse of horrors. Mom, Dad, and what’s in the next room…

Okay, this is cool and all, but snore, history, right?! Wrong. On top of basically pantsing the social conventions of the time, she threw an extra insult in there by taking all of her wonderfully acquired skills as a house-woman and made some extremely graphic and grotesque dioramas to show the police at the time what they were missing. Literally told them, you’re doing it wrong…when blood splatter A coincides with footprint B, it must equal the butler did it in the bedroom with a candlestick… (that sounds bad, but you get my drift)

Doll houses, people. Doll houses of death, and murder, and death. Yes, grandma was happy to give you shit-yourself-scary nightmares.

She used these macabre, lovingly made, hand stitched, and meticulously built scenes to teach the police officers of the day to really analyze clues. She would hold week-long workshops twice a year to get police of the time to pick up clues they normally would have dismissed. The cops would get a certain amount of time to scrutinize over these miniature crime scenes, take notes and speculate on what happened.

I should mention that each one of her doll houses depict real-life incidents. That’s right, Frances Glessner Lee took real life crime scene notes and hand crafted each scene to be as detailed and accurate as what it looked like before the bodies were taken away. Now, when she tested the officers enrolled in her workshops she knew how the cases were eventually ruled, but wouldn’t tell them. It was their goal to accurately deduce whether the life of these dolls ended in murder, suicide, or a horrible accident.

Was it a terrible accident that her stove didn’t light this day? The newspaper wadded in the cracks of the door seem to suggest otherwise.

As a point of contrast, the culture that Frances grew up in had murder mystery novels, plays, and so on but they all revolved around the mysterious deaths of the wealthy elite. The circumstances that were displayed in these instances, though unfortunate, were usually fairly straight forward. [The hit TV series Murder She Wrote was based on the novels written in Lee’s day.] These “risque expressions/explorations of death” clear motives lent to easily solvable cases. Frances Glessner Lee rallied against that convention as well, and instead focused on the misfortunes that befell the impoverished masses. It was clear from the way the people in her studies lived and ultimately died that they were poor in more than money, but in hope as well.

Women and Gender Studies experts have used Lee’s studies as well. Her dioramas show an alarming proportion of cases involving extreme violence to women. Could it mean that men of the day took advantage of the shut in nature of women’s roles to get rid of that nagging wife of theirs? Or could it mean that women of Lee’s day were just more clumsy and naturally fell down the stairs and belly flopping on a knife multiple times? The world may never know.

These dollhouses also showcase a frozen moment in time. History buffs of all sorts study  these scale models, if their stomachs can handle the morbid displays, and look at precisely reproduced equipment and furnishings of the time. From carpets, to draperies  to clothing, dishes, and more. These little scenes are so carefully detailed they provide a much more involved experience than the black and white photography of the the day.

Going back to the forensics, by 1943 Lee’s influence on forensic investigation had been appreciated so much so that she was made an honorary Captain in the New Hampshire State Police, and as such became the first woman to receive this title.

Up until recently, her dollhouses were still used for educational purposes. In recent years, playing with her dolls has been replaced with smart boards, technology, and other such newfangled crockery.

Had you ever heard of Frances Glessner Lee? Up until recently, neither had I . Some say she was kinda crazy. Maybe they’re right. You have to be kinda crazy to break convention, follow your passions, and do things others couldn’t possibly imagine. But no matter what, in my own humble opinion, women like Frances should NEVER be forgotten or lost to modern contrivances. It’s because of her determination, ingenuity  and force of spirit that modern forensics is where it is today. We should not let her name or her (strange) deeds fade away into obscurity.

Learn more about her read the book on her life and work:

Click on the book to learn more.


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