Mother of Forensic Science, Legal Medicine Professor, Criminologist, Philanthropist, Bethlehem NH Summer Resident: Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962)

Frances Glessner as a child, circa 1883.

She was born Frances Glessner, but called Fanny by her parents, John J. & Frances (Macbeth) Glessner of Chicago IL. Her father had, with hard work, become a millionaire through his affiliation with the International Harvester Company. Frances self-admittedly had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

When she was about 10 years old her parents built a house on the hillside of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. It is there on the 100-acre estate known as “The Rocks” that she would spend many summers throughout her lifetime. It is also where she chose to move following a divorce from attorney Blewett Lee, and spend her golden years. She had married young, having 3 children with him–John Glessner, Frances, and Martha Lee.

1896 Passport signature of Frances Glessner.

Born on 25 March 1878 in Chicago IL Frances Glessner’s 1896 passport describes her as 18 years old, 5 feet 6 inches tall with grey blue eyes, a straight nose, a small and full mouth, with a round and rather prominent chin. The description mentions also that she had brown hair, a fair complexion and an oval face.  It was with this passport that she toured Europe with her mother.

One of Frances’ hobbies was creating miniature scenes, or dioramas. Her parents were philanthropists of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and as early as 1913 she had made a miniature of the orchestra on stage for her mother’s birthday. The exquisitely detailed creation features “seventy-five miniature musicians playing miniature instruments under the direction of 5-inch-tall conductor Frederick Stock…”

Frances Glessner Lee
building one of her dioramas.
Credits to both the Glessner House
Museum, Chicago and Harvard
Associates in Legal Medicine.

It is not known how she first became engrossed with crime. In one interview Frances stated,  “I’m interested in the scientific side of detection,” she explains. “With me it’s more than just feminine curiosity.”

Additional proof of this is in the great collection of “rare trial accounts, works on criminology, toxicology, and poisoning” that in the early 1940s she donated en mass to Harvard College as the ‘George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine.’ This library in its entirety was transferred to the Countway Library when Harvard dissolved the Department of Legal Medicine after Frances’ death in 1962. In addition to the library, Frances endowed the Harvard Medical School, Chair of Medical Legal Medicine, in order to provide a new type of training to medical examiners.

–Death in a Box–
Prior to the 1930s deaths were handled by coroners had little or no legal or medical training. Because of this training flaw they often drew incorrect conclusions about a person’s death, and crime scenes were disturbed in a way that destroyed necessary evidence. Since it was usually impossible to provide actual crime scenes for the students to review, she created a series of “Death in A Box” dioramas, combining her passion for criminology with her talent at building miniatures. Even though these “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” (as she named them) are 70 years old, they are remarkable–as relevant today as they were at the time she created them. Death scenes and crime clues apparently do not go out of style.

Frances Glessner Lee photo
from a 1950s HAPS pamphlet
courtesy of the Bethlehem
Heritage Society.

Frances also felt strongly that police and detectives had a gap in their training, and needed to develop skills of observation to review evidence that is medical in nature. She took her dioramas “on the road” and HAPS (Harvard Associates of Police Science) was born. Starting in 1945, Mrs. Lee paid for these annual gatherings of law enforcement, offering them workshops and networking opportunities along with a setting they could never afford on their moderate incomes.  HAPS training continues to this day, providing police officers an orientation to the medical examiners point of view of a death scene. The annual event encourages the attendees to hone their observation skills based on subtle clues, with the goal of becoming better investigators.

–Honors and Firsts–
Frances’ work touched many in the field of criminology. Erle Stanley Gardner the author who was allowed to attend one of her Harvard courses, dedicated his book,“The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom,” of his Perry Mason series to her. Reportedly the Jessica Fletcher character in the TV series “Murder, She Wrote” was inspired by Frances Glessner Lee. In a modern example, an episode of CIS: Crime Scene Investigation includes a character known as the Miniature Series Killer who leaves scale models of her murder scenes.

As the result of her remarkable work and amazing knowledge that she freely shared, Frances Glessner Lee was honored with being the first female member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. She was the first woman admitted to membership in the International Association of police chiefs. She was also appointed the first woman captain of the New Hampshire State Police (an honorary title) for her ongoing consulting work there.

Old postcard scene of
Bethlehem NH.

The work she supported with both funding and her own hands places her as a pioneer in the field of legal medicine, forensic science and criminology.  Her Nutshell dioramas were recently on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Parker Glass, former secretary of the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine described Mrs. Lee as “unquestionably one of the world’s most astute criminologists.” [Banner, Earl. “She Invested a Fortune in Police, Entertained Them Royally at Ritz.” The Boston Sunday Globe, Feb. 4, 1962.]  Frances Glessner Lee died 27 Jan 1962 in Bethlehem New Hampshire and is buried in the local Maple Street Cemetery.

–Forensics Today–
As recently as 2015 a Washington Post reporter wrote about the current crisis in forensic science.  Reportedly for two decades the noted FBI forensic department gave flawed testimony, and this was “not the first forensic department in similar trouble.”  Frances Glessner Lee’s chair at Harvard has been phased out as unnecessary after her death. Apparently it is still greatly needed.

[To see examples of the dioramas and more history]

Video: The Dollhouses of Death

Video: Murder Is Her Hobby, 19 Diaramas

Video: Nora Atkinson–The Nutshell Studies and Frances Glessner Lee

Video Trailer, Murder in a Nutshell: The Frances Glessner Lee Story

Video: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (Vox)

Video: Of Dolls and Murder

My sincere thanks to Linda Herrman of the Bethlehem (NH) Heritage Society and to Bruce Goldfarb of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Baltimore Maryland for their assistance in finding a photograph and information about Frances Glessner Lee for this story.

ADDENDUM 11 March 2018: Editor’s Note–most of my blog posts about people include a bit of genealogy.  I just realized that I really did not include much of Frances Glessner Lee’s family tree, so I am adding that now.  Please!  I am not a Glessner descendant.  If you disagree with this family tree, leave a comment, otherwise its the best I could do!


Johann Georg & Barbara (Wernet) Glasener
1. Anna Maria Glessner
2. Anna Barbara Glasener
3. Johann George Glasener, b 25 March 1723 Germand, d. 8 March 1789
4. Maria Margaretha Glessner
5. Jacob George Glessner, b. 21 Sep 1732 Germany, died (murdered by Cyriacus Spangenberg) 21 March 1794 Berlin, Somerset Co. PA
6. Maria Catharina Glessner 1734-1807
7. +Henrich Johann “Henry” Glessner Sr., b 1717 Germany

Heinrich Johann “Henry” Glessner Sr., son of Johann Georg & Barbara (Wernet) Glasener was born in 1717 in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany and died 14 May 1814 in Brothersvalley, Somerset, Pennsylvania. He came to America with his brother Jacob about 1760-1763 on the ship, Richmond. He married Anna Elizabeth Adam. She was born abt 1746 in Germany and died 21 March 1802 in Brothersvalley, Somserset Co. PA.
Children of Heinrich J. “Henry” & Anna E. (Adam) Glessner:
1. Elizabeth Glessner
2. Henry Glessner
3. Maria Margaret Glessner
4. Anna Maria Glessner
5. Peter Glessner 1764-1836
6. Rosanna/Rosina Glessner
7. +Jacob M. Glessner was born 8 July 1776 in Brothersvalley, Somerset Co. PA
8. Sophia Glessner
9. Maria Elizabeth Glessner
10. John Engle Glessner
11. Nicholas Glessner

Jacob M. Glessner son of Heinrich Johann “Henry & Anna Elizabeth (Adam) Glessner, was born 8 July 1776 in Brothersvalley, Somerset Co. PA and died 10 April 1865 in Muskingum Co. Ohio. He engaged in the cabinet trade. He married 7 Nov 1802 to Margaretha/Margaret Young She was born 5 Feb 1783 in Hagerstown, Washington Co., Maryland, daughter of Rev. George & Margaretha (Streit) Young. She died 9 January 1866 in Muskingum Co. Ohio. They had 13 children including 2 pairs of twins. In 1839 the family emigrated to Ohio, locating in Norwich, Muskigum Co.
Children of Jacob & Margaret (Young) Glessner
1. Samuel Glessner
2. John Young Glessner, born 1805 Somerset Co. PA; removed to Ohio with his brother and was for many years editor and proprietor of The Mansfield Shield newspaper. Died 18 Sep 1882 Ohio. He married Henrietta M. Young, of Charleston, W. Va. She died in 1875. Their marriage was blessed with nine children, five of whom were: John Y. Glessner, ex-city clerk and superintendent of the water works Zanesville, Ohio; Ross A. Glessner of Kentucky; Mrs. Henrietta Bowland, of Washington, D.C.; Mrs. Laura Childs of Cleveland Ohio; Mrs. Jessie W. Taber of Chicago.
3. Eliza Glessner
4. +Johann Jacob Glessner, b 15 Aug 1809 Somerset Co. PA
5. Henry Glessner
6. George Glessner
7. Augustus Glessner
8. Margaret Young Glessner
9. Laura Glessner
10. Andrew Glessner
11. Ross Alexander Glessner
12. Abraham Morrison Glessner, b. 1 June 1827 Somerset, Somerset Co. PA (twin); m. 1851 Mary A. McCloud. He m2d) Clara Simons. 3 children.
13. Chauncey Forward Glessner b. 1 June 1827 Somerset, Somerset Co. PA (twin); m. 11 Nov 1856 Elizabeth Maxfield
14. Henry Glessner

Zanesville newspaper photograph,
1946, of Jacob Glessner and wife
on their front porch.

Hon. Johann “Jacob” Glessner/Glassner was born 15 August 1809 in Somerset Co. PA, and died 24 May 1905 in Zanesville, Ohio. He married 25 April 1837 in Wheeling, Ohio Co., West Virginia to Mary Laughlin. She died in 1899. In 1860 he was living in Zanesville, Muskingum Co. Ohio, an editor. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Zanesville Ohio. “Before he was 21 years old he published a newspaper in his home county. When he was growing up, the rich western country beckoned him, and he took charge of a paper in Steubenville, Ohio. Later he edited a paper at St. Clairsville. After his marriage he moved to Zanesville, Ohio, where he bought the Zanesville Aurora on 1 January 1838. He published a strongly partisan Democratic paper for six years, followed by six years of the Newark Ohio Constitution. In 1850 he returned to Zanesville Ohio making it his permanent home. He bought 10 acres of land on the National Road and build a home (not now standing) west of the Chandler house. His next newspaper venture was in 1852 publishing the non-partisan Zanesville Times. It was printed on the first steam press in Zanesville Ohio. In 1861 He was elected to the State legislature on this Union ticket. He sold his newspaper to George H. Logan in 1864 and devoted his energies to the manufacture of paper in the old Cox paper mill on the site for the former Brown Manufacturing company site.
[Biography from The Zanesville Signal, Zanesville Ohio, 21 April 1946, page 25]
1860 US Census > Ohio > Muskingum > Zanesville
Jacob Glessner 51
Mary Glessner 44
Charles Glessner 21
Mary E Glessner 19
John Glessner 17
George Glessner 14
William Glessner 12
Jesse Glessner 2
Mary Cline 18
Children of Jacob & Mary (Laughlin) Glassner:
1. Charles Glessner b abt 1839
2. Mary E. Glessner b abt 1841
3. +John Jacob Glessner, b 26 Jan 1843 Zanesville Ohio
4. George B. Glessner, b abt 1846 Newark Ohio. He m. 27 Oct 1880 in Muscatine Iowa to Nellie Olds Reeder.
5. William Glessner, b abt 1848
6. Jesse/Jessie Alice Glessner, b 8 April 1858 Zanesville Ohio, died 8 Jan 1944 in Zanesville Ohio. She married 14 October 1885 to Norwood S. Chandler. He attended Wooster college and read law. He was practicing law when he died on 8 August 1901. She left her home and estate to the Abbot Home for Aged Men.

John Jacob Glessner, son of Jacob & Mary (Laughlin) Glassner, was born 26 Jan 1843 in Zanesville, Muskingum Co Ohio and died 20 Jan 1936 in Chicago, Cook Co. Illinois. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago IL. His home on Prairie Avenue in Chicago is an architectural landmark (designed by H.H. Richardson of Boston). He married 7 Dec 1870 in Springfield, Clark Co., Ohio to Sarah Frances MacBeth, daughter of James Reed and Nancy (Bayard) McBeth, grand-daughter of Alexander & Rachel (Whitehill) McBeth. She was born 1 January 1850 in Urbana, Champaign Co. Ohio and died 19 October 1932 (aged 82) in Chicago IL.
1880 US Census > IL > Cook > Chicago > 261 West Washington St.
John J. Glessner Ohio PA WV born 1843
Frances M. Glessner Ohio PA PA
George Glessner
Frances Glessner
Children of John Jacob & Frances (MacBeth) Glessner:
1. John George MacBeth Glessner, born 2 October 1871 in Chicago IL and died 10 January 1929 in Concord NH. He is buried in Maple Cemetery, Bethlehem NH. [His biography there is incorrect]. He married 7 June 1898 in Ohio to Alice Hamlin, daughter of Hannibal G. Hamlin. From 1894 to 1906 Glessner worked with his father in his harvesting machinery business in Chicago (as division manager) until he founded the Commonwealth Commercial Company in 1907. He was a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, Governing member Art Institute. He later moved to New Hampshire. There he served as own auditor Bethlehem NH 3 years; member N.H. house of representatives 1913-1914, 1915-1916; member board of trustees of NH state institutions from 1915 and secretary of the board; president Littleton Hospital Ass’n; trustee Littleton Savings Bank; member Passaconaway, Wonolancet and Bow Brook clubs, Concord, and St. Botolph Club, Boston; Children of John G. M. & Alice (Hamlin) Glessner: Elizabeth (b 12 Sep 1899), Frances (b 7 Dec 1900), John J. 2d (b 27 Apr 1902), Emily F. (b 3 May 1904).
2. +Frances (Glessner) Lee [see this story]

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10 Responses to Mother of Forensic Science, Legal Medicine Professor, Criminologist, Philanthropist, Bethlehem NH Summer Resident: Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962)

  1. Amy says:

    Fascinating post! I’d love to see her dioramas.

  2. Cynthia Van Hazinga says:

    interesting to read this on intl women day!

  3. I greatly enjoyed this post! I’d seen Doll Houses of Death, and it was nice to get some additional details about the woman who created them.

  4. Michael says:

    What an education this was for me. I had never heard of Frances or her work advancing the field of criminology. ‘Death in a box’ sounds like a board game that kids would play today. And you’re right, it definitely sounds like there remains a need for similar trainings.

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