Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Death in Miniature


At one point during the late 1920s, Oswald writes, Lee became ill and spent a great deal of time in Boston recuperating.  Magrath visited her each evening, entertaining her with more stories about his work.  Each time he left she could hardly wait for his return. As they discussed the state of his profession, he admitted some apprehension that so few people were nurturing medical investigation that it ran the risk of losing ground. 

Lee wanted to know what she could do to ensure its future.  That question was the turning point.  Magrath was well aware of her wealth, having visited the Rocks many times, so he apparently told her, "Make it possible for Harvard to teach legal medicine, and spread its use."

Lee took up the cause of replacing coroners with medically versed professionals.  At the Rocks, she created a home for herself not far from Boston, and from there, she could keep track of what happened at Harvard.  Despite the way people viewed her as an eccentric women with too much time on her hands, she took her mission quite seriously.

In 1931 Lee helped to establish a department at Harvard for teaching legal medicine, as she herself paid the salary of its first professor.  In Magrath's name in 1934, she donated a library of more than 1,000 books and manuscripts that she had collected from around the world many of them rare.  She also endowed the department with a sizable grant, and Magrath became its first chair.  With Lee's support, the Department of Legal Medicine trained students to become medical examiners, which involved seminars and conferences devoted to refining the discipline.  Botz indicates that, as a result of this impressive and prestigious program, seven states eventually changed from a coroner system to a medical examiner system.

Oswald summarizes two cases that directly benefited from Lee's support of the program.  In the first one, a set of skeletonized remains was found on a Boston-area beach.  Ordinarily, there would have been little hope of making an identification, but forensic science had improved.  A team took bone measurements and X-rays, determining that the remains were of a five-foot-eight female, age 18-21.  A set of tiny bones found with these remains indicated that the victim had been killed while pregnant.  Other sciences got in the act, with forensic botany and entomology pinpointing the approximate time of her death as a two-week period at the end of May.  Detectives looked at lists of missing woman and identified a likely match with a young woman missing since May from a nearby town. The man with whom she had been involved  was questioned, and he confessed to having murdered his girlfriend and dumping her on the beach.

Frances Glessner Lee examines a skull
Frances Glessner Lee examines a skull

In the second case, an elderly couple was shot in their home.  The woman was dead but the man, wounded in the head, identified his stepson as the likely culprit.  In fact, the gun used had belonged to the stepson, who had no alibi and who admitted they had quarreled.  Yet rather than rush to judgment, as some police officers might have done, the detectives involved had been trained at the seminars to be observant and circumspect.  They knew that things were not always as they seemed.  As Oswald put it, they "looked for the kind of surprise clue which Mrs. Lee would provocatively put into her education."  An impression in the linoleum of the stepfather's chair indicated that he might have fired the gun that had made the wound at the back of his head.  The detectives questioned the old man again and he admitted that he had shot his wife and himself.

Many officers saw the value in being forced to think carefully about a crime scene, which gratified Magrath. According to Oswald, Magrath himself would be among those investigators in the early part of the twentieth century to be called "the American Sherlock Holmes."  But Magrath did not have long to enjoy the fruits of his collaboration with Lee.  After developing the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, he died in 1938. 

Lee was heartbroken, but she continued to support Magrath's vision.  She was just picking up steam and was about to undertake her most innovative work.


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