18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics
by Bruce Goldfarb
In reviewing this book I’m deviating from the usual mysteries/crime/thriller books that I normally blog about. But I think this is such an important book that I wanted to make it known to the many lovers of the mystery genre for it gives background to the rules that govern the investigation of crimes and crime scenes, which is certainly something every good sleuth should know.
I’m a miniaturist – I make dollhouses, scale roomboxes, miniature furniture and accessories. I learned about the subject of this book – Frances Glessner Lee – through the 1/12” scale (where 1” represents 1 ft. in real life) dioramas depicting real crime scenes that she created (see The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death: Essay and Photography by Corinne May Botz). However, I was totally unaware of the journey that Glessner Lee had to take to get to this point. Here was a woman who had no scientific or medical background but who began to question how unexplained and unexpected deaths were investigated. Up to this point the field of “legal medicine” (forensic science) was steeped in politics, corruption and fear.
Frances worked to have medical examiners replacecoroners (who needed no knowledge of law or medicine, were appointed to their positions and were often corrupt). In 1943 she became a consultant to the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School where she created an intensive week-long seminar for police officers. The seminars provided the participants with the tools necessary to investigate unexpected and unexplained deaths including: how to estimate time of death, decomposition and other post mortem changes, blunt and sharp force injuries and related areas of death investigation. Harvard Medical School was the only place in the U.S. to offer this seminar. In 1944 Glessner Lee created the dioramas to provide a 3D view of a crime scene, critical to any investigation. They became an important component to the seminars then and continue to do so today. “Today, the Frances Glessner Lee Seminar in Homicide Investigation is held at the Forensic Medical Center for the State of Maryland in Baltimore. The seminars are conducted in accordance with the traditions set by Lee,…”
This is a compact version of Francis Glessner Lee’s contribution to forensic science as outlined in this book. She did so much more. She was the first person to push to have forensic odontology (teeth) be used to identify victims, though no one at the time felt that this was a valuable tool. Of course, today, it is used when necessary. She was always fighting an uphill battle: against sexism, ageism, and ignorance, but she never waivered in her pursuit of what she felt was needed and necessary.