75 Years Ago, Frances Glessner Lee Appointed State Police Captain

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October 27, 2018 will mark the 75th anniversary of Frances Glessner Lee’s appointment as a captain with the New Hampshire State Police, the first female in the country to achieve the rank.  She is best remembered today for the creation of her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of miniature dioramas depicting death scenes that were used by state police to hone their skills at observing, interpreting, evaluating, and reporting.  Often overlooked, however, are the incredible contributions she made to professionalizing the fields of forensics and police science.  As Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner wrote in the foreword to his novel, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom (dedicated to Lee): “She has brought into existence the over-all plan of a course in training that is helping to make the competent state police official as much a professional man as the doctor or lawyer.” 

Following, we reprint the article that appeared in The Manchester Union on November 20, 1943 regarding her appointment.

“Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee of Littleton has been appointed a captain of State Police by Col. Ralph W. Caswell, superintendent of the department, in recognition of her work in promotion of scientific crime investigation, it was disclosed today as nearly 150 county solicitors, medical referees, sheriffs and local police chiefs gathered here for the second seminar on collection and preservation of scientific evidence in cases of violent death.

“Mrs. Lee, who sponsored the founding of the department of legal medicine at Harvard Medical school, and whose work has been recognized by many states and several foreign countries, has been collaborating with the New Hampshire State Police for about two years and is one of the sponsors of the annual seminars, the first of which was held in December 1942.

“A native of Chicago, she is the daughter of the late John J. Glessner, long time Littleton resident, and a sister of John G. M. Glessner, who was representative from that town.  She has been a legal resident of Littleton for over 15 years.

“Besides the founding of the department of legal medicine at Harvard, Mrs. Lee established the George Burgess Magrath library of legal medicine there in honor of a college classmate of her brother and long prominent medical examiner.

“From the study and advancement of legal medicine, Mrs. Lee became interested in and made exhaustive studies of police work generally, both in the United States and abroad, and for the past two years has been actively interested in and has cooperated with the New Hampshire State Police, which, she declared today, she considered to be unexcelled in the country. 

“Colonel Caswell, in disclosing the appointment of Mrs. Lee to a captaincy, announced that she will serve as a volunteer consultant.  He paid his tribute to the new officer for her work in the advancement of scientific investigation and asserted that the department is extremely fortunate to have her help.

“Speakers at the seminar today, which was preceded Thursday evening by classes held for members of the state police, were Dr. Alan R. Moritz and Dr. Joseph T. Walker of the department of legal medicine of Harvard Medical school, who also are attached to the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety.

“Lectures and discussions of various phases of scientific investigation were capped by a demonstration of typical evidence to be found at the scene of a death, from the reconstruction of past cases on miniature stage settings arranged by Colonel Caswell and Captain Lee.”

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NOTE:  From March 23 to 30, 2019, Glessner House will host a series of special events honoring Frances Glessner Lee in conjunction with the official opening of her restored bedroom.  Events include a black-tie gala, a birthday party (Lee was born March 25, 1878), a screening of the 1950 MGM film Mystery Street (featuring the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard), a lecture “Anatomy of a Restoration” focusing on the process of restoring her bedroom, and a presentation “Murder in a Nutshell” where audience members delve inside for of her Nutshell Studies to try and determine – was it suicide, accidental death, or murder?  Look for more information on these events in early 2019 under Programs.