As It Happens

The 'godmother of forensic science' revolutionized police work with dollhouse crime scenes

Smithsonian conservator Ariel O'Connor explains how Frances Glessner Lee a co-opted traditionally feminine crafts to advance the field of forensic investigation.
A Smithsonian conservator is restoring a set of dollhouses showing miniature death scenes used to teach forensics. These so-called 'nutshells' were created decades ago by Frances Glessner Lee — a philanthropist known as 'the godmother of forensic science.' (Smithsonian American Art Museum )

Story transcript

As a woman, Frances Glessner Lee wasn't permitted to go to university — but that didn't stop her from revolutionizing the field of forensic sciences.

Lee, who is now known as the "godmother of forensic science," crafted exquisitely detailed miniature dollhouse crime scenes that are still used today to train homicide investigators.

Frances Glessner Lee creating her miniature crime scenes. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

"She, from a young age, was fascinated with the world of forensic science," Ariel O'Connor, who is refurbishing Lee's work for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"She was very interested in law and medicine, but really, at that time, women didn't go to college."

Born in 1878 to a wealthy Chicago industrialist, Lee watched her brother go off to Harvard Medical School, while she resigned herself to the role of housewife.

"She got married young and it was not a very happy marriage, so she divorced in 1914," O'Connor said.

"And by the time she inherited her family's fortune in the 1930s, she was 58 years old and she changed the focus of her life and decided to change the world of legal medicine."

She put a large part of her inheritance towards an endowment to create the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine in 1931 — the first such department in the United States.

She enlisted the help of her friend Dr. George Burgess Magrath, Boston's medical examiner and a former classmate of her brother's.

"She and Dr. Magrath really worked together to found this department of legal medicine and completely change the way that detectives investigate crime scenes. She truly made forensic investigation a scientific process."

One of the ways she did that was by teaching detectives to analyze visual and material evidence — examining the position of bodies and details of crime scenes for clues. 

For that, she used the skills she had learned in domestic life. 

"She could sew and embroider and paint," O'Connor said. "She took all of these traditional crafts and things that are traditionally associated with women and she used those to make unbelievably detailed scenes."

Details like replicas of newspapers and magazines from the era, or tiny cigarettes hand-rolled with real tobacco. 

For one macabre scene of a man hanging in a barn, Lee used real wood from her property in New Hampshire.

"She had her carpenter take old barn wood and split it so it's about a millimetre thin and glued two pieces together so it looks like weathered wood on both sides," she said.

"She's even made tracks in the hayloft of where a tractor would have rolled in."

In another, she created a baby's nursery, full of bright colours, striped wallpaper, a checkerboard floor and a small rocking horse.

"And you can see a Teddy bear lying on the floor that she hand-knit with straight pins and a magnifying glass and the knitting is so tiny she would only be able to knit a few seconds at a time before she had to rest her eyes," O'Connor said.

"And you look at this idyllic room and you look at the white crib in the corner and the first thing that you notice is there's blood spatter on the pink wallpaper above — and the baby has also been shot."

Lee called her scenes "nutshells" because she said you could use them to "convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell."

Each one took her several months and several thousand dollars to make.

"And they all do have solutions, but it's not about figuring out the solution that she had for the nutshell," O'Connor said.

"It's truly about using your powers of observation to guess and to try and see what was happening in the scene."

The exhibition, called "Murder is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," opens Oct. 20 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington. 

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