Frances Glessner Lee’s Birthday Celebration

Hmmm … what have we here?





By Megan McKinney


It was one of those evenings during which everyone toasted a birthday girl who had been dead for 57 years. In fact, even while Frances Glessner Lee was alive, death was her avocation. She made such a study of sudden death . . . unexplained death . . . that after a while she became known as the “mother of forensic science,” but with a passion that made groupies of such men as J. Edgar Hoover and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Beginning in 1945, Frances hosted seminars in homicide investigation for State Police at Harvard Medical School, with leading criminologists and medical experts joining her semiannually for a week of intensive study of death.

Was it murder? They would ask. Suicide? Or possibly simply a cruel random accident?



Frances hired a full-time carpenter to work with her in constructing small boxes—known as Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death—to use as training tools for the seminars. According to William Tyre, executive director and curator of Glessner House, the name came from a police quote: “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” The little shadowboxes may look naïve, however, each cost approximately $3,500, the price of new full-size house of the time.


One of the Thorne Rooms.


Frances was a Prairie Avenue neighbor and close friend of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, another great Chicago lady and creator of miniature rooms. Narcissa Thorne’s rooms—which reside today in the Art Institute—are also meticulously complete but hers are without a single inhabitant.

Frances Lee’s rooms have people alright; they’re just dead.


See? Every single one of them.


But enough of that.

An eight-day celebration of Frances Lee’s 141st birthday ended a week ago on Prairie Avenue, and was highlighted by a festive party in Glessner House, where Frances was raised.


Celebration entrance, former coach house of Glessner House.


Overall view of the cocktail reception preceding the birthday dinner.


 Glessner House Board President Barbara Gordon with her husband, Joe Gordon, at the gala.


Erica Meyer and David Hamel.


Mary and Michael Woolever.


  Kubinne Kim and Eric Keune.

Richard and Gwen Sommers Yant.


 Bruce and Bridgett Goldfarb. Bruce, curator of Baltimore’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, was the evening’s speaker.


Tony Tangora, Tori Simms, Ray Hofmann.


  Guests touring Frances Glessner Lee’s childhood bedroom.


 Desk in young Frances Glessner’s bedroom showing her school assignments and letters sent to her.


 Robert Furhoff, donor for the first phase of the bedroom’s restoration.


A miniature orchestra, created by Frances Glessner Lee in 1912, is on loan to Glessner House from the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through April 28.


Photo Credit : Tim Walters Photography

Author Photo: Robert F. Carl