Sunday 5 April 2020

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics - Bruce Goldfarb

For most of human history, sudden and unexpected deaths of a suspicious nature, when they were investigated at all, were examined by lay persons without any formal training. People often got away with murder. Modern forensic investigation originates with Frances Glessner Lee - a pivotal figure in police science.

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962), born a socialite to a wealthy and influential Chicago family, was never meant to have a career, let alone one steeped in death and depravity. Yet she became the mother of modern forensics and was instrumental in elevating homicide investigation to a scientific discipline.

Frances Glessner Lee learned forensic science under the tutelage of pioneering medical examiner Magrath - he told her about his cases, gave her access to the autopsy room to observe post-mortems and taught her about poisons and patterns of injury. A voracious reader too, Lee acquired and read books on criminology and forensic science - eventually establishing the largest library of legal medicine.

Lee went on to create The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death - a series of dollhouse-sized crime scene dioramas depicting the facts of actual cases in exquisitely detailed miniature - and perhaps the thing she is most famous for. Celebrated by artists, miniaturists and scientists, the Nutshell Studies are a singularly unusual collection. They were first used as a teaching tool in homicide seminars at Harvard Medical School in the 1930s, and then in 1945 the homicide seminar for police detectives that is the longest-running and still the highest-regarded training of its kind in America. Both of which were established by the pioneering Lee.

In 18 Tiny Deaths, Bruce Goldfarb weaves Lee's remarkable story with the advances in forensics made in her lifetime to tell the tale of the birth of modern forensics.

What did I think?

I've always had a keen interest in forensics, not just from reading lots of crime but I think my natural attention to detail and logical thought processes fit in well with forensic science.  Alas, I chose numbers over crime scenes but my love of forensics lives on vicariously through all of the crime books that I read.

I picked up 18 Tiny Deaths expecting to take a week or so to read with it being non-fiction, but Bruce Goldfarb has written such a compelling and fascinating account of Frances Glessner Lee's life that I couldn't put it down.  I think it is the first non-fiction book that I have had glued to my hand until I had read it cover to cover.

As much as it is the story of Frances Glessner Lee's personal life, it is also the story of the birth of modern forensics.  We take it for granted that fingerprints can be used to identify a criminal and dental records can be used to identify a victim but I didn't know that Frances Glessner Lee was instrumental in developing these processes.  For a woman born in the late 19th Century, that's no mean feat: indeed, Frances Glessner Lee was a woman living in a man's world but her invaluable attention to detail made her voice heard.

I am completely blown away by the Glessner Lee's Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death; a collection of highly detailed miniature murder scenes, much like a doll's house.  The time and patience that must have gone into making them is awe-inspiring and to think that Frances Glessner Lee created them herself, at great expense, is absolutely astonishing.  Photos are included in the book but you can see these dioramas, which are still used in forensic training, on the Smithsonian American Art Museum by clicking here.

Bruce Goldfarb has written one of the most compelling non-fiction books I have ever read about a fascinating, influential and completely remarkable woman.  I loved the inclusion of some real, and often horrific, cases that inspired Glessner Lee to advance forensic science in a way that was well beyond its time.  18 Tiny Deaths is an outstanding book that captivated me from start to finish, like no non-fiction book has ever done before.  A very highly recommended read and one that will inevitably result in further research to see the amazing nutshell models in further detail.

I chose to read an ARC and this is my honest and unbiased opinion.

My rating:

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About the author:

A former EMT/paramedic, Bruce has written for national and local newspapers, magazines, and online publications. He has also written or edited several textbooks and reference books. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Social Media:
Twitter: @bruce_goldfarb
Instagram: @eighteentinydeaths

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