Over the years, the advancements made in crime scene studies have helped capture countless criminals and brought justice to an even greater number of victims and their families. Frances Glessner Lee, a curator of dollhouse-sized crime scene dioramas, is perhaps one of the least likely candidates to serve this role. At first glance, that is.
Born in Chicago in 1878 to a wealthy family of educated industrialists, Frances Glessner Lee was destined to be a perfectionist. Her father, John Jacob Glessner, made his fortune in agriculture and, as such, was able to maintain a curious hobby—uncommon at the time—of collecting fine furniture. He even wrote a book on the subject, copies of which can now be found in the John J. Glessner House Museum. It was perhaps her father’s interest in design that led Frances towards a similar hobby—one that would, in part, change the way we look at modern forensic science.
Educated at home, Lee displayed an early interest in legal medicine, influenced by a classmate of her brother, named George Burgess Magrath. This man, studying death investigation at Harvard Medical School, would serve as another inspiring force in Lee’s life—only this connection changed the course of her studies entirely and, undoubtedly, brought her to the forefront of history (where she belongs).
It was around this time that Lee began to assemble the first of her tableaus that would feature in her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” series—19 meticulously designed dollhouse-sized dioramas (20 were originally constructed), detailed representations of composite death scenes of real court cases. The displays typically showcase ransacked room scenes featuring dead prostitutes and victims of domestic abuse, and would ultimately go on to become pioneering works, revolutionizing the burgeoning field of homicide investigation.
Despite the homemade approach, these dioramas were more than just a peculiar pastime. Lee constructed these settings to teach investigators how to properly canvass and assess crime scenes by helping them better understand the evidence as it lay.
The works cover every imaginable detail: blood spatter, bullet entry, staging, and so on. In fact, “The Nutshell Studies” are still used today—as training tools for junior investigators and in regular seminars at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.
Lee was exacting and dedicated in her handiwork; creative and intelligently designed, these influential tableaus serve a dual function both as a teaching aid and as creative works of art. Officially, the Nutshells remain property of Harvard Medical School via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner but are often loaned out to museums. For her efforts, Frances Glessner Lee was made an honorary captain in the New Hampshire State Police in 1943 (making her the first female police captain in US history) and remains the undisputed “Mother of Forensic Science.”