18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee & The Invention of Modern Forensics (2020) by Bruce Goldfarb

Today’s review is something a little bit different, as I take one of my less frequent forays into crime related non-fiction. One way or another, before discovering this book, I had come across the dioramas that Frances Glessner Lee made over 70 years ago. They were known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, and in this review I have tried to include some pictures of these models. Each one depicts a crime scene of dollhouse proportions and the photos will not do justice to the high level of detail which Lee put into them. Crime fiction fans may have also come across the idea in the BBC’s Father Brown series. However, why were these models made? Why are they so important, and in fact still used today for training purposes?

To answer these questions accurately the book takes a long view at the life of Frances Glessner Lee. Initially I was a little sceptical of this approach, given that she did not make the famous models until she was in her 60s. However, in the long run I think this approach is justified, as not only does the book deeply ground the reader in the crucial historical/social context, but they also show the much wider work Lee did to galvanise the development of modern forensics.

This book is very good at showing you how recent certain developments are, as well as our expectations that there are the proper systems and knowledge in place to effectively investigate an unnatural or unexplained death. This is something we regard as commonplace and normal now, but this book provides the following statistic to show how infrequently a qualified medical practitioner investigated unexpected deaths in 1944. In the USA in that year, 1.4 million people died. Based on the statistic that ‘1 in 5 deaths are sudden or unexpected’ that suggests that there were ‘283000 or so questionable deaths in the US in 1944, no more than one or two per cent’ were investigated.

Goldfarb shows how the coroner-based system of the UK was adopted by America from as early as the 17th century, before revealing how inadequate a system it became by the early 20th century. Urbanisation was a key factor in this. In the intervening centuries the author makes the point of how in contrast to other areas of life and society there was very little in the way of advancement when it came to investigating unnatural deaths in the US. Moreover, there was a significant problem with corruption as the coroner position in the early 20th century was a politically connected job and medical expertise was not seen as an important factor in choosing someone. A 1920s survey for Ohio, for example, into coroner cases revealed a lack of competency in the medical examiners that did exist. So you had inconclusive causes of death such as ‘assault or diabetes’ and the book also looks at Wallstein’s report of 1915 into New York coroners, who often held backgrounds as milkmen and plumbers. Causes of death such as ‘rupture of a thoracic aneurysm’ were determined without an autopsy, (clever!) and it was quite common for coroners to take kickbacks from funeral parlours, withholding death certificates until the grieving family used the funeral business they were friends with. A particularly scandalous and sad moment was in Boston in 1877 when coroners were paid $10 for each inquest they held. In that year it was discovered that official kepts on moving a baby found dead in a bin, to bins in different jurisdictions so that other coroners could hold an inquest and get their money. Police training, especially in rural areas was quite ropey, so there was little understanding of how to preserve a crime scene and even in the 1940s officers were instructing the blood on the walls to washed off so their colleagues did not stain their uniforms…

Another central character in the history of forensics is George Burgress Magrath who became the medical examiner for Massachusetts in 1907. The book looks at how a lifelong friendship developed between him and Lee, and how together they set about trying to change how deaths were investigated in America. Both of them were advocates for a medical examiner rather than a coroner-based system. Yet of course medical and legal training and research were sorely in need, not just for medical personnel but also for police officers; the first person on a crime scene. Medical training at the time did not focus on studying those who have died, but on the living, so doctors had very minimal understanding of how to assess a corpse, and the crime scene it was situated in.

Lee’s interest in legal medicine came about through her friendship with Magrath and in the 30s this led to them both pushing for Harvard university to establish a department for legal medicine; something which would not have been possible without Lee’s financial backing. Yet this book does a good job at pointing out that Lee was not just a source of money, and she was very much a part of the developments going on, from campaigning to being involved in the teaching itself. She had a strong grasp of the goal being strived for, which was aided by her real understanding of the field.

The second half of the book focuses a lot on the new department in Harvard, with its early struggles to get access to crime investigations, though the cases they were involved with revealed the profound impact they could have on justice being achieved. Lee’s relationship with the university started well, but over the proceeding decades it went into a decline. Looking at it as a whole it seems like they were quite keen to have her financial support, but less interested in valuing her other contributions, and she was frequently side-lined. Although in fairness she did shy away from personal publicity, especially when MGM were preparing to do a film around the Harvard department of legal medicine. She encouraged them to focus on a past case in which Magrath had been involved and this can now be watched as Mystery Street and the author sees it as a predecessor to the likes of Quincey M. E. and CSI.

Chapter 9 of this book has the most information about the nutshell dioramas and why they were developed in the first place. They were in fact Lee’s response to the question of how to teach police officers, amongst others, observation skills. Students could not be allowed onto actual crime scenes and photographs were too limiting. Lee had some earlier practice in model making, being a crafting enthusiast and she also had an obsessive eye for detail. The wartime conditions meant sourcing authentic materials was difficult and I was shocked to discover that ‘by some estimates, the cost of material and labour in producing each diorama ranged from $3000 to $6000, represented by an expenditure of £32000-£64000 today.’ These dioramas were first used in 1945 in a ‘week long seminar in homicide investigation for police officers.’ These seminars took place twice a year. The impact of even just one of these seminars was staggering, though what was even more astounding was how much Lee paid for the special dinner each seminar week had – $20,000, $5000 of which was for the floral centrepieces! It is moments such as this one where the book reveals a more personal side to Lee, rather than just her achievements.

Something I was quite intrigued by was Lee’s friendship with Erle Stanley Gardner. In 1948 he wangled a place on one of the seminars, and in fact finished his novel The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom during the breaks, dictating the story down a telephone. He dedicated it to Lee. I found it interested that ‘Lee challenged the author about his Perry Mason books’ and Goldfarb includes this conversation they had:

“Your stories are formulaic,” she complained to Gardner. “The police are portrayed as uneducated fools who are bettered by a defence lawyer who acquits his clients based on mistakes that never should have happened. Why don’t you write stories that depict the police accurately?”

“If I told the truth,” Gardner said, “the book would end after a page and a half.”’

Nevertheless, Lee did have an impact on Gardner’s work and his perceptions of the police. He dedicated The Case of the Musical Cow (1950) to Alan Moritz, the second head of the Harvard department and the plot is ‘based on a case in which the pathologist had been involved during his fellowship training.’ Meanwhile The Case of the Glamorous Ghost (1955) was dedicated to the then dead Magrath and in his work The Court of Last Resort (1952), Gardner praises ‘Lee and the Department of Legal Medicine.’ Gardner also wrote an obituary for Lee for the Boston Sunday Globe, free of charge.

Despite the newspapers and others downplaying Lee’s role in the field of forensic science, I think her role as a driving force behind the developments in legal medicine, especially those coming from the Harvard university department, can be seen by how much they atrophied after her death in 1962. It seemed sad that her relationship with the university soured so much in the last decade of her life, and in contrast to her early promises of being remembered in her will, I think those final years had their impact, as the university was left no legacy. The department itself was combined with pathology soon after her death and the seminars she began were discontinued in 1967, though they are carried on in Maryland to this day. Harvard created the Frances Glessner Lee professorship of legal medicine, though the writer notes that today the university has no forensic pathologists and the current holder of the professorship is a paediatric anaesthesiologist.

Lee’s work had a worldwide impact, yet the author also notes how in some respects little had changed. Most of the US still uses the coroner system, at least in part, though more states have adopted the medical examiner system since Lee’s death. With those under the coroner system ‘fewer than a third of the twenty eight states with coroners require them to have training in forensic science.’ The author also considers the reasons for why there is resistance towards the medical examiner system. Lack of money and political opposition are a part of it, but I was surprised by the factor of too few trained forensic pathologists. 38 pathologists are certified each year, and as a whole there are only 400-500 operating in the states. Although Goldfarb is also balanced in pointing out how the medical examiner system is not perfect either. The book ends on the perhaps disturbing fact that:

‘every year, approximately a million sudden and violent deaths in the United States are referred for forensic investigation. At least half of them are never subject to a thorough inquiry by a qualified forensic pathologist.’

Overall I would say this book is written in an easy to understand style and no background reading in science or forensics is required. Whilst readers may be tempted to jump to the chapter concerning the dioramas, I think more is gained by seeing them in the context of Lee’s life as a whole, as they are only a rather small, though engaging, part of her life’s work.

Rating: 4.25/5

N. B. The appendix contains a catalogue of all the nutshell studies with the reports/witness statements that went with each scene and in the middle of the book there are very good photographs of the studies.

See also: Anjana has also reviewed this title on her blog Superfluous Reading.

5 comments

  1. I first heard about FGL on CSI, and say what you will about the show, it brought FGL’s accomplishments with her miniatures to the forefront of awareness for many. She sounds like she was a complex and fascinating individual.
    Thanks for reviewing the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Having never seen CSI I didn’t know that the series references her, but I am glad to hear they do. I think the book shows Lee’s determination and I can imagine how at times this might have rubbed people the wrong way. Though I remain impressed with how much she achieved, as she really didn’t get into legal medicine and forensics until her 50s.

      Liked by 1 person

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