Monday, April 15, 2019

The Glessners in Paris - 1890

Panorama of the seven bridges

As this article is being written, the iconic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, continues to burn, the images of the building devastation heartbreaking for Parisians, Christians, and all those who love and appreciate historic architecture.  As stewards of a Chicago landmark (designed by H. H. Richardson, who received his architectural training at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris), we sympathize with all those who are impacted by the irreplaceable loss of this internationally significant architectural treasure. 

John and Frances Glessner and their daughter Fanny (accompanied by her paid companion Miss Scharff) had the opportunity to visit Notre Dame during a trip to Europe in the early part of 1890.  Below are selected excerpts from the Glessner journal (written by John Glessner) detailing their time in Paris.  (All images, other than that of Notre Dame Cathedral, taken from an album of photographs assembled by the Glessners during their trip).

Place de la Concorde

Monday February 24, 1890 (in Havre):
“At 7:30am left by train for Paris . . .Had telegraphed Hotel Baida to send man to meet us at RR station in Paris and soon after arrival were comfortably placed in our hotel with two good sunny communicating rooms, fire lighted etc. . . We went for a long drive through Paris. . . We drove for four hours through places of great interest – only stopping once or twice.  We were most impressed by the Madeleine, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe.  We drove on the Champs Elysses to the Bois de Boulogne to Café Cascade where we got out and had a cup of delicious hot chocolate. 

Venus de Milo

“Tuesday Feby. 25 was spent – morning at the Louvre with antique statuary and some old paintings.  The enormous galleries are full of wonderful and beautiful historical works.  Were most impressed by the Venus de Milo and Melpomene.  The Venus is larger than we had expected, and most beautiful from every view.  The coloring of Van Dyck and Titian and Tintoretto and the great works of Rubens impressed us . . . Murillo’s Immaculate Conception kept our attention for as long as we could spare. . . Dined table d’hote at the Continental and from there to Port St. Martin Theatre to see Sarah Bernhardt in Joan of Arc.  Small theatre, so that everybody was close to stage.  Four balconies or galleries and the 1st floor gave seat space.  The play was fine and well given. 

A gallery at the Louvre

Wednesday February 26:
“The ladies, Fanny included, started out shopping immediately after breakfast and I wandered about until 11, when I went to meet Fanny and relieve her from further shopping, but they had been delayed so we all lunched together at Café Voisin.  From there drove to Notre Dame Cathedral and went through that beautiful building and saw the wonderful 
treasures it contains.  After that all four took top of street car and rode across Paris. 

Thursday February 27:
“After breakfast went to Ste. Chapelle, the oldest church in Paris.  Then to the Cluny Museum where we were more than delighted with the collections of furniture, embroideries, laces, porcelain, etc.  Then to the Pantheon and walked hastily through looking at the frescoes but did not go down to the underground tombs nor up to the tower.

Eiffel Tower

Friday February 28:
“Went to the Luxembourg at once after breakfast.  Saw the large bronze St. John by Paul Dubois and some fine pictures.  Liked best Jules Dupre’s Eleaner, Rosa Bonheur’s Cattle Plowing, Bonnet’s portrait of Lion Cogniet, and Bastien-Lepage’s Haymaking.  Saw also the Oyster Gatherers by Feyen-Perrin of which we once had an etching.  From there the ladies went to Au Bon Marche after walking through the gardens, and I to the bankers for letters.  Lunched at the Binda, left Fanny here and we went shopping and to call on (Mihaly) Munkacsy at his studio.  The reception room was furnished with screens and sofas and hangings, had a bright fire burning and was filled with French callers. . . He took us into his studio, through a door draped with three or four thicknesses of hangings, and we sat there on a corner sofa a while talking with him through Miss Scharff. . . The studio had a stuffed horse in it and some stuffs and was very light.  Visited many old shops and Theodore Deck’s place, but found nothing to buy.  Bought at Barbedienne’s a bronze Sitting Mercury.  We are getting quite in conceit with our own bric-a-brac, as it compares well with what we see, or is reproduction of what we see. 

Saturday March 1:
“Went to Louvre after breakfast to have another look at the art treasures. . . After that to a private exhibition of paintings at The Cercle de L’Union Artistique 5 Rue Boissay D’Anglas. . . Neglected to say above that we went Friday night to the Grand Opera, L’Africaine and found the performance magnificent.  Had never seen such stage setting.  Over 100 players in orchestra and at one time at least 175 people on the stage, perhaps more.  A Chicago audience on a similar occasion will compare favorably with this one, though perhaps not so many jewels worn by the ladies.  Generally the dresses here were not so low at the neck as at home, but a few were lower.  The men wore hats between the acts. 

Foyer of the Grand Opera House

“Sunday morning went to the Greek church and staid through the service.  The church is in shape of Greek cross about 35 feet square and contained many paintings some at least of which were very good and perhaps more, for we couldn’t see them very well.”

(On Monday March 3, the Glessners traveled to Cannes and then to Italy, returning to Paris on April 2, during Holy Week, spending ten days there before boarding their ship at Havre for the passage home).

Friday April 4:
“Good Friday.  We all four went shopping together this morning.  Bought a bureau and writing table for bedroom at home. . .

Notre Dame Cathedral in the 1890s

Sunday April 6:
“On Sunday morning – Easter Sunday – Frances and Miss Scharff went to service at Notre Dame, which they found interesting. . . Fanny and I staid at home and wrote letters.  After luncheon we drove to St. Cloud and on the Bois de Boulogne until dinner time.  Fanny wore her Bersagliero hat and cloak, supposing that anything might be worn here without remark, but found it unpleasant because of the attention it seemed to attract.”

“On Wednesday morning April 9th, I visited Central Halles the great market, the Tower of St. Jacques, Sainte Chappelle, and Notre Dame while the two ladies and Fanny went to dressmakers, bought embroideries, etc.  After luncheon, Miss Scharff and Fanny drove to the Jardin d’Acclimatation to see the animals and birds. . . At 7 we took carriages four ourselves and our guests the Hutchinsons and went to our dinner.  When we came home Miss Scharff and I from our cab saw the blaze from a large fire, so got Mr. H. to join us and drove to it.  Some large sheds of second hand building material were burning, with great heat and blaze, and quite a crowd had gathered.  A number of men and boys had climbed into the trees for a better sight.”

Newspaper clipping:
“Big Blaze in the Rue Daru”
“Last evening, between nine and ten o’clock, by the lurid appearance of the sky in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe, it was plain that a large fire was raging somewhere in that part of the city, and excited crowds hastened along the boulevards to the scene of disaster.
“On the rue Daru, near the Russian church, stood a row of sheds and ware-houses used by a firm of dealers in second-hand building materials.  These were found to be in flames, and owing to the inflammable nature of the contents, straw, piles of boards, etc., the fire blazed fiercely, lighting up the whole neighborhood.
“The flames threw out such volumes of heat that it was almost impossible for the firemen to hold their ground.  For an hour or so water and fire fought for the mastery, while thousands watched the struggle with admiration.  Finally the water won, streaming down in a deluge from many lines of hose.  The light died away, the heat diminished, the multitude dispersed, and the fire was out.”

NOTE:  A large engraving, depicting Notre Dame Cathedral, always hung over the bed in George Glessner's bedroom, as seen in this historic image below.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fiction in the Household

Guest Author:
Helene Julian is a post graduate student at the University of Lincoln located in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom studying conservation of cultural heritage. As the Fall 2018 intern, she cataloged and evaluated the books in the schoolroom. She graduated in January 2019.

You can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep, but what about their books? I think a person’s dreams, aspirations, goals and desires can be understood by examining their book collection. Glessner House, the former home of John and Frances Glessner and their two children, holds a vast collection of books that were treasured by family members. There is one book that caught my eye in the schoolroom. It is bound in red cloth and displays gold lettering on the cover. The title of the book is Achilles and Hector: Iliad Stories Retold for Boys and Girls. The book is in good condition showing evidence that the Glessners cared for it when it was in their possession and ensuring that it could be read by their children and future young readers.

Hector held his little son close

The Glessners were avid readers and were presented with numerous books by authors and friends. Frances Glessner founded a Reading Class in 1894 composed of Prairie Avenue residents as well as the wives of professors from the University of Chicago. They would meet in the library of the Glessner home to discuss literature and socialize. John and Frances Glessner were also well received and active in scholarly circles in the city of Chicago including the Chicago Literary Club and The Fortnightly. Authors wanted the family to read their pieces of work and provided gift copies for their permanent collection.

The author, Agnes Cook Gale, gifted Achilles and Hector to Frances Glessner.  The gift inscription reads, “To Mrs. Glessner with the sincere regards of Agnes Cook Gale 20 November 1904”.   Gale was the wife of Henry G. Gale, who was appointed to the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago in 1899 upon receipt of his doctorate there.  He served the University in various capacities until his retirement in 1940.  Agnes Cook Gale served as president of the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago and was a member of the Artists Equity Association and the Chicago Society of Artists, being primarily known as an artist and sculptor.  The illustrations in the book are by Helen Maitland Armstrong, a talented illustrator regarded as one of the finest American stained glass artists of the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. 

There came a sudden darkness over Achilles' eyes

Achilles and Hector is a book of Greek mythology filled with stories of adventure, love, imagination and the perseverance to complete impossible goals. The titular characters of the book, Achilles and Hector, are both portrayed in Homer’s The Iliad, an epic poem written in ancient Greece. It is a tale of war between the Greeks and Trojans over a woman named Helen, the immortal “face that launched a thousand ships.” The story is a work of fiction, but like any other story the reader takes away something from the literature. In my case after reading the Iliad in high school, I took away the power of using reasoning to achieve an objective. Odysseus’s idea to build a wooden Trojan horse and fill it with soldiers to sneak behind enemy lines was a clever tactic that has always stayed with me.

At last came Helen

By observing the Glessners’ book collection, specifically in the schoolroom, it is evident that the parents encouraged their children to read the classics and tales of triumph. They wanted their children to be well rounded individuals who not only gained knowledge through life experiences but through the pages of a book. Among the other works of fiction in the schoolroom are The Two Penniless Princesses and Boat No. 2631: The Story of a Mississippi River Adventure. Both involve the protagonist resolving a conflict or defeating the antagonists with will power and perseverance.

Glessner schoolroom, c. 1888

The schoolroom contains numerous books beyond fiction, including a great deal of non-fiction ranging from history to biography, and several from the children’s studies of foreign languages.  The children were educated by private tutors at home, so it would make sense to see many books related to their studies. But thankfully fiction can be seen throughout the shelves of the schoolroom as well. I think reading fiction opens one’s mind to creativity, imagination and empathy. Possibly, the Glessners would agree with me that fiction can positively impact your life by giving you the confidence to attempt new things and meet new people.

Maybe these are reasons why George decided to go into politics in New Hampshire to have a positive impact on his community. Or this might explain why Frances Glessner Lee had an active and open mind and became interested in crime scene investigation with her creation of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths. You can truly tell about one’s life through the books they read. From my review of working within the school room’s collection, the Glessners read books on a wide variety of topics, both fiction and non-fiction, which encouraged their children to dream and achieve their goals.  

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Fire destroys two buildings at The Rocks

Tool Building (courtesy Littleton Fire Rescue)

The same view in June 2010

A devastating fire at The Rocks on the evening of Wednesday February 13, 2019, destroyed two century-old historic structures on the property, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.  No one was injured in the fire, and the nearby home of long-time property manager Nigel Manley, escaped damage.  The Rocks, located in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, was the summer estate and working farm of the Glessner family for several generations and since 1978 has been owned and operated by The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF).

Electric Plant in foreground, Tool Building behind to the left
(courtesy Littleton Fire Rescue)

The same view in June 2010

The two structures destroyed were historically known as the Tool Building and the Electric Plant.  The Tool Building served as the North Country Conservation and Education Center for SPNHF, and housed staff offices and a large multi-purpose room used for programs and events.  The Electric Plant functioned as a gift shop.


Tool Building, front, circa 1904

Tool Building, rear, circa 1910

The Tool Building was built to house a variety of power-driven machines used in the production and repair of equipment for the estate.  The large, gable-roofed structure was two stories high on the west front, and three stories on the rear.  It was clad in wood shingles which were stained a dark red, like other buildings on the estate.   An L-shaped wing on the north side of the building functioned primarily as an ice house.  

Ice house, June 2010

On September 12, 1903, Frances Glessner noted in her journal, “we commenced work on the new tool building.”  Work proceeded rapidly, as she noted on October 3rd, “we gave the annual dinner to the men on the place.  The table was set in the new tool building.”  Later that week the exterior was shingled. 

Tool Building, 1905 (Togo the mule in foreground)

The building was the site of numerous social events, one of which was recorded in some detail in a journal entry dated September 18, 1906:
“Friday evening, we gave a party to the working people in the Tool building.  We took everything out and made a little stage.  We hung branches of evergreen in among the iron strips and put two large vases of sun flowers and asparagus fern on each side of the stage.  We took lamps down and put one on each side of the stage and put hanging chimes around from the ceiling.  We asked our people and their wives – and many who have been connected with the place, and many of the neighbors.
“We hired omnibuses to bring them out from town.  There were one hundred and sixty-five here.  Mr. Tramonti (harpist with the Chicago Orchestra) was very nervous but pleased the audience very much.  John introduced him very nicely and the audience was very appreciative and attentive.  After the concert ice cream and cake was served.”

Tool Building in 1978, showing the bay added in 1907 at right

In June 1907, Frances Glessner noted “we commenced to build the addition to the tool building.”   That addition, consisting of one additional bay located at the south end of the building, was constructed to provide a blacksmith shop (used in recent years by a Glessner descendant).  

The upper floor contained a fully equipped woodworking shop with a variety of early equipment, originally belt-driven from a central power source.  A gas pump was installed outside to provide fuel for farm vehicles.


The Electric Building, circa 1910

The Electric Plant stood immediately to the east of the Tool Building and was constructed to house the original power plant for the estate.    Laid out on a T-plan, the plant was a low hip-roofed frame structure with a clerestory at the central roof ridge.  It was clad in the same dark red-stained wood shingles.  

The foundation for the building was set in place in July 1910 as work was underway to electrify the various buildings as noted in this journal entry dated July 16, 1910:
“Some progress has been made on the Cottage improvements, and the electric light work has been started.  The foundations are in for the power building.  Wynne the Chicago electrician began on Wednesday or Thursday and has a good deal of the tool building piped for wiring.”
By August 21st, “the electric and power building is completed except the chimney and the “help” in our different houses have asked for a dance there next Thursday” (which did take place).  Electric was apparently fully functional by September 18th when the first electric lamp was lighted at the Big House (the Glessners’ residence) as an experiment. 

Electric Plant, June 2010

After John Glessner’s death in January 1936, the estate, which had grown to 1,500 acres, was divided equally between his daughter, Frances Glessner Lee, and his daughter-in-law, Alice Hamlin Glessner.  Following Alice’s death, Lee reassembled the estate and continued to operate it as a farm until her death in January 1962.  (Her tax returns each year listed her occupation as “farmer.”).  Lee’s children, John Glessner Lee and Martha Lee Batchelder continued operations of the farm until 1978 when the property was donated to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, of which their grandfather, John J. Glessner, was an early member.  

A stipulation of the gift was that there always be a crop in the field.  The Forest Society noted, “for more than three decades, that crop has been Christmas trees, and people come to The Rocks from near and far each year to find their perfect tree.”  (Continuing a tradition begun by the Glessners in the 1880s, Glessner House acquires its Christmas tree each year from The Rocks).

The famous Budweiser Clydesdales in front of the Tool Building,
January 2010 (Courtesy of The Rocks Estate)

Glessner House docents in front of the Tool Building, August 2017

Monday, February 4, 2019

Frances Glessner Lee - A Wonderful Woman

On February 4, 1962, 57 years ago today, a loving tribute to Frances Glessner Lee (who had died a week earlier at the age of 83) appeared on the front page of The Boston Sunday Globe.  It was written by her long-time friend, Erle Stanley Gardner, the best-selling author of more than 80 Perry Mason novels.   As Gardner noted at the beginning of the article, “There is no charge for this; it’s a labor of love.”

Being a personal account and not a formal biography, the tribute accurately provides the reader with a sense of Lee’s personality, and her relentless drive to make an impact in the field of legal medicine.  Tough and compassionate at the same time, it is no wonder that the work she undertook is still celebrated today.

NOTE:  A series of events honoring Frances Glessner Lee will take place at Glessner House during Frances Glessner Lee Week, March 23-30, 2019.  For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the website,

And now, selected excerpts from Gardner’s tribute.

“A Wonderful Woman”
The Boston Sunday Globe
February 4, 1962
Erle Stanley Gardner

America’s Best Known Mystery Author Writes to the Globe About a Friend

My friend, Captain Frances G. Lee, had a keen brain, a big heart, and an open mind.

She was one of the few women in the world who realized the general importance of legal medicine, and its importance in the field of law enforcement.  She also realized the necessity of a better understanding on the part of the public of problems relating to law enforcement.

I collect characters as other people collect postage stamps, and Capt. Lee was one of the rarer items in my book.
I well remember one occasion when she was being interviewed by a top-flight reporter who was in something of a hurry.  He was anxious to get the preliminaries over with.  He shot questions at Capt. Lee and then when she had the question about half answered, would interrupt to finish in his own words what he thought the answer was going to be, or perhaps what he felt the answer should have been.

At about the third interruption, Capt. Lee lowered the boom on him.

She thrust her head slightly forward, pushed out her jaw and said, “Look here, young man, you’re trying to anticipate what I’m going to say and you haven’t brains enough to do it.”

From then on the interview proceeded in a more orderly manner.

Capt. Lee was a perfectionist in every sense of the word.  When she gave her banquets, which were the social highlights of the seminars on homicide investigation conducted at the Harvard Medical School, she gave hours of careful consideration to the seating arrangements, to the floral decorations and to the program.  I don’t think there was any detail too small or too insignificant to be given careful, painstaking consideration; and by the same token, she was tremendously upset when something happened to throw any of her arrangements out of gear.

Because she had an orderly mind and a logical mind, she was able to comprehend police work in a way that enabled her to make a shrewd and accurate appraisal of individual cases as well as overall planning of what was being done and an accurate estimate of what should be done.

Because she had a great big human heart, a warm understanding and the approach of a woman of highly developed maternal instincts, she not only adopted the cause of legal medicine and law enforcement as an intellectual pursuit, but she came to regard the men in law enforcement as her “boys” and they in turn gave her a respect and affection which brought about a warm, human relationship.

No one knows just how much good Capt. Lee’s seminars did.  Not only did the men learn something of the importance of legal medicine as it related to law enforcement, but they had an opportunity to meet with each other on a social basis where they could discuss their mutual problems against a sympathetic background.

Capt. Lee encouraged the graduates to keep in touch with one another and to cooperate with one another.

I remember pointing out to her at one time that any person who would be big enough to handle the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University would be too big to be dominated by any outsider and that she must be prepared to make compromises when her ideas came in conflict with those of the department head.

The advice was unsolicited and, I think, unappreciated.  When it came to her ideas and ideals Capt. Lee wasn’t compromising anything with anybody; and when it came to fighting she just waded right in.

Those who knew her marveled at the tenacity with which she held on to her work and her life.

I remember on one occasion when by just deviating a hairs-breadth from her planned course, Capt. Lee could have received some publicity which I felt would have been of considerable value to her.  I somewhat timidly ventured the suggestion that under the circumstances she might well deviate very slightly from her planned method of approach – and promptly had my ears pinned back.

Capt. Lee was my friend.

I appreciated the work she was doing and the importance of that work.  For that reason I was willing to devote much of my time to helping her wherever I could be of help.  She was also my personal friend because I appreciated her grim, relentless pursuit of an objective, her uncompromising insistence upon the best and her loyalty to the causes she espoused and to her friends generally.

Capt. Lee had a strong individuality, a unique, unforgettable character, was a fiercely competent fighter, and a practical idealist.

The cause of legal medicine and law enforcement suffered a great blow with her passing, and yet for years the country will benefit because of her dogged determination, her down-to-earth grasp of the problems with which she was confronted, and her unswerving determination to find a solution by persistence, diplomacy, charm, and, if all else failed, by downright battering-ram in-fighting.
She was a wonderful woman.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

George Burgess Magrath: A Tribute

December 11, 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Dr. George Burgess Magrath.  Regarded as the leading figure of his day in the field of legal medicine, his long friendship with Frances Glessner Lee led her to pursue this interest in the last three decades of her life, resulting in the creation of her famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. 

Magrath and Lee became acquainted as a result of his friendship with her brother George, which developed during the years that the two Georges attended Harvard University, class of 1894.  They also shared the same birthday – George Magrath born on October 2, 1870, and George Glessner born a year later, October 2, 1871. 

A tribute to Magrath, written by Henry A. Christian, appeared in the November 1940 issue of the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Regarding Magrath’s early years, Christian recounts:

“George Burgess Magrath was born in Jackson, Michigan, on October 2nd, 1870.  His father was the Reverend John Thomas Magrath; his mother was Sarah Jane (Herrick) Magrath.  The father in his work moved from place to place, so that in the first twelve years of his life George was a resident in succession in Jackson and Battle Creek, Michigan, a suburb of Philadelphia and finally a suburb of Boston.  In the latter, Hyde Park, and later in Mattapan, George showed an early ability in music, later serving as organist in his father’s church, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan.  In later years this interest in music continued, and he participated in the activities of the Cecilia Society, the Handel and Haydn Society, the Harvard Alumni Chorus and the Sängerfest, besides being a regular attendant at the concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, throughout his life.

“Three years in Hyde Park High School, one in the Roxbury Latin School, graduating at the head of his class, four years at Harvard College with A.B. magna cum laude in 1894, four years in the Harvard Medical School with M.D. cum laude (the highest honor from that school at that date) in 1898 and a Harvard A.M. in 1899, gives the story of his formal education.”

Frances Glessner notes in her journal traveling to Boston for the commencement ceremonies for her son George in June 1894.  Among the entries mentioning Magrath are the following:

“We went back to George’s room where we were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Magrath, three daughters, sister and George Magrath. . . we had a nice luncheon.”

Regarding the commencement ceremony:

“George Magrath took part.  He had a magna cum laude.  Our George had a cum laude with honorable mention in History and Natural History.  After that was over we went back to the hotel.  In the evening George brought George Magrath in to dinner.  Fanny staid in Cambridge with the Magraths who showed her over Radcliffe.”

George Burgess Magrath, while at Harvard

After graduation, the Glessner family traveled to their summer estate, The Rocks, in New Hampshire, and George Magrath joined them soon after.  In a letter dated August 7, 1894, he thanked Mrs. Glessner for her hospitality:

Southport, Maine
My dear Mrs. Glessner,
I hope that in spite of my prolonged silence you will not consider me an ungrateful fellow.  It is impossible for me to say in a few words how much I enjoyed the three days which I spent at The Rocks.  My visit besides being the source of much immediate pleasure has left with me the refreshing picture of a corner of the universe where the beautiful and the ideal are very fully realized and where true happiness exists.
Please remember me kindly to all the members of your family and believe me
Yours sincerely,
George Burgess Magrath
August 7, 1894”

To return to the tribute by Henry A. Christian:

“From his graduation to his death Dr. Magrath was a member of the teaching staff of the Harvard Medical School as follows:
1898-1900  Assistant in Pathology
1900-1901  Austin Teaching Fellow in Pathology
1901-1905  Assistant in Pathology
1905-1909  Assistant in Hygiene
1907-1931  Instructor in Legal Medicine
1931-1937  Professor of Legal Medicine
After September 1, 1937  Professor Emeritus

“Dr. Magrath was a very excellent teacher.  In his earlier days in pathology his demonstrations were popular with students.  He was enthusiastic, systematic and clear in didactic teaching, a quality which became even more evident in his lectures later on, when he was giving instruction in legal medicine.  These he aptly, often dramatically, illustrated from his personal experience in a way to make remembered the facts he was bringing to his class.  

“Trained under Councilman and Mallory and with practical experience at the Long Island, the Carney, the Cambridge, the Faulkner and St. Elizabeth’s hospitals, Dr. Magrath became an excellent pathologist.  His technique in the performance of an autopsy was masterly, and his keen observation recorded many details, some of which might, and often did, prove of the greatest importance in fixing the responsibility for a crime of violence.  In his earlier work, when he was assistant to the secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Health, he began to show qualities, which made so successful his long years in the office of Medical Examiner.  He was set to study the adulteration of sausages.  Treating these as a body tissue, he hardened, embedded, sectioned and stained.  The paucity of striated muscle fibers and the excess of starch granules, which he identified as corn meal, were convincing evidence of the richness of the adulteration of the original sausage.

“In 1907 Governor Curtis Guild appointed Dr. Magrath Medical Examiner of the Northern District of Boston, an office which had been created in 187 and for thirty years had been held by Dr. F. A. Harris.  For the next twenty-eight years Dr. Magrath competently filled that position.  In this office Dr. Magrath rapidly became recognized as a leading expert in New England in the solution of the problems of crime by violence.  His fine basic training in pathology, his skill and exactness in post-mortem examinations, his logical processes of thought and exposition, his intellectual independence, his unquestioned honesty and courage, made of him an expert in court and out, whose opinions carried the greatest weight.  To be cross-examined was a challenge to his knowledge and intellectual acumen which he enjoyed; rarely could he be caught unawares by opposing legal talent.  More and more were his advice and his opinions sought beyond the bounds of his own district; more and more was his help asked by others in similar offices, so that his influence in legal medicine steadily increased.  When New York City was planning changes in its plan of legal medical work, Dr. Magrath was an important advisor.

“During Dr. Magrath’s twenty-eight years as Medical Examiner he established many important procedures and made precedents, which now largely have become recognized as determining factors of the work of Medical Examiners in relation to Legal Medicine.  In this way and by his own individual work Dr. Magrath had an important part in the development here of legal medicine into a science and art deserving of recognition as a significant department of medicine, a development which, started by Dr. Magrath and furthered by the generosity of Mrs. Lee, may be expected to expand and progress under succeeding professors of legal medicine until Harvard will have an actual Institute, in which all phases of the many sided problems of Legal Medicine can be investigated, taught and practiced.”

A letter from Frank Leon Smith to Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason novels) dated February 19, 1955 gives a bit of insight into Magrath’s methods.  Smith was the friend of Percy Vivian Monk, who had been hired as a technician in the lab at Harvard Medical School, and was selected by Dr. Magrath “as an assistant and night man at the Northern District Morgue, in North Grove Street, Boston, under the shadow of the grim State Prison.” 

Regarding Magrath’s process for examining a corpse, Smith noted:

“He would arrive at the morgue with his secretary.  They’d change to white robes and enter the amphitheatre.  More often than not, there’d be no students or other outside witnesses.  Harry Kingston, head ‘Morgue Master’ would wheel in the cadaver.  He and my friend Percy would pass the instruments.  Dr. Magrath would start dictating.  From Harry Kingston and Percy Monk I got the impression that from the moment the cadaver was wheeled in, Magrath was in a mood of deep concentration, though fascination might be as good a word.  He dictated his ‘general appearance’ notes; and in their proper order, made the long torso incision, and the removal of the top of the skull.

“Now, Mr. Gardner, I come to something which is guess work on my part, but I think I am right.  In many cases, the inevitable cause of death was at once apparent to Magrath.  I believe it was as important to him to discover things that were not the cause of death, as it was to determine the reason why a human machine had abruptly stopped working. 

“Perhaps Magrath felt he had a unique opportunity, and must be true to his responsibility. . . More than most men, he had the chance and the genius to explore the mysteries which each of us carries within the envelope of the skin.  He gave the same careful attention to a repelling ‘floater’ taken from the harbor, as to the well preserved man of distinction who’d happened to drop dead on Tremont Street, rather than in his club, or his home, where his own doctor could have written out a routine certificate of death from normal causes.

“This letter is getting long.  I’ve made my main point, or hope I have:  Dr. Magrath’s devotion over and above the call of duty.  Here is a case to indicate his thoroughness, certainly unusual at that time.  A man – I believe he was named Saulus – was found dead, many stab wounds.  I don’t know the legal disposition of the case.  The body was unclaimed.  Instead of turning it over for burial in Potter’s Field, Magrath kept it to study those knife wounds.  Again and again, with careful notations as to time lapse, he’d study the appearance of those wounds.

“This attention to detail made a profound impression on my young mind, especially as I was told that Magrath moved in very pleasant social circles, was ‘well fixed’ and devoted to the theatre and the opera.”

About his personal life and appearance, we turn again to the tribute by Henry Christian:

“In person Dr. Magrath was a picturesque figure, about which gathered many legends.  He was erect and broad chested: with shoulders thrown back and chest forward he created the atmosphere of great physical strength, which in fact he had, as exemplified by his prowess as an oarsman, he for many years appearing, not alone on the Charles for recreation but in crews in various races, often winning both on the Charles and Schuylkill Rivers.  His mane of hair, first red, then graying, eventually white, towered over a broad brow and finely chiseled features.  These with his habitually worn flowing Windsor tie gave him the appearance of musician or artist rather than medical man.  Dr. Magrath was genial, enjoyed social intercourse and was much beloved by a wide circle of friends.  Under the exterior that might seem brusque there lurked gentleness and a great sympathetic kindliness, often commented upon by those with whom Dr. Magrath came into contact by reasons of the requirements of his office of medical examiner; what had seemed in advance an ordeal to be faced turned out often to be no ordeal at all on account of these qualities of Dr. Magrath. . . By nature was clubable, friendly, a fine companion, loved by many in all walks of life, notably by his fellow members in the St. Botolph Club where, never having married, much of his life centered.”

In 1931, Frances Glessner provided Harvard Medical School with a gift of $250,000 which created an endowment to underwrite the chair in legal medicine, with George Magrath appointed the first professor.   In one of many newspaper articles to note the gift, it was noted how the friendship of the two Georges at Harvard led to the gift:

“Two members of the Harvard class of 1894 liked to race to big Cambridge or Boston fires on their bicycles.  At college and through after-life, they developed many another common interest – and out of their lifelong friendship comes now the gift to Harvard by Mrs. Frances Glessner Lee of Littleton, N.H., and Chicago, of a $250,000 endowment for a chair at Harvard Medical School, in legal medicine. 

“Telling at his St. Botolph Club chambers last night of his gratification at Mrs. Lee’s splendid vision and generous act, Dr. Magrath made the point that, in his own pioneering in the field he has time and again encountered physicians who were diffident about exposing themselves in court to the wiles of lawyers for defendants.  This field is now a required one at Harvard Medical and no student is graduated without a pretty thorough familiarity with his responsibilities in this branch of his professional work. 

“‘For nearly 30 years,’ said he, “I have been active in a field wherein medical and allied branches of natural science are brought into service for the uses and purposes of the law.  These activities, while mainly those of an officer of the Commonwealth, have been in part those of a consultant in problems involving medical legal inquiry into the cause and manner of death.  Coincident with these activities have been those related to the teaching of legal medicine, which includes alike the obtaining of knowledge begotten from experience and the imparting of this to those destined to engage in medical practice.  Through her own enlightened interest in legal medicine, and by reason of her munificence, Mrs. Lee has insured for Harvard University a position which, through the activities of my successors (Dr. Magrath’s tenure ends with this term) will be commanding in the field of legal medicine.’

“Dr. Magrath – who has held her friendship through the years since their first meeting when, as a college junior, he visited the Glessner home in Chicago with her brother – said that Mrs. Lee has been a generous supporter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has given generously to hospitals and other charitable enterprises in and about Littleton, N.H., where the family has long owned a large estate called The Rocks. 

“With a note of pride in his voice, the still rugged Michigan-born Dr. Magrath – who has himself investigated 21,000 deaths in the course of his official career and has testified in 2000 court cases, some of them most sensational – told that he is essentially a state-o’-Mainer, ‘a Kennebecker,’ as he put it.  He was named for Rev. George Burgess, the first Episcopal Bishop of Maine and his father’s friend.”

In May 1934, Frances Glessner Lee donated a legal medicine library of 1,000 volumes, the first of its kind in the country, to Harvard Medical School.  It was named the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine in honor of her friend and colleague.   During the brief dedication ceremony, Lee noted:

“For many years I have hoped that I might do something in my lifetime that, should be of significant value to the community, I was sincerely glad to find that my opportunity to serve lay here at the Harvard Medical School.  You are possibly all familiar with the objective in mind.  My wish is to build up here a Department of Legal Medicine second to none other, but I firmly believe that its growth must be gradual in order to be sure. . . I am grateful for this opportunity to pay a tribute to your colleague, my old-time friend Dr. Magrath, a man who practically created his profession, and whose life has been devoted to perfecting it.”

James B. Conant, President of Harvard University, thanked Lee,

“not only for the presentation of the library but also for the careful and patient collecting of the actual volumes, many of which are so rare and of such great value.  By his vigorous personality and the skillful discharge of his duties Dr. Magrath has played an important part in demonstrating the superiority of the system of medical examiners as compared with the old coroner system.  The ancient office of coroner involved such a combination of legal and medical duties as to make it unsuitable for complex, modern conditions.  It is very fitting that the name of one of the outstanding leaders be associated with this library.”

Dr. George Burgess Magrath died on December 11, 1938 after a brief illness “respected by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and by Harvard University, both of which he had served so well for so long, and loved by a very large circle of devoted friends, lay and medical.”

One of those friends was the previously mentioned Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner.  In 1955, he dedicated his novel, The Case of the Glamorous Ghost, to Dr. Magrath.  Gardner wrote:

“George Burgess Magrath has exerted a tremendous influence in the field of legal medicine and in the detection of crime.

“Dr. Magrath’s life is a splendid example of the manner in which a man’s dynamic personality can spread out over the years, affecting the lives of others long after he is gone.

“The fact that Captain Frances G. Lee became interested in legal medicine was due to the influence of Dr. Magrath.  The fact that Captain Frances G. Lee invented her famous nutshell studies in unexplained death has been responsible for training hundreds of competent officers so that they can detect murders which otherwise might go not only undetected but unsuspected.

“One of Dr. Magrath’s greatest contributions to investigative science was his devotion to truth.  In every one of his field notebooks he wrote just inside the front cover a quotation from the writings of Dr. Paul Brouardel, the noted French doctor who was one of the first pioneers in legal medicine.  The quotation is as follows: ‘If the law has made you a witness, remain a man of science: You have no victim to avenge, no guilty or innocent person to ruin or save.  You must bear testimony within the limits of science.’

“During his lifetime he examined over twenty thousand cases of unexplained deaths, and the present highly efficient science of homicide investigation is in large measure due to the trail blazed by Dr. Magrath.  The blaze marks on that trail are Truth, Accuracy, Efficiency and Scientific Integrity.  Today many feet follow along that trail, and the wayfarers either follow those same blaze marks or become hopelessly lost in the forest of prejudice.

“The truly scientific investigator of homicide remains on the one trail that follows those same blazes which Dr. Magrath used for his own guidance.  And so I dedicate this book to the memory of George Burgess Magrath, M.D.”

A fitting tribute, indeed, to one whose devotion to his life’s work continues to impact those working in the field to this day.

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