Monday, August 11, 2014

Dear Authors, Please Write a Historical Novel about Frances Glessner Lee

I have another episode of Mysteries at the Museum to thank for bringing this woman to my attention. Someone could have some seriously awesome fun with this...
Photo from Glessner House Museum

Who she was: a Chicago heiress who was not allowed to pursue to her dreams due to her sex. It wasn't until she was in her fifties, in the 1930s that she was finally able to pursue her interests in forensics. Until then she was the creator of finely detailed miniatures. She could recreate the entire Chicago Symphony in a box.

Because she was a fan of mysteries and crime stories, a family friend, a chief medical examiner, began taking her to visit different crime scenes and often complained to her about the lack of education in America's police force. Detectives weren't properly maintaining crime scenes and crucial evidence was getting away or being compromised or missed.

So, how in the world did this lady's love of making miniatures come into forensics? Frances began making mini dioramas of different crime scenes, detailed immaculately with lights, moving windows, and covering all kinds of different scenarios. According to the show, she spent at least a year making these.

She then went on to fund with her own money week-long conferences in which her boxes were used to educate and test detectives from all over the U.S.

The boxes were called Nutshells Studies of Unexplained Death and are still used to this day at Harvard, where she founded its department of legal medicine. There are 18 of them. You can view them for yourself here. Can you figure out who dunnit?

In 1943 she was honored with a title of caption with the New Hampshire State Police. No other women had held a position such as this until then.

Think of the potential here. A woman fascinated with death--or least finding the answers, not the least intimidated by crime scenes and gruesome murder details. There's a failed marriage that produced three children (there really was) and lots of frustration with a society that looks down on her sex and denies her dreams. Perhaps, one could even contrive a romance with a medical examiner...or at least a frustrating attraction to a doubtful detective who comes to her seminar...

Regardless, if anyone ever decides to write a novel based on her, you can be certain I'll read it.

If you live in the Chicago area, you can take a tour of her family home. It's the oldest still standing. See the first link below.

Sources: (photo is from and completely belongs to this site)

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