by Yoon Joung Lee
A New England Socialite and Heiress
Frances Glessner Lee, who was known as “fanny” to her family, was born in March 25, 1878, in Chicago as a daughter of a wealthy family whose fortune later came from International Harvester. Her father, John Jacob Glessner, was an industrialist and a founder of the International Harvester Co. Her mother, Frances M. Glessner, was a supportive woman for the family who always considered the family’s well-being as her priority.
Their house was built in 1886 on Prairie Avenue, the wealthiest area of a booming city, Chicago. The house was designed by the era’s well-known architect, H.H. Richardson and it has now become “The Glessner House Museum.” Since both of her parents obsessed with furnishing and decorating their home, she was raised in this castle-like home surrounded by various handcrafted furnishings and servants. As her parents were somewhat overly protective, she was tutored in private at home. As a result of this extreme attention and care, she was able to develop an eye for details and be exposed to great minds and thoughts, even though she did not attend schools like other kids. She was not allowed to pursue higher education while her brother went on to university. Even though she had an interest in forensic pathology, she could not take her first step toward her career until her age of 52, a year after her brother died in 1930.
When she was 20, she married Blewett Lee who was a young attorney and law professor at Northwestern University. They were married for eight years and had three children. Their marriage seemed to start happily at the beginning. However, they eventually divorced after the 8 years of marriage. Failure of marriage led her life into a whole new direction.
Meeting “George Burgess Magrath”
Her interest in legal medicine began when she first met her brother's classmate, George Burgess Magrath, who spent his summer vacation with the Glessner family at their thousand-acre summerhouse at the White Mountains, New Hampshire. He was then a medical student at Harvard University and later became a professor in pathology at Harvard Medical School and the chief medical examiner at Suffolk County in Boston. Sharing his interest in medicine, investigation and death fired Frances’ ambition on her future career. Meeting Magrath became the seeds of her interest in legal medicine, especially in death investigation.
Since that time, their friendship had remained until Magrath died in 1938. Frances, in fact, followed Magrath’s career path and her interest in legal medicine apparently benefited Magrath’s career as well. In 1931, she donated $250,000 in support of establishing a department of legal medicine at Harvard with Magrath as first chair and she even paid for the salary of its first professor. She later built the George Burgess Magrath Library and made a donation of more than 1000 books and manuscripts to the Library. Her supports enabled Harvard to hold various seminars, which have trained their students to become medical examiners. However, Magrath could not enjoy this long enough and died in 1938.
"The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’
She presided the grand-fashion seminars at Harvard twice a year and she was the only woman among about 40 men. She invited police officers and other professionals involved in law enforcement from all over the nation. The seminars were held through crafting dystopian dollhouses, which were eighteen dioramas she constructed, named the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, as convinced by the theory of criminology that crimes could be analyzed and solved by scientific analysis of visual and material clue.
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death contains every detail needed to investigate and recreate the crime scenes by using photos and witness accounts. She made the dolls, painted faces and stitched clothes by hand. She also placed tiny magazines or newspapers stuffed into drafty cracks in the wall, tiny crushed cigarettes, and even prescription bottles with labels she printed by hand. From broken glass to a pile of letters, all these items in the Nutshells were her invention and important clues for the manner of unexplained death.
She spent a great amount of time on each Nutshell. She hired the carpenter Ralph Mosher, to be able to make what she wanted and he worked for her for eight years until he died. Later, his son took over his father’s job and worked for Frances. She sometime purchased already-made miniature furniture on her trips over the world. She made about three Nutshells per year in the 1930s to ‘40s, and each of them were as expensive as an average house in those days.
In 1942 Frances became a volunteer police officer with an honorary captain’s rank in the New Hampshire State Police. She was the first female to become a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
When she got old and lost her vision, a doctor recommended her to stop working. However, her ambition could not easily stop her. She had listened to the police reports everyday in her room through radio, until she died in 1962 and many mourned the death of her.
The dioramas were donated to Harvard in 1945. However, they have been placed at the office of the Maryland Medical Examiner in Baltimore since 1966 when the department of legal medicine was dissolved. A former professor in the department of legal medicine at Harvard, Dr. Russell Fisher, brought them with him, as he became a chief of the Maryland’s medical examiner. They still use them in various seminars, miniaturists, and for artists and academics.
Many people admire her efforts and prominent achievements in the male-dominated field. Many people might not be familiar of her name in the field of forensic science. However, her life's legacy is remembered and her pioneer work, The Nutshell Studies, greatly contributed to the field.