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Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine
Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine

Forensic Science Pioneer Frances Glessner Lee

Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine
Frances G. Lee and Alan R. Moritz, courtesy Countway Library of Medicine

Frances Glessner Lee was born in 1878, the heiress to the International Harvester fortune. Although she was born in Chicago and grew up in the architecturally renowned Glessner Houseshe lived much of her later life in Littleton, New Hampshire.

Young Frances was educated at home with her brother, but despite having an interest in law and medicine, she was mostly taught the domestic arts. She wasn’t permitted to attend college when her brother continued on to Harvard, and instead, as was typical for a young woman of privilege at that time, she was officially presented to society at age 19. Just three months later, she was married off to attorney Blewett Lee, a distant relative of Robert E. Lee.

Her married life seems to have been unextraordinary. She produced three children with her husband, and seems to have basically lived the life expected of her. It wasn’t until she was middle-aged—her children grown and her husband having divorced her—that she gained the freedom to pursue her real passion: forensic science. She had first become interested in the subject through conversation with her brother’s Harvard classmate George Burgess Magrath, who eventually became a Harvard pathology professor and a medical examiner. She learned, through him, of the challenges faced by criminal investigators, of how the police and coroners were relatively untrained in death investigation and the preservation of evidence, leaving many murderers to go free.

In the 1930s, she also began spending her leisure time doing what would at first appear to be a very feminine and respectable hobby for a woman of her age and social standing—constructing dioramas of dollhouse miniatures. They were whimsical, tiny scenes, with people and furniture, in proper dollhouse scale.

A closer look, though, reveals that her little rooms depicted real crime scenes, complete with dead bodies, murder weapons, blood spatter, and every element of the aftermath of a killing. She studied the case files of real New England crimes for her constructions, and included all the clues necessary to solve each crime in her dreadful doll houses. Some of the dolls, for example, were designed to show effects of rigor mortis and lividity, from which time of death can be estimated. In one case, a tiny bullet is lodged in a rafter, for only the most eagle-eyed investigators to find.

She called her dioramas the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. She put so much intricate work, expense, and care into each one that she was only able to construct a few per year. Once, when she needed material for a pair of miniature pants on a figure, she wore an old suit around, even though it was out of fashion, so she could ensure the material was worn in to the proper, realistic degree. She even hand-knitted the socks for the figures, using knitting needles the size of pins.

As writer Laura J. Miller said of the subjects of the Nutshell Studies in a 2005 Harvard Magazine article, “Many display a tawdry, middle-class décor, or show the marginal spaces society’s disenfranchised might inhabit—seedy rooms, boarding houses—far from the surroundings of her own childhood. She disclosed the dark side of domesticity and its potentially deleterious effects: Many victims were women ‘led astray’ from the cocoon-like security of the home—by men, misfortune, or their own unchecked desires.”

It’s telling that most of the victims in her dollhouses of death are women, and that they are shown in their homes, with kitchens and babies, in the realms of domesticity that she herself may have chafed against. 

In the 1930s, once she came into her substantial International Harvester inheritance after her parents and her brother had passed away, she used some of her vast fortune to endow the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard. The purpose of the department was to help Massachusetts police use medical investigation to solve unexplained deaths, and to further the use of skilled medical investigators instead of “laymen coroners.” Glessner Lee also instituted a weeklong seminar on forensic science in partnership with Harvard University in 1945, which is still held every year. The Harvard Associates in Police Science training program also still uses the Nutshell Studies to provide instruction to cops, private investigators, medical examiners, and other professionals studying forensic investigation.

Her efforts to ensure quality training for death- and crime-scene investigators encouraged a move away from untrained coroners in many states in favor of highly trained medical examiners. In recognition of her achievements, in 1943, she was named State Police Captain of New Hampshire—the only woman in the country with the honor at the time.

Today there are 19 surviving Nutshell Studies, 18 of which are kept in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland, where they are still used to teach. While not technically open to the public, private showings can sometimes be arranged.

Glessner Lee used the privilege afforded to her, in combination with the domestic activities and crafts expected of a society matron, to transcend the gender norms of her era and station. She is sometimes referred to as the "Mother of Forensic Science."

Her New York Times obituary from January 28, 1962 was headlined “Rich Widow Who Became Criminologist.” In it, she was quoted as saying: “Luckily, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It gives me the time and money to follow my hobby of scientific crime detection.”

All images courtesy Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner except where noted.

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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