For most of human history, sudden and unexpected deaths of a suspicious nature, when they were investigated at all, were examined by lay persons without any formal training. People often got away with murder. That is, until Frances Glessner Lee.
Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), born a socialite to a wealthy and influential Chicago family, was never meant to have a career, let alone one steeped in death and depravity. Yet she became the mother of modern forensics and was instrumental in elevating homicide investigation to a scientific discipline. Frances Glessner Lee learned forensic science under the tutelage of pioneering medical examiner Magrath.
A voracious reader too, Lee acquired and read books on criminology and forensic science – eventually establishing the largest library of legal medicine. Lee went on to create The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – a series of dollhouse-sized crime scene dioramas depicting the facts of actual cases in exquisitely detailed miniature – and perhaps the thing she is most famous for. Celebrated by artists, miniaturists and scientists, they were first used as a teaching tool in homicide seminars at Harvard Medical School in the 1930s, subsequently becoming an integral part of the longest-running and still the highest-regarded training for police detectives of its kind in America.
In Unexplained Deaths, Bruce Goldfarb weaves Lee’s remarkable story with the advances in forensics made in her lifetime to tell the tale of the birth of modern forensics.