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

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

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

Author: Bruce Goldfarb

Narrator: Nan McNamara

Length: 8 hrs and 35 mins

4 stars out of five
4 stars – It was really good

Frances Glessner Lee is influential in the development of forensic science in the United States. She helped establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, endowed the Magrath Library of Legal Medicine, became the first female police captain in the U.S., and created 20 true crime scene dioramas in dollhouse scale that are referred to as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Unfortunately, she never was recognized for it and remained in obscurity even though her work is still used today. 

Listening to this book, I was sad that this woman who had such a huge impact on forensics isn’t well known. I took multiple criminal justice classes and her work was never discussed or referenced, which is sad since she is known as the “mother of forensic science”. 

Lee was a woman born into wealth and was well educated. Unfortunately, she never got to live her dream of being a nurse or doctor because women were just starting to be accepted in this role. This book goes into a lot of detail about her childhood, her marriages and children, and her other hobbies, like needlework and crafting. It was a little too much background information on Glessner Lee I think. 

Her brother’s friend, Dr. George Burgess Magrath, is who steered Lee onto the path of forensic science. This book goes into a lot of detail about Magrath’s work before he teamed up with Lee to work at Harvard’s legal medicine department. I found Magrath’s work very interesting, even if this book was supposed to be about Lee. I learned a lot about coroners, medical examiners, and crime scenes in the early 1900s from his background. Also, the 1919 Great Molasses Flood, which he was the medical examiner for,  was something I had never heard of and it sounds like a terrible way to die. 

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death that Lee created are absolutely amazing. The detail she captured in each one is astounding and so lifelike. She spent thousands of dollars for each model and it blows me away that they are still being used today. I highly recommend looking up photos of these dollhouses because they are just so cool. 

If you are a fan of true crime, forensics, or just criminal history, I suggest reading this book. There is a lot of background on her life, and Magrath’s life, but it was fascinating learning about how this woman helped change history. 


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