How A Doll-Loving Heiress Became The Mother Of Forensic Science

Priscilla Frank
Frances Glessner Lee's "Kitchen," created around 1944-46. It measures approximately 17 by 25 1/4 by 24 3/4 inches. (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD)

On April 11, 1944, a housewife named Robin Barnes was found dead in her kitchen, her body splayed across the floor in front of a half-open refrigerator. Her husband Fred had returned home from running errands that day to find the doors and windows to the house locked from the inside. Through the window Fred spotted what appeared to be his wife’s body on the ground and called the police. What happened to Robin?

First of all, it should be noted that Robin is a fictional character ― a doll, actually ― conceived of by the late Frances Glessner Lee, the first woman to become a police captain in the United States, according to the Smithsonian, and one of the preeminent criminologists of her time. And we might not ever know what happened to Robin. After all, she’s merely the prop in a wildly detailed diorama Lee created to teach homicide detectives how to evaluate crime scenes.

Lee is known today as the “mother of forensic science.” Her contributions to the field are varied, but she’s often remembered specifically for her interest in making grisly dioramas like the one depicting poor Robin. During her lifetime, Lee crafted 20 painstakingly detailed domestic crime scenes, measuring a foot or two in length and width. They were based on actual crimes, culled from photos, witness statements and other telling ephemera, and they are still used to train officers.

Born in 1878 in Chicago, Lee grew up an heiress to her father’s successful agricultural machinery business. From a young age, she was a sucker for murder mysteries, especially the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Fictional characters aside, however, Lee kept to herself. In her diary, Lee’s mother recalled her daughter saying, “I have no company but my doll baby and God.

As kids, Lee and her brother were homeschooled, but while he went on to Harvard, she was pressured to marry at the age of 19. Throughout her marriage and eventual motherhood (she had three children), Lee harbored a desire to pursue an unlikely career: forensics. She’d shared this desire with some friends, who remained cynical and dismissive of her very specific ambitions. Following her divorce and the death of her brother, a 52-year-old Lee finally opted to pursue her interest anyway. And she did so unreservedly. 

In 1931, with the family fortune now in her name, Lee used her hefty inheritance to wedge her way into the world of forensics. First, she established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, the first program of its kind in the country. Three years later, she gifted the department a collection of books and manuscripts that would one day become the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. By 1936, she’d donated another $250,000 ― approximately $4,400,000 today, accounting for inflation ― to the program.

Lee’s financial generosity helped her get a foot in the door of the burgeoning forensics field, but her prodigious knowledge and unorthodox skills ultimately propelled her to become, without any formal training or a college degree, the first female captain of the New Hampshire State Police. (Her title is sometimes listed as “honorary.”) There, Lee also served as the police department’s director of education, leading seminars and training programs for New Hampshire officers. This is around the time she took up dioramas.

Frances Glessner Lee's "Parsonage Parlor," created around 1946-48. (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD)

Starting in the 1940s, Lee used her diamoras to instruct homicide detectives on what to do and, more importantly, what to look for, upon entering a crime scene. She called them “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” and their purpose was in her words, to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” 

“They’re not dollhouses,” Bruce Goldfarb, the executive assistant to Baltimore’s chief medical examiner, told HuffPost in an interview. Goldfarb first encountered Lee’s works in the 1990s when he covered them as a journalist. It’s pure coincidence he now works in the building that’s stored them since 1966, educating police officers on the art of observation. Previously, they were housed at Harvard. 

“The problem was, by the time a medical examiner got to a crime scene,” Goldfarb explained, “the police had already been there. They’d moved around objects, walked through blood, touched the body. They could have compromised the evidence and the investigation.”

Lee’s idea, then, was to educate police officers on the proper way to enter a fresh crime scene ― how to regard every stain, every rumpled sheet, every stray hair as potential evidence. “You can’t take everybody to a real crime scene,” Goldfarb said. “The next best thing is to create little crime scenes.” In a tour of the exhibit on Facebook Live, he described the nutshells as “1940s virtual reality.” 

Frances Glessner Lee, "Kitchen (detail)," about 1944-46. Collection of the Harvard Medical School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Baltimore MD)

To this day, officers still interact with Lee’s dioramas during a six-day seminar held each year at the Baltimore Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, titled the Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation. The participating detectives are divided into groups, and each one is assigned to a physical nutshell, equipped with an accompanying paragraph of information that sets the scene. The participants imagine that they are setting foot into this miniature world and endeavor to figure out what happened in it. 

In Robin’s diorama, for example, Lee leaves her viewers plenty of visual cues to digest. Upon closer examination, one might notice that the two doors leading into the kitchen are stuffed with newspaper. Strange, no? And certain objects in the otherwise tidy kitchen ― aside from the corpse, that is ― feel somewhat askew. There’s a lopsided tablecloth by the window ― could someone have disturbed it during an escape? And the cutting board is almost falling off the butcher block; could this be a murder weapon?

Each nutshell has an “answer key,” detailing the pertinent clues in each of Lee’s grim scenarios. The keys are kept, literally, under lock and key in the chief medical examiner’s office. Goldfarb has never seen them, not even the chief medical examiner has, but the keys don’t culminate in a clean “whodunit”-style conclusion anyway. The diorama mysteries are not meant to be solved. 

Frances Glessner Lee (Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery)

All but two of Lee’s nutshells are currently on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in an exhibition titled “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” According to Goldfarb, Lee never considered herself an artist. In fact, he guesses that she would be amused by the idea that, of all her contributions to the field of criminology, it’s the nutshells that continue to garner so much fascination. But to understand why people are so hypnotized by Lee’s creations, one must simply look at them. 

The nutshells are enthralling because they resemble darling domestic miniatures, save for the uncanny presence of a realistic corpse. They echo, on a far less traumatic scale, the feeling of entering a household space, presumed to be safe and warm, and stumbling upon the jarring residue of violence. The sensation is made all the more stomach-churning by just how realistic the nutshells appear. Every piece took Lee around three months to create and cost her between $3,000 and $6,000 ― the equivalent of well over $50,000 today. Each was endowed with working electricity and doors. The carpets had stains, the newspapers accurately recreated the front pages of the day and the cigarettes ― packed with real tobacco ― were appropriately singed.  

She made her corpses using porcelain doll heads and other parts and carefully manipulated them to simulate real victims. (“You can’t buy a doll in rigor mortis,” Ariel O’Connor, a Smithsonian conservator, told The Atlantic.) The exact position of the bodies is meant to provide insight as to whether the diorama victim died that way or was moved after the fact. Lee even filled dolls hanging from nooses with a shot of lead, so their bodies assumed the appropriate slump. 

Frances Glessner Lee's "Red Bedroom" created around 1944-48. It measures 12 5/8 by 24 3/4 by 24 5/8 inches.  (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD / Collection of Harvard University)

“She was very particular about exactly how dolls ought to appear to express social status and the way [the victims] died,” Nora Atkinson, the curator of the exhibit, told The Washington Post. “If a doll has a specific discoloration, it’s scientifically accurate — she’s reproducing the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning and positioning them based on when rigor mortis took effect.”

Lee was remarkably creative in her quest to fashion three-dimensional worlds that were accurate, instructive and sometimes a bit humorous. For example, the fish-laden wallpaper on the wall of the nutshell titled “Bathroom” perfectly matched the wallpaper in Lee’s own home. And she commissioned a tiny painting to go atop a fireplace in the nutshell known as “Living Room.” Another was accented by a mini copy of a Sherlock Holmes book ― Lee’s favorite. 

She sewed many of the textiles found on the couches and clothing by hand. Other ensembles were made from real vintage pieces from the era Lee was recreating. She’d sometimes wear the clothes herself beforehand, to make sure the fabric was appropriately worn in. Red nail polish served as blood; it too was expertly applied in splatters and pools that provided valuable information. 

At the Smithsonian exhibition, viewers will be provided magnifying glasses and flashlights to sift through all these gory details and come to their own conclusions. 

(Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery)

In 1962, Lee died at the age of 83. Funding for the Harvard forensics program ceased and the curriculum soon came to a close. The nutshells’ futures remained uncertain until Harvard’s Professor Russell Fisher took a job as Maryland’s chief medical examiner. He brought the dioramas with him and began using them in training sessions.

Despite her bona fides as a criminologist and police captain (Goldfarb rejects the idea that her title was “honorary”), Lee was often described by the press as an eccentric grandma with a funny interest in murder. Her obituary, published in The New York Times, characterized her as “a great-grandmother who became an authority on crime” and “a wealthy widow with a consuming interest in real-life mysteries.” 

Even today, the exhibition ― titled “Murder Is Her Hobby” ― hints at how Lee is still caricatured. “She’s regarded as this quirky eccentric dowager,” Goldfarb said. “But she was one of the preeminent criminologists of her time. Had she not been 50 or 60 years old, she could have been a very good detective. She’s not just this weird old lady, she was one of the best.”

Goldfarb also takes issue with the way Lee’s story often hinges on her relationship to a man. Some say her brother initially piqued her interest in crime, others say it was her friend George Burgess Magrath, the medical examiner of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. “There is always some greater explanation than what actually happened: that this woman had an interest in something and went and did it,” Goldfarb said. “There always has to be some man in the story. That annoys me.” 

At the same time, Goldfarb is wary of describing Lee, revolutionary as she might have been, as a feminist. “I don’t think she was ever into gender politics, that was the furthest thing from her mind,” he said. “She was following her own interests. Identifying needs and solving those needs. I don’t think she was overtly making a statement.”

It’s tempting to draw singular conclusions about who Lee was and why she did the things she did. The bizarre heiress, the macabre granny, the undercover artist, the cunning feminist. The truth, however, is much more diffuse. Along with endowing trainees with observation skills, Lee’s dioramas warn others of the danger of assumptions. One nutshell features the hanged body of an older woman alongside a toy in a wedding dress and a stack of letters. It’s tempting to reason the sad spinster committed suicide, but other, less obvious clues suggest otherwise. Lee’s nutshells train officers in understanding their own biases and the way their predispositions can obstruct their view of the whole picture.

The lesson should apply to Lee’s life as well. 

Frances Glessner Lee's "Three-Room Dwelling" created around 1944-46. It measures 12 by 32 1/2 by 32 7/8 inches. (Courtesy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore, MD / Collection of Harvard University)

“Murder is her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” runs until Jan. 28, 2018, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.