If our police had to pick America's No. 1 lay sleuth, they would probably nominate a 70-year-old grandmother who lives in old-world style on a beautiful White Mountains estate and spends her busy days helping them solve intricate murder cases.
The amazing Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee is famous among professional crime fighters, who made her one of the first woman state police captains in the country and the first active women member of the exalted International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Crime doctors and district attorneys are deeply indebted to her as the "angel" and powerful dynamo of Harvard's pioneer Department of Legal Medicine, the nation's first university institute that made the explanation of mysterious deaths the subject of a spectacular modern science.
Hardboiled police detectives, coroners and crime reporters admiringly use her modern tools for realistic training in crime detection -- those true-to-death scale models of actual murder scenes that she fashions with her artistic hands.
Above all, however, the queenly looking woman with the high, white coiffure and the tiny gold-rimmed eyeglasses is known as a passionate crusader for justice and a tireless lobbyist for reform of our outdated, unreliable coroner system.
Many innocent Americans owe Mrs. Lee their freedom, and countless criminals their just convictions. Take the case of the skeletonized body found by some Boston boys near a lonely beach. Had there been a crime? Almost anywhere else, the case would have been shelved as insoluble. But to the Harvard enthusiasts of medicolegal crime detection, it was a challenge.
The anatomist, with bone measurements and X-rays, identified the body as that of a woman between 18 and 21, 5 feet 8 inches tall. The pathologist discovered some tiny, shriveled embryonic bones, proving that the woman had been pregnant for three months.
A botanist and an insect expert fixed the approximate time of her death. From their knowledge of the life cycles of foliage smothered beneath the skeleton, and of larvae found on it, they determined independently that it must have taken place between the last week of May and the first week of June.
With these clues, police identified the skeleton as that of a girl missing from another New England town. Next, they singled out a man with whom she had been "going" around the end of February. And he duly confessed strangling his ex-sweetheart in the lonely spot.
Mrs. Lee, of course, was never called in on the case. But she was really responsible for solving the mystery. In the same way, she helped solve the case of the ne'er-do-well New England stepson.
An elderly couple were found shot in their home -- the woman dead, the husband dying from a wound in the back of the head. The old man accused the stepson, who was soon picked up, drunk and without an alibi. He confessed that the shotgun found on the spot was his, and that he had quarreled with his stepfather.
In some parts of the country, these circumstances might have sent him to the chair. But Massachusetts sleuths, extra-trained to take nothing for granted, looked for the kind of surprise clue which Mrs. Lee would provocatively put into her educational scale models.
They found a faint imprint of the gunstock in the linoleum by the stepfather's chair. And the Harvard-trained medical examiner went to work on that wound in the back of the victim's head.
Soon, doctor and police were able to stage the murder scene. Here, the stepfather had been sitting, the stock of the shotgun resting o the floor. Then, slowly reaching for the trigger, he had forced his body and head back to fake murder, and shot himself.
Confronted with the evidence, the old man confessed having shot his wife and himself.
It was back in the 1880s that murder and medicine first began to thrill the gentle, pigtailed Frances Glessner, who became today's powerful, iron-willed matriarch. For murder and medicine were the interests of George Burgess Magrath, her brother's studious chum who always appeared at "The Rocks" when the Glessner family arrived from Chicago for a summer vaction in the White Mountains.
For hours on end, Frances would listen to George's latest tales of unpunished or undetectable crimes; of unexpected clues that turned up in the autopsy room at medical school; of amateur coroners and old-fashioned police officers who knew little about crime-hunting; and about his own plans for a great career as a medical crime detective.
From one summer vacation to another, France's interest in murder and medicine grew, paralleling George's rise in his self-chosen profession. The promising young medical student became the brilliant young teacher of medicine, the famous professor of pathology, and eventually "America's real-life Sherlock Holmes," a pioneer of legal medicine.
But for Frances there was always the sobering return to the stodgy social routine of Chicago's upper set. Marriage, children and even grandchildren did not change her father's unwritten law that "a Glessner" could not possibly think of nurturing interest in a subject like crime. Thus, Mrs. Lee was well over 50 years old when her long-frustrated career in crime-detection began.
She was ill in Boston for months; and almost every night Magrath came to see her. He talked "cases" as enthusiastically as ever. But through all his stories ran a gnawing fear: what was to become of his young science of "crime doctoring" when he died? One day, Mrs. Lee asked what she could do to perpetuate his work. "Make it possible for Harvard to teach legal medicine," was his answer, "and to spread its use through education."
Mrs. Lee lost no more time: she went ahead. Magrath, who died in 1938, lived to build up the Harvard department which Mrs. Lee financed; to enjoy the use of the most modern equipment American industry could supply; to witness his name being given to the world's biggest library of Legal Medicine, collected by Mrs. Lee in years of searching at home and abroad; and to see the department permanently endowed by her.
So far, some 2,000 doctors and 4,000 lawyers have passed through the department, headed for ten years by Prof. Alan R. Moritz, one of America's outstanding pathologists. Several thousand state troopers, city detectives, coroners and district attorneys of all states of the Union, plus insurance men and newspaper reporters, have attended the one-week "seminars" that Mrs. Lee has established. She never misses those intensive courses, sitting as the only woman among the rugged "students." But her best time comes on the day always set aside for work in the air-conditioned room that houses her homemade "Nutshell Studies in Unexplained Deaths" -- showcases containing Mrs. Lee's scale models of mysterious death scenes. Written explanations about the crimes are few.
"Death in the Kitchen: Reported to Nutshell Laboratories, Wednesday, April 12, 1944" – says a typical one. "Mrs. Fred Barnes, housewife, dead." Then some background information, assurance that all vital clues are here, true to scale; and finally the question each man has to answer for his exam: "Was it accident, suicide or murder?"
Maybe a year later she will get the final pay-off on her intricate crime studies. As in the case of a state trooper she met last summer; he assured her that the Harvard "doll houses" had made a world of difference to him in handling tough cases. It is this sort of reaction which tells Mrs. Lee that it is well worth her while putting into each scale model an average of several thousand working hours, some $3,000 in cash, and infinite pains. Mrs. Lee holds that nothing which helps to improve crime detection is too much trouble.
When Mrs. Lee came into the picture in the early 1930s, Boston was in the lead with its reformed medical examiner's law. But today, the recently improved Virginia law is the best model for the other states in urgent need of reform. For Mrs. Lee has succeeded in "annexing" Virginia and its state troopers to her New England domain.
Four years ago, when she was not allowed to read or work because of eye trouble, a radio set was installed in her room. But reception in the White Mountains is tricky, and the Virginia State Police wave length was about the only one to come through clearly.
Mrs. Lee listened day and night to orders that went out to the troopers and to their reports to headquarters. Soon she knew most of them by names and cases. The following Christmas she wrote letters of appreciation to all the troopers, and a note to their chief. An invitation to visit Virginia followed. She was received with open arms -- and with an open mind for her message.
Keen state troopers, an eager state university and understanding legislators did the rest. Virginia soon beat New England with the most far-reaching changes in its education for crime detection and in its ancient laws governing post-mortem examinations and the qualifications for coroners.
But New England and Virginia are only the beginning. More and more states must promote better justice through better crime detection. Mrs. Lee figures a job will take her until 1960.
"Eleven years? So what?" she remarks drily. "We Glessners normally are active until 90 or so."
Some day, innocent Americans will no longer go to jail for murder and manslaughter. Homicides by the hundreds will no longer remain unrecognized. There will be no such thing as unexplained death. And Frances Glessner Lee will largely be responsible for all these victories in the war against crime.
Webmaster's Note: Frances Glessner Lee's "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" models are now housed on the third floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office in Baltimore, MD, where they are still used to this day for seminars in homicide investigation.
Mrs. Lee died in 1962 at age 83.