Americas,  ER,  United States

Frances Glessner Lee- Dioramas of Death

Frances Glessner Lee. Courtesy of the Harvard Associates in Legal Medicine
Frances Glessner Lee. Courtesy of the Harvard Associates in Legal Medicine

In previous posts, we have discussed how Chuck Norris (no not
that Chuck Norris) helped bring the New York Coroner’s Department into the 20th century and is partially responsible for all the CSI shows we know and love (Please see posts here: and )  However, Dr. Norris was not the only pioneer in this area.

Frances Glessner Lee was born in 1878 to a wealthy Chicago family and was educated as a well bred lady of that time.  She was home schooled and lived in a beautiful home in Chicago called the Glessner House, that almost looks like a fortress and is a well known Chicago landmark.  How did a well respected society lady get involved with forensic pathology?  Her brother’s friend, George Magrath, was a pioneering medical examiner.  He eventually became a professor of pathology at Harvard.  He would regale Frances with cases he was working on, and she quickly became fascinated.  As can be expected, her family was shocked that a well bred young lady would have an interest in such things, so Frances began her own research on the sly.  She read books, visited crime scenes and talked to experts and came to the conclusion there were real problems in the field.

At that time, coroner was an elected field and did not have to have any medical training.  In fact, the position was usually a political appointee that went in on the nod as a favor.  It could be a lucrative position as the coroner certified death certificates, and cause of death could be changed for a well placed bribe.  According to Pete Martin in his article “How Murderers Beat the Law”, “It’s not necessary for him [the coroner] to know a tibia from a tuba, a choked drain from a choked windpipe. The only skilled knowledge he may have is how to play ball with the local political bosses.”  Past that, police were not trained in how to gather evidence from a crime scene and routinely contaminated evidence or missed it completely.  There was a movement in Massachusetts, with Harvard at the forefront, to change this.

In 1936, Frances endowed Harvard with a large sum of money to establish the first program of legal medicine.  This program was set up to train police and medical examiners on proper investigative procedures and evidence handling.  For most rich debutantes this would have been enough, but Frances went further.  In her elegant home, she hosted elaborate dinners for investigators for them to share and compare procedures.  It was kind of a precursor to a professional convention or conference.  What she found at these dinners as a common thread was how important the crime scene was and how little time the investigators have with it.  Careful observation and study could provide the break an investigation needed, but all of those physical clues have an expiration date so to speak.  Frances decided to figure out a way to fix that.

She created what she called “the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”.  These are a series of dioramas, which reproduce in miniature detail the intricacies of a crime scene.  This was to help them find “the truth in a nutshell” through deductive reasoning.  The dioramas look like the beautiful dollhouses of the period with one major change-  some of the dolls are dead.  All of these are painstakingly reconstructed using the police reports and court records available.  She started with a blueprint to make the measurements exactly to scale.  Then her carpenter built the room and  furnishings to her specification.  The walls had real studs and all the doors opened and had working locks.  She even made tiny curtains, rugs and clothes for the scenes to make them authentic.  The figures in the dioramas were also authentic, with some of them being stiff to demonstrate rigor mortis and other characteristics to demonstrate lividity, the way blood settles in the body after death.  On average, each diorama cost about $6,000 to build in 1930’s money.nutshell-4

The Nutshell Studies allowed investigators to develop and practice methods familiar to us such as a geometric search pattern.  For example, one diorama solved the death of a woman found strangled on the floor of her bathroom.  There was no sign of struggle, and investigators were able to deduce she hung herself from the bathroom door using a stool.  In 1945, Frances began teaching week long seminars and her dioramas were integral in her lessons.  In the days before computer modeling, these dioramas were life changing.  Students could study crimes where the scenes had long since been cleaned up and learn from the investigation.

Frances’ involvement in the training earned her the love of police officers and medical examiners she trained.  Every year on Mother’s Day, she would get a stack of cards from her students.  She was even called “Mother Lee”.  She called herself a “hobbyist”, but the men she taught said, “Mrs. Lee was unquestionably one of the world’s most astute criminologists. She was acquainted with and respected by top criminologists all over the world.”  Frances died in 1962, and her Nutshell Studies have are on permanent loan from Harvard in the fourth floor of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland.  Although she is gone, Frances’ influence is still felt as many instructors still refer to her work in their classes.  It is also believed she was one of the inspirations for Angela Lansbury’s character in the popular television show “Murder She Wrote”.