12 October 2022 – Today I learned:

That the first female police captain in the U.S. made dioramas of cozy murder scenes. And that she lived in New Hampshire for many years. And that I know the person who wrote an important book about her.

Do I need to add anything to that?

image of Lee (Wikipedia)

OK, here’s the gist. In the 1940s and 50s, when Chicago International-Harvester-heiress Frances “Fanny” Glessner Lee (1878-1962) was in her 60s and 70s, she crafted at least 20 tiny scenarios called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death to help educate police about blood spatter and other on-scene clues and evidence. (“Nutshell Series” starts out sounding all Beatrix Potter, then suddenly we’re attending an inquest) She was no novice, either; in her 30s she had made a miniature Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a gift for her mother; it featured “seventy-five miniature musicians playing miniature instruments under the direction of 5-inch-tall conductor Frederick Stock.”

Her “dollhouses of death” included a log cabin, blue bedroom, red bedroom, dark bathroom, pink bathroom, attic, barn, living room, two-story porch, kitchen (with cake in the open oven), garage, and parsonage parlor, among others. Many of the them “featured female victims in domestic settings, illustrating the dark side of the ‘feminine roles she had rehearsed in her married life.'” (She was married for 16 years, divorcing in 1914.)

Lee, who since 1928 had been a legal resident of Littleton (and/or Bethlehem), New Hampshire, in the White Mountains (where her family had summered for years) and who had been living there full-time (“for the fresh air”) since 1941, was made educational director for the New Hampshire State Police and a police captain for the force in 1943, when she was 66, appointed by a New Hampshire police colonel who was a friend; though empowered to make arrests, “she never did, focusing instead on training and advocacy.”

Lee is described as determined, tenacious, and obsessive, and since money was no object (each diorama might cost the same as a real house then), her “death in a box” scenes featured pencils that could write, light bulbs that lit, blinds that could be lowered and raised. She “even painted figures’ skin discolouration in shades to show the manner of death, including carbon monoxide poisoning and any signs of violence or lividity.” Genius!

(from Al Jazeera)

She wrote about her crime scene dioramas that “[a]n effort has been made to illustrate not only the death that occurred but the social and financial status of those involved, as well as their frame of mind at the time the death took place. Not all cases shown are crimes – some are accidents, some are deaths due to natural causes – some, because of inexpert or careless investigation, remain undetermined.” A carpenter, Ralph Moser, built the interior structures, including doors and windows; Lee meticulously assembled the figures, their clothes, the interior decor, and of course the clues and evidentiary details of each crime or death, using dental tools, jewelry tools, and a magnifying glass.

(from Al Jazeera)

She was motivated to make these training pieces by her friend George Burgess Magrath, the Suffolk County, Massachusetts medical examiner from 1907 to 1935, who lamented that legal medicine (later forensic science) wasn’t taught or applied in the U.S.: “Magrath had told her how investigations would get botched and the incorrect cause of death listed due to a lack of training among police officers and coroners. He argued that this was the rule rather than the exception.” In early 1940s, Lee began holding forensic science training sessions for police at Harvard, at her New Hampshire home, and at the NH state police headquarters. During these sometimes multi-day sessions, she “provided notes laying out certain aspects of the cases for each Nutshell and gave them approximately 90 minutes to study the scene. Investigators used a geometric search pattern – Lee often suggested observing in a clockwise contracting spiral.” The point of the training wasn’t necessarily to solve the crime but to practice keen observation skills.

Not only did what she learned from Magrath about the “anachronistic institution” of murder investigation (particularly the coroner system) inspire Lee to make the dioramas for police study but she also, in the early 1930s, endowed Magrath at Harvard “as chair of a new branch of study: legal medicine. That was the start of what developed into a fully fledged Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School.”

Lee is buried at The Rocks Estate in Bethlehem, NH, her family’s long-time summer estate. The Rocks is now owned by the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests.

There are a number of videos online about Lee’s work, including this one, about 3 minutes long, Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, from the Smithsonian Museum.

Coincidentally, though I found this story — reported at Al Jazeera last month — through an online newsletter, I actually know (or knew, fairly well, years ago) the author of the book cited in that article, Bruce Goldfarb, who wrote 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics (2020). Small world! And here’s Lee, practically buried in my own back yard.


Featured image from Al Jazeera.

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