History is full of people who humbly made a difference in our lives to help in improving investigative techniques.
Early Life of Frances Glessner Lee
She was born into wealth in the Gilded Age to John Jacob and Frances Glessner in 1878 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father made his fortune as vice-president of International Harvester Company. Lee and her brother were home-schooled in their mansion on Prarie Ave. Her brother Charles went on to attend Harvard University. However, her parents were opposed to higher learning for females. Instead, Frances married lawyer Blewett Harrison Lee at age 19. After three children, Mr. Lee was tired of Frances' fascination with crime solving, and they divorced.
In 1913, Frances took two months to create a miniature diorama of the Chicago Symphony Orchester for her mother's 65th birthday. Her parents were, for many years, patrons of the orchestra. Her diorama consisted of 90 musicians, their instruments, sheet music, and instrument cases.
The tuxedos were hand-stitched with white dress shirts with a fabric carnation in the lapels. This would seem to be the prelude to Lee's career in the diorama crime scenes, eventually called The Nutshell Studies. Today, the Orchestra Diorama is exhibited at the Glessner Home Museum, Chicago.
The Nutshell Studies
Frances Lee found her fascination with a crime in her brother's Harvard college friend George Burgess Magrath and his endless stories of unsolved crimes. He told Lee that many murders went unsolved due to the lack of training for police officers. When Lee's parents and brother died, she inherited great wealth; for the first time in her life, she could make her own choices.
Lee decided to move to Bethlehem, New Hampshire, called Rocks Estate, her parent's 28-room summer home. She converted a room into her studio and began creating her dioramas, each depicting an actual crime scene. They were so intricately made each took six months to make at a cost between $3-5,000. Lee believed the Art of Observation was critical for training police investigators.
Every door, window, and the light was in working order, every doorknob turned, and the keys worked. Pencils were made from toothpicks. Drapes, bedding, dishes, etc. were all made to scale by Lee. She did have her carpenter. Ralph Moser constructed the furniture to scale. Lee left no stone unturned in her diorama reconstructions.
When Lee moved to her parent's summer home called The Rocks, Bethlehem, New Hampshire, in 1941, her workshop was devoted to her diorama creations. When she finished her dioramas, she had 19 of her Nutshell Crime Scenes.
The Harvard Seminars
Lee began doing twice-yearly seminars at Harvard for homicide detectives. The detectives were given 90 minutes to study the scene and questioned their opinions about the location. She stressed how vital observation was to solve a crime. Lee believed that forensic science can explain the "how," but the human mind is a must to find the "why."
The dioramas used in training of police detectives are housed in the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, Md, and are considered works of art. They are still used in training. Lee was honored with the Badge of Police Captain, making her the first police captain in the U.S.
The Nutshell Studies
In 2017, the Nutshell Studies were on public display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington, DC, under the heading Murder is Her Hobby. Today, they can be found at the Glessner Museum, 1800 Prarie Ace., Chicago, Illinois.
Testimonials To Frances Flessner Lee
- Creator of Harvard University Department of Legal Medicine
- Donor of more than 1000 books to the George Burgess Magrath Library
- Contributor for the Frances G. Lee Chair in Legal Medicine at Harvard
- Founder of the Harvard Seminars in homicide investigations
- Founder of HAPS, Harvard University Association of Police Science
- Creator of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths