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.”
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.
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.
The milkman’s discovery
It’s in the details
Did she fall, or was she pushed?
Lured to her death … ?
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.”
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.
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.
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.