Murder, She Miniatured: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Homemaking and Homicide
From the outside, Frances Glessner Lee’s childhood home resembled a prison. H. H. Richardson designed the home in 1886 with imposing granite and an austere facade, complete with barred windows. At the time of its construction, the home was considered the eyesore of Chicago’s fashionable Prairie Avenue. The inside of the home felt equally oppressive to young Lee. Her mother was a society woman and model homemaker who tried to instill the art of homemaking in her daughter through “feminine” crafts like sewing, painting, and miniature-making. Lee never embraced these gendered conventions, but her childhood training in domesticity is what ultimately gave her access to the male-dominated field of legal medicine, becoming known as the “mother of forensic science.”1
As a child, Lee assumed she would go to nursing or medical school until her father barred her from continuing her education. However, her brother’s collegial ties played a pivotal role in Lee’s future when she was introduced to his friend and fellow true crime enthusiast, Harvard medical student George Burgess Magrath. Dr. Magrath would go on to become the Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk County and enamored Lee with stories about murder from the onset of their friendship, bringing to life the detective stories she read throughout her life.
Despite never receiving formal training, Lee became a force in the field of forensic science.2 In 1931, Lee underwrote a professorship of legal medicine at Harvard, filled by Dr. Magrath, and further solidified her commitment to the field by establishing a robust library and endowment in later years.3 This financial support of the burgeoning science and her ties with Dr. Magrath gave her access to the front lines of homicide investigations. She accompanied police officers on cases, advocated for the amendment of the corrupt coroner system, and corresponded with a nationwide network of law enforcement officials.4 Lee witnessed a lack of methodology in homicide investigations and saw an opportunity to reform the system with forensic science. Substituting experience for traditional education, Lee became a consultant to the department and began hosting the Frances Glessner Lee Seminars on Legal Medicine in 1945 at the age of 67.5
Sweating the Small Stuff
Lee was married and divorced by the age of 36, a final rejection of the traditional domestic life that was expected of her. Moving to the east coast with her three children, Lee was able to escape the watchful eye of her parents and create spaces of her own. From her New Hampshire workshop, Lee crafted twenty crime scene dioramas, known as The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.6 The miniatures were a mosaic of real-life crimes that Lee studied extensively. In this sense, Lee was interpreting the crimes she encountered to create a narrative by picking, eliminating, highlighting, and obscuring facts from real-life cases. The nutshells were tough to crack; they were not “whodunnits” meant to be solved, but rather educational tools used during her seminars to promote careful, strategic consideration of a crime scene.
Lee co-opted the feminine tradition of miniature-making to create efficient teaching tools for a male-dominated field, essentially bringing crime scenes to officers-in-training. The attention to detail in the nutshells is astonishing. Lee pored over Sears & Roebuck catalogs for the “right” wallpapers, lit hand-rolled miniature cigarettes with real tobacco, knitted tiny stockings with straight pins, and equipped a tiny coffee pot with real coffee grounds. Lee even wore a blue suit long after friends hinted at the outfit being unfashionable so the fabric could be properly broken in for a nutshell victim’s clothing. In order to make these miniature murders as life-like as possible, Lee consulted with medical students, analyzed crime scene photographs, and referenced countless police reports. As a symptom of being the only woman in the room, she held herself to a higher standard than many policemen did at the scene of actual crimes: If they noticed an incongruity in the scene they would question not only the crime presented, but her credibility as an educator.7
Conscious of the fact that her inheritance gave her access to become an authority in forensic science, and fearful of being “placed in the category of ‘rich woman who didn’t have enough to do,’” Lee actively used her station to draw attention to the stories of marginalized victims.8 The miniatures are jarring for a number of reasons, but most notably because they sweepingly reject the notion of a sacred domestic sphere. Miniatures such as “Kitchen,” “Pink Bathroom,” and “Living Room” show middle-class domestic scenes interrupted by violence. Others, namely “Red Bedroom” and “Dark Bathroom,” revolve around the murders of unmarried women who transgressed sexual mores. The woman in “Dark Bathroom,” who subverted the sanctity of the private sphere by inviting men into her home, and the sex worker in “Red Bedroom,” are given the same time and care by Lee and the officers observing the scene as the other nutshells. If investigated thoroughly, detectives would come to the conclusion that there are a number of reasons the women may have died, including an accidental overdose or the possibility of an epileptic seizure, that would require further forensic investigation. It’s not the fact of the body that unnerved investigators in these miniatures, it’s that the victims may have died of causes wholly removed from the supposed danger of these women’s sexually-transgressive behavior.9
Lee’s nutshells speak to the long history of women’s interest and authority in true crime. Today, women are still embracing this interest through new mediums to redistribute the attention to crimes that were not afforded thorough police investigations or national media coverage. Women-produced podcasts like The Fall Line, Missing & Murdered, and Crime in Color re-center the narrative on marginalized victims and domestic abuse survivors. Podcasts, like miniatures, are portable forms of education that bring the narrator’s perspective directly to the audience.
Lee repurposed her childhood domestic training to gain access to the masculine world of legal medicine in ways beyond the nutshells. Her inherited wealth created the opportunity to support legal medicine, but it was her knowledge of when to subvert and conform to gendered expectations that granted her access to the field’s inner circles. Lee quipped that “Men are dubious of an elderly woman with a cause,” and to put these men at ease, she reverted to displaying the gendered notions of homemaking she was presented with during her childhood.10 To this end, she would host elaborate receptions during her seminars and would be “fussy” about every detail, from linens to floral centerpieces to the china and the seating arrangements.11
Even in death, her peers would not untangle her gender from her contributions to the male-dominated world of criminology. Erle Stanley Gardner, a close friend of Lee and author of the Perry Mason detective series, wrote in her obituary, “The approach of a woman of highly developed maternal instincts, she not only adopted the cause of legal medicine and law enforcement as an intellectual pursuit, but she came to regard the men in the law enforcement as her ‘boys.’”12 These ‘boys’ considered her a mother hen, dozens of them sending cards every Mother’s Day. In contrast to her public persona, and despite Gardner’s memorialization, Lee rarely displayed the conventional markers of motherhood in her own home; she rejected the homemaking skills her mother attempted to pass down and Lee’s own children noted that her work life consumed her at all hours, diverting her attention from the more performative aspects of homemaking. While she may have been publicly known as the mother of forensic science, privately she never identified with the traditional, conflated expectations of motherhood and homemaking.13
Lee’s childhood home and her nutshells have undergone preservation efforts, both continuing Lee’s legacy today. While the Glessner home may reflect Lee’s privilege and training in homemaking skills, Lee’s interior life is exposed in the interior of the nutshells. Their artful transgression of domestic life embodies both Lee’s acuity for the feminine craft of miniature-making and her rejection of society’s construction of domesticity. Throughout her life, you can see the big and small ways Lee carefully observed clues that informed her decision to confirm or subvert gendered expectations. Whether it was fielding a room of male colleagues or embedding evidence in the nutshells, the devil was always in the details.
- Laura J. Miller, “Denatured Domesticity: An Account of Femininity and Physiognomy in the Interiors of Frances Glessner Lee” in Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture, ed. Hilde Heynen and Gülsüm Baydar (Abingdon: Routledge Press, 2005), 201. Return to text.
- Miller, 210. Return to text.
- Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2004), 26. Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 30. Coroners, as opposed to medical examiners, were politically-appointed positions that did not require the incumbent to hold a medical degree. Without proper training and knowledge, many coroners overlooked important details for homicide investigations. Lee, an advocate for education, had a hand in proposing and advocating for the amendment of laws in seven states that corrected this system. Return to text.
- Pete Martin, “How Murderers Beat the Law,” Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1949. Return to text.
- The name references an old police saying: “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 33. Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 22. Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 216. Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 30. Return to text.
- Earl Banner, “She Invested a Fortune in Police, Entertained Them Royally at Ritz,” Boston Globe, February 4, 1962. Return to text.
- Erle Stanley Gardner, “She Would Battle for Ideas at the Drop of a Hat,” Boston Globe, Feb. 4, 1962. Return to text.
- Botz, The Nutshell Studies, 30. Return to text.
Kara Zelasko is a public historian interested in the histories and ideas embedded in the built environment. She currently develops exhibitions and programs for a cultural nonprofit in Washington, D.C. Previously she has worked with the Chicago History Museum, WGBH, and Massachusetts History Society. She received her M.A. in Public History from Northeastern University in 2018 and a B.A. in History from DePaul University.