The Woman Behind Forensic Science: Francis Glessner Lee’s deathly dioramas

What’s a lady to do if she finds herself born into a wealthy family in the late 1800’s, is equipped with all the skills that come along with being raised a society woman of the 1900’s, misses out on a college education, has a lifelong curiosity for Sherlock Holmes sleuthing and ends up with a pile of money when she reaches her 50s? How about becoming the pioneering vision behind the field of forensic science?

Led to the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a set of 18 intricately designed dioramas that depict a death, by my own curiosity in photographing unique subjects (thank you Atlas Obscura) coupled with an interest in taking a break from a certain orange aura surrounding the White House area of DC, I not only had the opportunity to spend a couple days photographing the intricately designed miniaturized death scenes–some more ghastly than others–I also learned about Frances Glessner Lee, the woman who created them.

It’s a gem of a story tucked away on the fourth floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office with much of it told to me by Bruce Goldfarb, the executive assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland and overseer of the dioramas. Set to go on display at Smithsonian’s Museum of American History this fall, the dioramas may seem macabre twists on your typical dollhouse scene but they were meticulously designed by Lee as training tools for studying clues in crime scenes and they’re still in use today.

Frances Glessner Lee has been called “the mother of forensic science” and The Nutshell Studies, named after a saying in forensic pathology at the time that an investigation’s purpose is to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell,” are just a part of her contributions.

Born in Chicago in 1878 to the wealthy Glessner family, Lee eventually inherited millions by the time she reached her 50’s. From a privileged society woman who had never been to college to donating money to establish the nation’s first department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1931, her life might seem an odd coupling to pair with death studies.

Lee would have liked to go to college to study in the field of medicine but at that time, her family was not of the belief that a woman should attend college and would only support sending her brother off to study at Harvard. During the course of her brother’s studies, Lee developed a friendship with his Harvard classmate George Magrath who would eventually become a medical examiner in Boston, Massachusetts.

After an unhappy marriage and divorce eight years later, and through her continued friendship with Magrath, Lee had the opportunity to indulge her curiosities about the crime scenes he investigated. She eventually got a first-hand look at them in his company and learned about autopsies and investigation. As she grew more familiar with those subjects, she became aware of the need for better training in the area of crime solving. She also came to learn that police officers and homicide detectives were inadvertently bungling crime scenes by misguided actions like walking through blood stain patterns, handling weapons, putting their fingers through bullet holes, all sorts of things “they weren’t trained not to do,” says Goldfarb.

In 1945 Lee helped establish the Harvard Associates in Police Science weeklong seminar series to train police officers in legal medicine. Before that many police had no particular training. With the seminars, Lee wanted to establish consistent training methods and, in addition, provide the officers with a diploma from the program at Harvard. At that time officers were known more for their brute strength over their intelligence. Through the seminars, Lee also recognized the need to provide a sense of worth and importance to the duties of the officers. Examining the meticulously designed dioramas for clues into what might have occurred to bring about the demise of the subjects were a part of the training.

At the seminar’s end, participants were treated to a fancy dinner at the Ritz Carlton with Lee as the vision and money behind all of this planning. Goldfarb tells me, “she spent a ridiculous amount of time to make sure the centerpieces were just right and the menu, just everything. For a lot of these guys I’m sure it was the finest meal they ever had in their lives.”

Beyond establishing training, Lee had the foresight to understand the importance of the public’s awareness around death investigation. “People need to know how it should be done and the best way to do that is through popular culture,” says Goldfarb. And what’s the best way to affect popular culture? Lee reached out to Hollywood agents and the movie, Mystery Street starring Ricardo Monteblan (of Fantasy Island fame to readers of a certain generation) as a medical examiner from Harvard who investigates homicide cases. Enter the first procedural crime movie with modern scientific investigation. It’s the precursor to basically the whole genre of crime solving shows like CSI and Bones.

When you learn of all the components of Lee’s contributions to crime investigation and forensic science, it’s seems a remarkable amount of foresight and vision. And when I ask Goldfarb about that and Lee’s motivations he tells me, “I think that she saw a need and she filled it. She saw something nobody was doing. That thing needs to be done. I have the resources to do it. How do we do that?”

It’s a remarkable contribution from one person and the dioramas, each comes with a description of the events leading up to the aftermath depicted, are still used for training in the annual seminar. They have solutions but, in order to maintain their usefulness, the answers are kept secret. Over 70 years after their creation, the miniaturized lives frozen in time still seem to have maintained their usefulness and are a reminder of the vision of their creator.

All photos by Lorie Shaull licensed under Creative Commons with Attribution

A room with a view. Details from the Red Bedroom diorama.
Frances Glessner Lee working on miniatures for a diorama. A photo displayed on the wall at Maryland's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Dorothy Dennison was found dead in the Parsonage Parlor after going missing for 4 days. Her mother sent her to buy some hamburg steak for dinner and she never returned. A pound of hamburg sits on a chair nearby with itty bitty flies on it.
Maggie Wilson lived in a boarding house and was known to have seizures. The clear plastic bathtub water runs infinitely over her head and there's an empty bottle on the floor of the Dark Bathroom diorama.
Bruce Goldfarb, the executive assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland with the Dark Bathroom diorama.
Eben Wallace was hard to get along with. When things didn’t go the way he wanted, he would go out to the barn, threatening suicide...
The Two-Story Porch diorama, did she fall or was she pushed?
Robert Judson, a foreman in a shoe factory, his wife, Kate Judson, and their baby, Linda Mae Judson, were discovered dead by Paul Abbott, a neighbor. Things have gone terribly wrong for the Judson's as seen here in bedroom of the Three-Room Dwelling diorama.
The kitchen table in the Three-Room Dwelling diorama all set and ready for a meal that will never be eaten.
The room housing the dioramas at Maryland's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
Upon becoming alarmed that the door was open, the milk delivery man went looking and found Miss Jessie Compton in the attic. Possible clues include teeny tiny hand-written letters spread on the floor.
In the early morning hours, Mrs. Ruby Davis, a housewife, was discovered dead on the stairs by her husband, Reginald Davis as shown here in the Living Room diorama. He reported they had spent a quiet evening together the night before.
Charles Logan, an employee in a box factory, was discovered dead by his wife Carolyn Logan. In a statement to the police, Mrs. Logan relayed that had been drinking and was in a quarrelsome mood the night previously...
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