Why we can thank Frances Glessner Lee for all of our favorite crime shows

Fun fact about myself: I’m a writing major at an art and design school. Nine times out of ten, it’s awesome. I’m surrounded by talented, creative people doing awesome things, going awesome places, and they inspire me as a craftsperson to push myself.

That other one time out of ten? That would have to be the foundation classes EVERYONE has to take. As I have little to no talent with anything other than words on a page, I didn’t exactly flourish in Drawing, Design I or Computer Art.

But I particularly sucked at Design II: Elements of 3D Design.

It was basically a weird wacky sculpture class. We had to mold creatures out of Sculpey, a polymer-based clay that you had to bake in the oven but if you did it improperly, the fumes would kill you. We created wearable works out of paper and created a reliquary for an object particularly dear to us (I created a hurricane of tiny slips of the Reynolds Pamphlet surrounding my trusty Alexander Hamilton bobblehead; my professor was not impressed). The weirdest thing of all was we had to create a sculpture made out of spaghetti, as well as create a spaghetti tower that would hold 75 lbs. Miraculously, I managed to pull it off by listening to “Hamilton” non-stop but it was about three trips around the world on the struggle bus for me. 

In the eye of a hurricane…
Why all my pens run out of ink
“Brainstorm” about to be tossed because it smelled awful

At this point, you may be asking yourselves, what the hell does this have to do with history or crime shows or anything remotely interesting? It doesn’t but it establishes my profound admiration for our topic today: Frances Glessner Lee.

This will all make sense in a moment, I promise.

Frances Glessner, “Fanny,” came from a very wealthy family in Chicago. Her father, John Jacob Glessner made a fortune in the farm implement industry and her mother, Sarah, excelled at just about any “womanly hobby” she tried her hand at, including sewing, playing piano, silversmithing and bee keeping. As was expected of well-to-do wives, she also put together gatherings for women to read and hear lectures on contemporary writing.

Fanny was born on March 25, 1878. Her older brother, George, had the worst hay fever imaginable and, from the way the pollen here in Savannah is making all the cobblestone look like the yellow brick road, I can relate. However, unlike the Glessners, I do not have enough money to build an entire second summer home in New Hampshire to escape to. This house was called “The Rocks.” I don’t know why. Please don’t ask me.

Because of George’s allergies, he and Fanny were homeschooled. As Fanny grew up, she became fascinated with law and medicine and wanted to pursue a career in either but her parents did not approve. Her father, in particular, hated the idea because he thought that women should never know anything about the human body.

She was not even allowed to go to college like her brother was (although I’m not sure how that worked with his extreme allergies) and, instead, spent more than a year traveling Europe with her Aunt Helen.

Image Credit: Glessner House Museum

Shortly after she returned in 1897, she married Blewett Lee. The Glessners built another house just for them in Chicago to move into where they had three children. However, the marriage was not a happy one. Fanny and Blewett did not have much in common. Blewett was a lawyer which intrigued Fanny but that was pretty much it, especially since Blewett did not approve of Fanny’s desire to make things and do things all the time. They divorced in 1914.

When Fanny and Blewett were separated but not yet divorced in 1913, she returned to a childhood hobby: making miniatures. Her first was of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which she knew like the back of her hand since her father served on the Board of Trustees and her mother was a fierce supporter. The diorama was meticulously crafted with tiny booklets of sheet music, tiny instrument cases and tiny instrument stands.

I could never pull anything like that off no matter how much “Hamilton” I listened to.

She also spend her abundance of free time by picking the brain of one of George’s childhood friends, George Burgess Magrath. He had become a medical examiner after studying medicine at Harvard and would keep Fanny company by discussing his work. She was fascinated and strived to learn as much as she could about her new favorite subject: forensic science.

In the 1930s, she established a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, of which Magrath became chair, by giving an endowment of $230,000, the equivalent of $3.8 million today. She also donated a thousand hand-selected books on legal medicine to the library and continued to give funds throughout her life to support the program’s maintenance.

She also began to host large dinner parties, similar to the ones her mother would hold for high-class women, except she invited detectives, investigators and scientists so that she could learn everything she could about their work.

Becoming an integral part of this inner circle of crime solvers, she was made honorary captain of the New Hampshire State Police in 1943. No women before her had ever held such a title.

In 1945, her dinner parties expanded into the Harvard Associates of Political Science (HAPS) seminar. She would invite experts in crime scene investigation to speak to hand-selected attendees about the industry’s latest methods at the swanky Ritz-Carlon hotel. She also saw to it that every element of the week-long session was perfect. She even bought a brand new $8,000 set of china for the hotel to use just for these seminars.

As Fanny listened to the discussions, she realized that there wasn’t a standardized practical way of looking for evidence at a crime scene. Investigators had a difficult time working with one another because they used different approaches. The evidence would often be corrupted or lost by the time everyone got on the same page. Additionally, there were few crime scenes available for investigators in training to practice their skills.

So Fanny spent seven years constructing a group of projects called the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These were tiny dioramas similar to her Chicago Symphony Orchestra miniature that could have passed for a girl’s doll house had it not been for the blood stains on the wall or the knives in people’s backs or dolls with their hands bound in rope. There were eighteen in total and each was based on actual case reports and court records.

Image Credit: OZY

Beyond extensively researching the deaths, Fanny meticulously crafted the decor of the room. No detail was too small. Well, actually, they were incredible small, a one inch to one foot scale to be exact. This is where I find myself feeling quite silly about my inadequacies in 3D Design.

She hand rolled tiny cigarettes. She knitted socks on straight pins. She whittled small, functioning clothespins. She created mice and mice traps. She made teensy pencils out of real lead and wood. Miniature children’s toys littered the nurseries. The shades and drawers opened and closed. Drawers had locks that could be opened with eensy weensy keys.

Image Credit: OZY

And those aren’t even the medical meticulousnesses (say that five times fast). She painted the skin of the dolls to the accurate pallor depending on how long the corpse had been sitting there. She studied the trajectory of blood spatter on the walls and (this is where I get squeamish) at what point the blood would have stopped pooling from a body. She carefully burned down part of a cabin with a blowtorch in a diorama called, appropriately, “Burnt Cabin.” She did most of the work herself but occasionally called on the help of carpenters Ralph and Alton Mosher.

Image Credit: OZY

Aside from looking morbidly beautiful, these models helped to train investigators to analyze the scenes and develop a systematic approach for crime scene investigation. These methods are still being used today.

The goal of each scene was not to solve the crime or murder but, instead, to observe. Each student was given 90 minutes to study the scene and then discussed his findings to the group. This was especially important because, until that point, many investigators would follow a hunch about what had happened and only look for evidence that supported that hypothesis.

Image Credit: OZY

Fanny also advocated for the involvement of trained medical personnel in investigations because coroners, at the time, were not required to have any medical training. This strikes as silly as someone thinking women shouldn’t know anything about the human body when they were in charge of cranking out bodies themselves. It must have all been guess work, which is fine when you are creating a sculpture out of spaghetti and hot glue but, giving birth and discerning cause death seem to me a bit more important.

Four years after Fanny’s death at “The Rocks” on January 27, 1962, the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard lost its funding and was dissolved. The Nutshell studies were initially going to be thrown away but, fortunately, the Maryland Medical Examiners’ Office swooped in and took them. They are not only still on display there after making their first public exhibition last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but they continue to be used as teaching tools for investigators.

There is a fascinating documentary about Fanny and the way her Nutshells have been used today called “Of Dolls and Murder.” I attempted to make my way through it but, as those who have read my Millicent Patrick post know, I am a bit of a scaredy cat.

We also have her to thank for inspiring such beloved shows like “Murder She Wrote,” “Bones” and nearly any of the other crime shows on air today that seem to multiply like rabbits.

So it isn’t just her crazy artistic capabilities that make me admire her. She once said, “I didn’t do a lick of work to deserve what I have. Therefore I feel I have an obligation to do something to benefit everybody.” And fighting for justice to expose the guilty and clear the innocent seem like one of the best causes to champion.

Image Credit: OZY