Murders in miniature: The woman who advanced forensic science

How did heiress Frances Glessner Lee (1878–1962) become one of the most noted criminologists of her day? A new exhibition shows her eye for detail had a lot to do with it. It fueled her success in a field with few women and helped her gain status as the first female police captain in the U.S.

Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, explores 18 intricate crime-scene dioramas that Lee created in the 1930s–40s to help homicide investigators “convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell.”

Miniature kitchen on left and bedroom scene on right with two dolls representing dead bodies (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
In “Three-Room Dwelling,” a kitchen, left, leads into a bedroom, right, where a husband and wife were found murdered. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

At first glance, Lee’s miniature crime scenes (based on actual police cases in New England) resemble dollhouses, complete with tiny rocking chairs, newspapers, mousetraps and children’s toys. But a closer look reveals signs of violence — bullet holes, bloodstains and diminutive corpses.

Woman working at table (© Glessner House Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
Frances Glessner Lee at work on her “nutshells” in the early 1940s (© Glessner House Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

When Lee began her career in law enforcement, said curator Nora Atkinson, police officers received little training and often mishandled crime scenes. Clues were overlooked and evidence was contaminated, making it difficult to prosecute suspects.

So Lee created her dioramas as training tools, aimed at honing investigators’ powers of observation — while also teaching them how to canvass crime scenes.

Domesticity, disrupted

Miniature scene of a woman lying dead on the floor of a kitchen (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
In “Kitchen,” a housewife’s body lies near an oven. The victim’s husband told police he found her dead after he came home. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

The milkman’s discovery

Miniature scene of a woman hanging from a rope (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
In “Attic,” a woman’s body hangs from a noose. She was found by a milkman, who saw the kitchen door open and went upstairs to investigate. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

It’s in the details

Two stockinged feet with shoe hanging off of one foot (© Susan Marks/Baltimore Office of the Chief Medical Examiner)
Lee reproduced realistic details, as this close-up view of the “Attic” scene reveals. (© Susan Marks/Baltimore Office of the Chief Medical Examiner)

Did she fall, or was she pushed?

Miniature living room scene with doll facedown on stairs (Dept. of State/S.L. Brukbacher)
The open doorway from “Living Room” shows a dead woman lying at the foot of a staircase. The woman’s husband claimed he found her there, lifeless. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

Lured to her death … ?

Doll figure lying down (© Corinne May Botz/Baltimore Office of the Chief Medical Examiner)
In “Parsonage Parlor,” the body of a teenage girl lies on the floor. Her body was found four days after she vanished. (© Corinne May Botz/Baltimore Office of the Chief Medical Examiner)

Town drunkard

Miniature scene of a dog looking at a man lying on a couch in a sitting room (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
In “Sitting Room & Woodshed,” a man’s body lies on a sofa. A doctor ruled the death was caused by acute alcoholism. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

Lee is now regarded as “the godmother of forensic science,” said Atkinson, but the path from society matron to criminologist wasn’t swift.

Like most women of her era and social class, Lee married young and didn’t go to college. Her brother, however, attended Harvard University and brought home a medical-student classmate named George Burgess Magrath, described by Atkinson as “a sort of real-life Sherlock Holmes.”

Miniature scene of woman drowned in bathtub (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
In “Dark Bathroom,” a woman was found dead in a bathtub with water streaming into her mouth from an open faucet. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

Magrath, who became Boston’s chief medical examiner, regaled Lee with tales about death investigations, and the two discussed his cases throughout their lifelong friendship.

Eventually, Lee decided to pursue a career in forensic pathology. Her family objected, believing such work was too sordid for a woman. But after her brother’s death in 1930, Lee — age 52 — inherited her fortune and asserted her independence.

Plunging into her new field, Lee observed crime scenes and autopsies, and conceived the idea of creating dioramas that told complex stories of homicides, suicides and accidental deaths. Lee invited detectives and prosecutors to study her “nutshells,” which helped establish protocols for collecting and evaluating evidence.

Woman using tweezers to arrange items in diorama (Glessner House Museum/Smithsonian Institution)
Lee uses tweezers to adjust an item in her diorama, “Dark Bathroom.” (Glessner House Museum/Smithsonian Institution)

In 1943, Lee became the first female police captain in the United States.

Her “nutshells” are still used in training seminars at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore. Crime-scene “reports,” written by Lee to accompany each case, are given to forensic trainees.

Man using flashlight to peer into dark diorama (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)
At the exhibition “Murder Is Her Hobby,” flashlights are provided to visitors for better viewing. (State Dept./S.L. Brukbacher)

Paradoxically, through the traditionally feminine art of creating “miniatures,” Lee was able to advance in a male-dominated field. In so doing, she revolutionized police work and ushered forensic science out of its infancy.