Those who don’t want to wait until fall to find out more can get a preview at Chicago’s Glessner House Museum, the former family home, on Sunday, March, 26, when museum Executive Director William Tyre will present “Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.”
Used as teaching tools beginning in the mid 1940s, the Nutshell Studies are scenes “Fanny” Glessner Lee created at the scale of doll houses as teaching tools used at the Harvard Homicide Investigation Seminars, which she was also instrumental in establishing.
The Smithsonian exhibit will be the first in which all existing scenes are presented for public display.
In the Winter 1952 edition of the Journal of Law and Criminology, Lee wrote that she created about 20 scenes “ranging in size from an 8-by-14 inch shack to a 30-by-30 inch three-room dwelling” using details from actual death scenes to guide her.
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“No effort has been spared to make every detail perfect and complete,” she wrote, a tendency toward accuracy Lee had demonstrated in January of 1913, when at age 34, she presented her mother with a birthday present of a portrait of miniatures of her mother’s beloved Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“Lee was permitted to attend rehearsal, where she wandered among the musicians marking on each doll’s bare bisque head the hairlines and facial hair of each performer,” says a posting on the Glessner House website. “She hand-stitched tuxedos and white dress shirts for each doll, and placed a tiny fabric carnation in each lapel. Many of the instruments were made by Lee, using wooden candy boxes and other household items; others were made by craftsmen she hired for the project.”
The full orchestra included 90 Viennese bisque dolls, all with chairs and seated before music stands that bore the first page of a composition played during the concert that displayed a model that reflected the skills in the “domestic arts” practiced by society women of the day.
Although brought up in a home that presents fortress-like stone walls to passersby, Glessner House’s warm, welcoming interior rooms were where Frances and her brother, George, not only lived but received their educations from a series of tutors, including those specializing in foreign languages.
There were also educational outings all over Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago, which now houses the Thorne Miniature Rooms, which were built beginning in the 1930s, about the time Lee conceived of the Nutshell Studies.
In the September-October 2005 edition of Harvard Magazine, writer Laura J. Miller described Fanny Glessner as a “sheltered and indulged child, raised in a household that epitomized the aesthetic and moral ideals of nineteenth-century domesticity.”
That domesticity included the making of miniatures, of course, and the freedom to indulge herself with them.
Mr. Tyre of Glessner House says the notion that the Glessner parents denied their daughter the opportunity of a college education as part of that aesthetic is “one of the great urban legends of all time.”
Tyre said Fanny’s father boasted that by age 18, both of his children “had the equivalent of a four-year college education.”
Fanny’s brother, George, seven years Fanny’s senior, returned to Springfield to work for Warder, Bushnell & Glessner and married a Springfield woman.
At 18, Fanny herself married George Blewett Lee, an attorney with the Illinois Central Railway, a marriage that produced three children but ended unhappily in what at the time was considered the scandal of divorce.
Nora Atkinson, Lloyd Herman Curator of Craft at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, said Lee’s grandchildren said that one of the issues in the marriage involved Mrs. Lee’s “propensity” for constantly doing work with her hands, a feminine pursuit of the era “which her husband did not understand.”
After the divorce, Mrs. Lee moved with her children to The Rocks, a Glessner Family summer retreat in New Hampshire, and began living there full time.
Her interest in murder developed when Fanny met her brother’s Harvard classmate George Burgess “Jake” Magrath, later the medical examiner for Suffolk County, Mass., and a pioneer in bringing a scientific approach to crime scene investigation.
Lee was fascinated with what she learned from Magrath, and, having been persuaded there was a need for a more scientific approach to homicide investigation in 1931 used $250,000 of her inheritance to fund the Department of Legal Medicine at the Harvard Medical School. Three years later, she established the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine there, and saw the endeavor come to life in 1938.
Her 1952 journal article said the twofold purpose of the school was to “research into the causes of unexplained death, and the practical application and teaching of the results of that research” to police, coroners, medical examiners and physicians at work in the field.
It was when the school decided to present semi-annual seminars for professionals that Lee’s handiwork became more than handy; it became essential.
As she wrote: “Since time and space are at a premium at the Seminars, and since visual studies of actual cases seem a most valuable teaching tool,” she created them.
Bruce Goldfarb, who is working on a biography of Lee and works at the Office of the Medical Examiner of Maryland, the Nutshells’ official home, called Lee’s achievement “the perfect application in this medium that couldn’t be done any other way.”
What better way to train people in the visual examination of a crime scene that through the use of a visual model?
The Smithsonian’s Atkinson said called the Nutshells “a unique solution … which no man probably would have thought about,” given the social distance between the world of dolls and doll houses and the world of homicide investigation.
For the Renwick Gallery, which focuses on crafts, that represents a rare example to display the work of woman “who was breaking the glass ceiling while doing a craft,” Atkinson said.
Goldfarb said that perhaps even more than in her diorama of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “she was quite obsessive about detail, accuracy and precision” of the modes, “and she cut no corners.”
The detail included the figures wearing underwear beneath their clothing, which viewers would not see, and which Lee sewed with tatting needles; a worn spot in the linoleum in front of a toilet Lee likely rubbed to create a pattern of wear; and an advertising sign on the inside a wall of a bar that no observe could see.
“She hired artists to do original art for her,” Goldfarb added, and even had single miniature prints of actual front pages of the Los Angeles Times fashioned so they could be part of a scene.
Whether such going to such lengths were the indulgences of an adult who had been indulged as a child may be a question worth asking.
Susan Marks, a Minneapolis film maker whose hour-long documentary, “Murder in a Nutshell: The France Glessner Lee Story” will be screened at the Smithsonian Exhibit, says the attention to detail points to another of Lee’s character traits: “Her brain just didn’t stop. She didn’t sleep much.”
“She was often labeled a hobbyist” in the criminal field, Marks added, “but I think it’s fair to say that’s absolutely not true. It was her life’s work.”
Goldfarb agrees that Lee’s attitude, attention to detail, correspondence with experts and dedication make it clear that she “was not a dilettante” but a pioneer – an achievement recognized when she was named the nation’s first captain of police at a time when there were few women police at all.
While Atkinson agrees, she also has a sense that, because of Lee’s society background and presence as the lone woman at the Harvard gatherings, the police she worked with were at the same time awed by her and patronizing toward her as a kind of social novelty.
Lee’s own dead-serious purpose was to bring informed scientific rigor to the modus operandi of crime scene investigations.
“One of the essentials in the study of these Nutshells is that the student should approach them with an open mind …. (F)ar too often the investigator ‘has a hunch’ and looks for and finds only the evidence to support it, disregarding any other evidence that may be present. This attitude would be calamitous in investigating an actual case.”
But her call for greater rigor was rooted in a higher calling for the profession, one she addressed in the final lines of her journal article.
“Technical skill, scientific knowledge and professional training … are not all there is to Legal Medicine. There is something else – something hard to define – which must accompany them …. It is an unremitting quest for facts; it is a constant and continues search for truth in the interests of science and justice, to expose the guilty, to clear the innocent. It is a dedication of its own peculiar wisdom and experience to the service of mankind.”
In a nutshell, it’s the spirit that made Frances Glessner Lee the mother of modern crime scene investigation.