In 1929, a depressed, divorced 51-year-old society matron decided to take up murder as a hobby. Frances Glessner Lee had just closed her New Hampshire antiques business, and she was looking for something to do. Chance and a family friend led her to create 20 crime scenes in dollhouses. She called them the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
Frances Glessner Lee for years featured her macabre dollhouses in weeklong training seminars for homicide detectives at Harvard. They’d spend hours figuring out how her dolls got bitten, stabbed, hanged, beaten and shot. Lee provided them with exquisitely crafted and accurately proportioned clues. A pencil made from a toothpick had real lead in it, while nail polish blood spatters were scientifically accurate.
“Even the most depraved Barbie doll collector couldn’t top this,” filmmaker John Waters told the New York Times after seeing her work.
Plump and grandmotherly, Frances Lee had no business dabbling in criminology. She was a woman for one thing, and she had no formal education. But she used her money, her connections and her passion for dollhouses to change the way police investigate murders. Her philanthropy earned her the nickname “godmother of forensic science.”
Her most visible legacy – her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death — survives to this day and is still used to train detectives. Several books have been written about them. In 2017 the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum displayed the restored dollhouses for three months. The exhibit attracted 100,000 visitors, wowed by the extraordinary craftsmanship and attention to detail.
The Creator of the Nutshell Studies
Frances Glessner was born March 25, 1878, in Chicago, an heiress to the International Harvester fortune. She grew up pampered and protected inside a stone fortress, a Prairie Avenue mansion designed by H.H. Richardson.
The Glessner house stood out as a monumental architectural masterpiece among the other Gilded Age mansions on Prairie Avenue. Frances’ mother, an accomplished seamstress and needleworker, decorated the house in impeccable Arts and Crafts style.
Frances had one sibling, older brother George, who suffered from hay fever. The family doctor advised the Glessners to take George away from Chicago during hay fever season. So they built a summer home on 1,500 acres in Bethlehem, N.H., called The Rocks. Family friend Frederick Law Olmsted landscaped the estate. Both Frances and George would move there permanently as adults.
When George reached college age, he went to Harvard. Frances wanted to join him and study medicine, but her father – her “jailer,” she once called him – wouldn’t let her. Instead, her parents sent her to Europe with an aunt for 14 months and encouraged her to pursue music and the crafts.
At Harvard, her brother formed a close friendship with George Magrath, a brilliant medical student. Magrath would later have a major impact on Frances’ life. Back then, he and her brother liked to jump on their bicycles and race each other to big fires in Cambridge or Boston.
The year before graduation, in 1893, George Magrath joined the Glessner family at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. The next year, Magrath spent three days with the Glessners at The Rocks in New Hampshire. In his thank you letter to Mrs. Glessner, he wrote, “My visit besides being the source of much immediate pleasure has left with me the refreshing picture of a corner of the universe where the beautiful and the ideal are very fully realized and where true happiness exists.”
Lonely and Terrified
Frances found little happiness. She once wrote at 73, “This has been a lonely and rather terrifying life I have lived.”
In 1898, just shy of her 20th birthday, Frances Glessner married Blewitt Lee, a lawyer 10 years her senior. She barely knew him. Her father built them a house near his own in Chicago, and they had three children. Frances left her husband several times and then finally divorced him in 1914. Her father packed her and the children off to Santa Barbara in disgrace.
When Frances created her Nutshell Studies, most of the victims were women who died violent deaths at home. Perhaps she was commenting on her own marriage. Or was she expressing her feelings about the domestic role foisted on her?
After World War I she moved east, splitting her time between Boston and The Rocks. She and her daughter, Frances, opened an antiques shop in New Hampshire. But that enterprise ended just before she checked into Massachusetts General Hospital in 1929 for surgery.
Coincidentally, her old friend George Magrath was there, too.
Florence Glessner Lee and George Burgess Magrath had such a close friendship that people wonder if they were lovers. Lee’s biographer, Bruce Goldfarb, doesn’t think so. He told an audience at the Kansas City Public Library that Magrath was probably gay.
Magrath was also eccentric. He ate one meal a day, typically at midnight at the St. Botolph’s Club. Big and rugged, he wore his hair long, smoked a calabash pike and always wore a flowing Windsor tie.
He had one weakness, wrote Goldfarb. Alcohol. Magrath maintained a steady state of intoxication. Perhaps he needed to self-medicate during a lifetime in which he investigated 21,000 deaths and testified in 2,000 trials.
In 1929, Magrath needed treatment for a severe bacterial infection of his hands. He had served as the Suffolk County Medical Examiner since 1907, the first medical examiner with training in pathology. (He shared the office with Dr. Timothy Leary, father of the LSD crusader of the same name.)
Recuperating at Mass General with Frances, George Magrath entertained – no, enthralled — her with stories about his work. He had examined corpses in the Boston Molasses Flood, solved the Frederick Small case and proved a gun belonging to Niccolo Sacco had killed a victim in an armed robbery.
He said he refused to rely on hunches during his investigations. And he told her no medical school gave adequate training for medical examiners, while detectives had no training at all. George and Frances talked about the evils of elected coroners, vulnerable to political pressure during murder investigations.
Frances Glessner Lee left the hospital with renewed purpose. She began reading up on criminology and collecting books and papers on the subject. In 1931, she gave Harvard Medical School $250,000 to endow a chair of Legal Medicine for George Magrath, who had taught there for years.
In 1934 she donated 1,000 books to Harvard to start the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine. Magrath, she said, had practically invented the field. The library opened in 1938 with training tools such as specimens of insects that infest corpses.
Then George Magrath died on Dec. 11, 1938.
The Nutshell Studies
By then, Frances’ father, mother and brother had died and she could dispose of the family fortune as she liked. So she made dollhouses.
It was a popular hobby among wealthy women of the era. Frances Glessner Lee had a friend in Chicago, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, who created exquisite dioramas documenting European and American rooms over seven centuries.
The gorgeous Thorne miniature rooms now reside at the Museum of Fine Arts. Glessner’s lived-in, sometimes shabby homes belong to Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
She created lower-middle-class shacks, poor tenements and workers’ modest houses. Sex workers, housewives and farmers lived in them. For each dollhouse of death, Frances compiled case notes and witness statements drawn from real murder investigations.
She named her Nutshell Studies after a police saying, “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent and find the truth in a nutshell.”
The Case of Annie Morrison
In one of the nutshell studies, Annie Morrison lies face down on the ground underneath her second-story porch. A wet rag and a clothespin lie next to her. According to the notes Frances wrote, an undertaker discovered a bullet in Annie Morrison’s chest. Her husband owned a revolver with a .22, but he denied murdering his wife. He said he had been sitting in the kitchen when he heard a noise. Out on the porch he found laundry blowing in the wind and a chair resting against the porch railing.
Did the husband do it? The solution to the crime had less importance than the ability to read clues, according to Frances.
Making the Nutshell Studies
Frances began making her nutshell studies in a workshop at The Rocks with carpenter Ralph Mosher and his son Alton.
They made everything to a 1:12 scale, the standard of the day. Frances consulted a forestry professor at Yale to find woods with fine enough grain to look real at that scale. She even knitted tiny clothes using pins and a magnifying glass. The Nutshell Studies had working mousetraps and carpet sweepers, real newspapers reproduced in miniature and murder victims that wore underwear under their bloodied clothing.
Once Frances bought a tiny, solid gold electric mixer, made for a charm bracelet, and painted it gray so it could sit on a miniature kitchen counter. After spending thousands of dollars on a miniature cabin, she took a blowtorch to it and half burned it down.
Nutshell Studies Get Studied
In 1943, the New Hampshire State Police named Frances as their educational director and commissioned her as a captain. From then on she liked people to call her Captain Lee.
In 1945, Captain Lee brought her Nutshell Studies to Harvard’s Medical Law department for the first of the twice-yearly Frances Glessner Lee Seminars on Legal Medicine. She brought in speakers from around the world and invited 25 to 30 police officers.
For a week, trainees spent the morning listening to lectures, then after lunch they examined the Nutshell Studies in a dark room. They got a flashlight, case notes, witness statements and 90 minutes to analyze the crime scene. Frances didn’t make them all were murder scenes. Some depicted accidents and suicides that just looked like murder.
The week ended with an elegant banquet at the Ritz-Carlton, planned to the last detail by Frances Glessner Lee. She bought a set of gilt-edged china for $8,000 to be used only for her seminars.
With her seminar and her Nutshell Studies, Frances Glessner Lee had a huge hit on her hands. In 1948, Erle Stanley Gardner attended to find plots for his Perry Mason novels. He wrote that police sought invitations to the seminars the way girls who aspire to be actresses sought bids from Hollywood. William P. Hancock, chief of the Maine State Police, raved about it, calling it the best of all the training sessions he attended. [botz]
Lee branched out, developing training courses for police officers in other states. Her granddaughter said she loved to be surrounded by young men in uniform. They called her “Mother.”
Frances Glessner Lee died in New Hampshire on Jan. 2, 1962. Her friend Erle Stanley Gardner wrote her obituary in the Boston Globe. “I collect characters as other people collect postage stamps, and Capt. Lee was one of the rarer items in my book.” He dedicated his story, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, to her.
Harvard disbanded the Department of Legal Medicine in 1967, and loaned the Nutshell Studies to an alumnus appointed as Maryland’s chief medical examiner. Since then they have resided at Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, still used as a training tool.
Corinne May Botz in 2004 published a book of essays and photographs about the Nutshell Studies. Susan Marks released a film, “Of Dolls and Murder, in 2012.” Then in 2017, the Renwick Gallery restored them and put them on exhibit.
Now the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests uses The Rocks as the North Country Conservation & Education Center.
Though many of the old Prairie Avenue mansions are gone, the Glessner House remains as a museum.
This story last updated in 2023.
With thanks to The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz and 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb and Judy Melinek.
Images: Frances Glessner Lee by By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61712759. Nutshell Studies all by Lorie Shaull – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0.