Early Forensic Experts Were Trained Using What?
Before the advent of modern forensic practices, evidence gathering was, at best, inefficient and, at worst, completely negligent. Early investigators would frequently move bodies, shift the contents of crime scenes, tromp around with little regard for what evidence they might be disturbing, and otherwise make an amateur-like mess of the whole affair.
When the field of forensicology was in its infancy, one of the strongest influences on the field, and one of the elements that drove home the importance of observing and preserving the scene of the crime to young and upcoming investigators, were the elaborate crime scene dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee.
How Lee, the daughter of reclusive millionaire Chicagoans, became one of the more influential contributors to the field is a curious path. As a child in the late 1880s, she desired to study the sciences and medicine, but her parents insisted she instead study more domestic and feminine pursuits like sewing, embroidery, painting, and playing with and decorating dollhouses. All throughout her childhood, young adulthood, and a failed marriage, Lee harbored the desire to contribute something for the greater good and for society, always with an eye towards science. In her 50s she, with the assistance of her brother’s friend George Burgess Magrath (a medical examiner in Boston who was famous for solving very difficult murder cases), began exploring forensics.
What became immediately clear to her (via Magrath’s complaints), was that the majority of crimes went unsolved because policemen, detectives, and coroners alike were horribly mishandling evidence and obliterating whatever leads they had in the process. While she initially started her quest to improve the state of affairs by donating money to create a forensics school and library, she eventually turned to using her own (previously resented) skills to help train students. Calling on the years of miniature making and dollhouse building she did in her youth, Lee created extremely precise and intricate dioramas of famous (and infamous) crime scenes for students to study up close and in-depth.
These dioramas, which Lee called the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, were incredibly detailed: every clock was set to the right time, every calendar flipped to the right page, every tiny bloody fingerprint placed with care. Even the angle of drapes and the curvature of the miniature chairs in the scenes were matched with astounding precision to the actual crime scene.
The dioramas were prized for their detail and teaching potential in their day and, to this day, are still in use at Baltimore, Maryland as part of the city’s forensics training program. Lee may have resented her parents forcing her to study the domestic sphere in such excruciating detail, but it ultimately changed the path of forensicology and paved the way for generations of competent and sharp-eyed investigators and examiners.