‘For most of human history, sudden and unexpected deaths of a suspicious nature, when they were investigated at all, were examined by lay persons without any formal training. People often got away with murder. Modern forensic investigation originates with Frances Glessner Lee – a pivotal figure in police science.’
18 Tiny Deaths is the remarkable story of how one woman changed the face of murder investigation forever.
Born in 1878, Frances Glessner Lee’s world was set to be confined to the domestic sphere. She was never expected to have a career, let alone one steeped in death and depravity. Yet she was to become known as ‘the mother of forensic science’.
This is her story.
Frances Glessner Lee’s mission was simple: she wanted to train detectives to ‘convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell’. This was a time of widespread corruption, amateur sleuthing and bungled cases.
With the help of her friend, the pioneering medical examiner George Magrath, Frances set out to revolutionise police investigation. Her relentless pursuit of justice led her to create ‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’, a series of dollhouse-sized crime scene dioramas depicting actual cases in exquisitely minute detail that Lee used to teach homicide investigators. They were first used in homicide seminars at Harvard Medical School in the 1930s, and then became part of the longest running and still the highest regarded police training seminar in America.
Celebrated the world over by scientists, artists and miniaturists, these macabre scenes helped to establish her legendary reputation as ‘the mother of modern forensics’, influencing people the world over, including Scotland Yard.Frances wanted justice for all. She became instrumental in elevating murder investigation to a scientific discipline.
Bruce Goldfarb is the executive assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland, US, where the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are housed. He gives conducted tours of the facility and is also a trained forensic investigator. He began his career as a paramedic before working as a journalist, reporting on medicine, science and health. He collaborated with Susan Marks – the documentary filmmaker who produced the 2012 film about Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshells titled Of Dolls and Murder.
This was a really fascinating read, I’d come across the Nutshell models on a TV crime show, but had no idea they were real, and created by such an extraordinary woman. Frances Glessner Lee was so far ahead of her time, pushing forensic science into the modern age, creating some of the very techniques still used today in solving crime.
Obviously she had the benefit of being born into wealth and a social class that tolerated her “eccentric” interests.
But she was also incredibly determined and intelligent, if she had been male she would have been a doctor and probably have been the head of the department she funded at Harvard herself.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in this blog tour but all opinions remain my own.