Frances Glessner Lee: A lady’s quest to make true crime dioramas

At first glance you see this picture and you probably think that this lady is working on furniture for her grandchildren or children’s dollhouse. In actuality this is Frances Glessner Lee and she led an incredible life. She is making recreations of true crimes scenes for educational purposes.

Frances Glessner Lee was born on March 25, 1878 in Chicago and was born into a rich family. Her father was a wealthy Industrialist. Her and her brother had the best of everything that a family during that era could want. They were both home school but only her brother continued his education at Harvard while Frances married a lawyer. However it was a divorce from the lawyer and an inheritance when Frances really started to stand on her own two feet.

The true crime doll size scenes were influenced by George Burgess Magrath. He was a Harvard classmate of her brother and had an insatiable interest in medicine and death investigation. George Burgess Magrath was Boston’s chief medical examiner until his death in 1938. Him and Frances were so passionate about true crime, the process in handling the dead, and true crime investigations that they both rally for drastic changes be made in all fields. Such as getting people in the medical field replacing coroners and she gave money to Harvard to create the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine. She also gave the school an enormous amount of money to the school to further fund the Political Science classes and changed the system of how these classes were taught. The school made such leaps and bounds in this field that other schools they were teaching the same subject adapted their programs to Harvard’s.

The whole true crime doll scenes came about stemmed from Frances Glessner Lee want of students who were studying this field to get as much of an experience than just hearing lectures. And of course taking students to an actual crime scene was a no no because of the high possibility of disturbing the crime scene. So this was Frances next amazing effort and you can see her true talent start to pour out. Through the decade of 1940-1950 Frances had held a bunch of week long meetings and would take her scenes with her. She had created with the upmost detail 20 true crime scenes and called them: “Nutshell of Unexplained Death.” She would also extend the invitation of theses week long meetings to other people in the police, political science field, and medical field to see if they were able to solved the scenes from the true crimes scenes she made.

She would place a scene down and anyone who was part of her meetings would have about an hour- 90 minutes to figure out what happened. Frances would also spare no expense when it came to making these scenes because the estimated cost of each one was about $3,000 up to $4,000 during the 1940’s. They were so well done that Harvard still uses some of the scenes that Frances made to the present day.

The police force in New Hampshire was so impressed by the advances she created in the police and science field that she was made an honorary captain.

Frances Glessner Lee spent her whole life dedicated in advance the fields of science and police and died on January 27, 1962.

A couple of years ago my friend Sarah and I went to an exhibit called “Murder is her Hobby.” At the Renwick Gallery which is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum In Washington D.C.. The exhibition contain at least 18 of Frances true crime recreations and looking at them close up was so amazing!

Sarah and I spent hours in the exhibit trying to figure out each crime scene. I also noticed the thought and consideration that Frances poured in to each scene. Even the most tiny mundane object was so well crafted by her. I really respect Frances Glessner Lee for turning a small hobby of hers into an advancement for others. She had made such an incredible impact and all it took was a pair of crafty hands.

If you like to learn more about her true crime scenes she created. There is a book that I own that I highly recommend:

Until next time!

Source: Wikipedia and the Smithisonian website

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