Life in a Nutshell: The art and science of Frances Glessner Lee – Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land

Imagine peering into a perfectly replicated world – a miniature room, complete with working mousetraps and rocking chairs, bed linens and whiskey bottles. Picture quaint and perfectly appointed parlors with lace doilies and tea sets, deep marble tubs and sinks with plush towels in a pink floral bathroom, a kitchen with a blue enamel cooking stove and a cake put out to cool. Then add to these rooms the final piece: a lifeless body, maybe some blood, and the hidden details to solve the crime. This is the life and world of Frances Glessner Lee.

Glessner Lee was born in Chicago in 1878 and raised and homeschooled by wealthy parents. She was raised to be a socialite, to marry well, to entertain lavishly and be a generous benefactor to a worthy cause. Although her brother went to Harvard, as a young woman she was not allowed that option and instead was married at a young age and subsequently divorced. After her brother’s and her father’s death she was the sole heiress to the family fortune. She was expected to move along the path to becoming a respected society matron, but that path took a decidedly unexpected turn when she realized she had the freedom to make her own way.

According to NHPR, her interest in crime scene investigation had been kindled through conversations with a family friend named George Magrath, who later went on to become the Chief Medical Examiner for Suffolk County, MA. Glessner Lee did not have interest in the social circles into which she was born. Instead, she chose to spend her time and resources with scholars, scientists and members of the police investigative community. She hosted lavish dinners in beautiful rooms, but the topics of discussion were the grisly details of the latest unsolved crime. Through these discussions, Glessner Lee came to understand that crimes could be solved through careful investigation of the crime scene, that close inspection would most always reveal the truth. She grasped the unfortunate fact that there were a great many crimes that went unsolved simply because the detectives didn’t know what to look for, or sometimes what they were looking at. She knew that the smallest detail could change the course of an investigation, but those were the details that were often overlooked.

Glessner Lee moved to Bethlehem, NH and in the 1930s became intrigued by ways in which to study and teach forensic investigation. In 1936 she endowed the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard and began her studies in earnest. She gifted the department a substantial collection of books and manuscripts that would later become the Magrath Library. Her significant donations and endowments allowed her to enter a world which was unorthodox for a woman of her means and times.

Glessner Lee lamented that there were no “fresh” crime scenes to learn from, so she decided to create them herself. Her exceptional fine motor skills and sense of style, coupled with her exacting attention to detail, enabled her to create the perfect teaching tool.

In 1945, Lee began hosting a series of seminars at the Ritz Carlton in Boston for police officials and medical examiners, specifically focused on the collection of all relevant details at a crime scene. That is where she unveiled “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”

Frances Glessner Lee and one of her nutshell studies, photographed for the Saturday Evening Post in 1949. Courtesy of the Glessner House Museum in Chicago

The Smithsonian explains that the nutshells were dioramas with a singular purpose: “To convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” There were 20 in all. Each one was a detailed replica or composite of an actual crime scene in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, created in a dollhouse scale of one foot to one inch. Lee was very painstaking and particular with her creations. She went so far as to wear outdated clothing that matched the crime scene so that the fabric could then be used in the replica and would have the same amount of wear. She commissioned craftsmen to build scale furniture but was a stickler for making sure that it was exact, right down to the number of times a model rocking chair would rock back and forth as compared to the original. She attended the autopsies of the victims to ensure that the wounds and the state of the body were accurate, including the decomposition, bruising and bloating. The accuracy of the scene extended to the tiny newspapers and magazines with the correct headlines and covers, as well as accurate calendars with flippable pages.

The dioramas were filled with clues, but they were also filled with all the clutter and complexity of everyday life. Glessner Lee suggested that the room be taken in visually in a clockwise spiral so as to see it all. By looking methodically, all areas could be studied, and the clues would lead to the solution.

Glessner Lee paid special attention to crimes committed against women. She knew that in her time, the death of a prostitute or of a woman of poor circumstances was often viewed as an open and shut case not worthy of investigation. It was her intention to show that things were not always what they seemed, and to change the way that crimes scenes were viewed and processed.

During the training seminars the attendees were allowed 90 minutes to study the intricate dioramas. There were a few facts given about each crime, but they were very basic. The investigators were expected to find the clues, read the scene, and solve the crime. Every diorama had a specific solution but was intentionally built to be a little difficult. Only a thorough inspection would reveal the truth.

Although her work and methods were initially questioned, very quickly she was welcomed into the heart of the police and medical community and is now considered to be the mother of forensic investigation. Glessner Lee was the first American woman to hold the title of Police Captain. The honorary title was bestowed upon her by the New Hampshire State Police. She also served there as the director of Education, holding training and seminars. Because of her ideas, influences and work, the methods of investigating death were forever changed.

Aside from the forensic contribution, it should be noted: these miniature scenes of carnage and sadness were more than just dioramas. Glessner Lee made the clothing the dolls wore. She commissioned tiny portraits and paintings to hang on the wall. Accurately pooling and spattering blood were delicately painted onto faces and furniture with precision. Stockings were knit by hand to fit. All these details, created by a woman in the middle of her life, were also pieces of art. Each piece took an average of three months to build, at an average cost of $4500. The entire scene was functional – the windows and doors opened, there was electricity to the light fixtures, the bodies were weighted correctly and positioned perfectly. By conservative estimates, each would cost $50,000 to complete today.

In 1962, Frances Glessner Lee died at the age of 85. By 1966, the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard was dissolved. The Nutshells were given a permanent home in Baltimore, at the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. They are still used for training purposes and are as valuable a teaching tool as they ever were. Today, they are permanently installed on the fourth floor of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, behind a door marked “Pathology Exhibit.”

Although she was sometimes considered to be a “quirky grandma” or an heiress with an odd hobby, her serious contribution to criminal justice was significant, and it is amazing that it came to be expressed in such a specific and artful way. Glessner Lee was a woman who chose her life, lived according to what she believed, and made a place for herself in a world that came to respect and value her contributions.

Frances Glessner Lee’s “Kitchen,” created around 1944-46. It measures approximately 17 by 25 1/4 by 24 3/4 inches. (via HuffPost)

Written by Amie James (she/her) from New Hampshire. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.

For more information and some pictures of the nutshells, please visit these links:

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