Monday, November 28, 2011

Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

On Thursday December 1, 2011 at , Corinne May Botz, author of The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will present a free lecture on her research and photographs of Frances Glessner Lee’s amazing Nutshell Studies in the coach house of Glessner House Museum, 1800 S. Prairie Ave., Chicago.   The program is being held in conjunction with the Crime UnSeen exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.  Botz’s work is included in the exhibition, which runs through January 15, 2012.  For more information, visit

Legal Medicine

Frances Glessner Lee (1878-1962) became interested in legal medicine through her friendship with Dr. George Burgess Magrath, a classmate of her brother George at Harvard.  She enjoyed listening to his stories of cases where his skill as a medical examiner helped to uncover the true cause of unexplained death.  During his career he personally investigated 21,000 deaths and testified at more than 2,000 court cases.

In 1932, Lee gave a gift of $250,000 to Harvard University for the creation of a chair in Legal Medicine in the Medical School.  The endowment ensured the perpetuation of the department in which Dr. Magrath had taught since 1907. 

Two years later, Lee presented the school with a library of over 1,000 volumes, which was dedicated as the George Burgess Magrath Library of Legal Medicine.  The library, unique in the United States at the time, was assembled personally by her and contained many rare volumes, some dating back to the 15th century. 

Her continual involvement in legal medicine led to her appointment as a State Police Captain in New Hampshire in 1943, one of many titles that would eventually be bestowed upon her.  For the remainder of her life, she was known affectionately as “Captain Lee.”  At the time of her appointment, she was the only active female state police captain in the country.  She subsequently became the first female member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. 

Nutshell Studies

It was at this time that Lee came up with the idea of creating a series of eighteen miniature rooms depicting crime scenes to be used for the study and analysis of evidence by state police officials.  Known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the name was derived from an old police saying, “Convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.”  The models were meticulously created on the scale of one inch to the foot.  Doors swung on tiny hinges, windows moved up and down, and a minute mousetrap in the corner of one room operated like the real thing.  Each room took about four months to build in an elaborate workshop set up in her home.  Many of the pieces were crafted by her own hands; other portions were constructed by Ralph Mosher, a carpenter hired full-time to work on the project.  The models were composites pieced together from different cases.  Everything shown had actually happened, albeit under other circumstances.  Some portrayed murder, others accidental death or suicide. 

Seminars in Homicide Investigation

In conjunction with the models, Captain Lee initiated biannual seminars in homicide investigation.  State policemen from around the country vied for the opportunity to attend the seminars.  Outstanding speakers in the field of legal medicine were brought in to lecture, and a major component of each seminar was the analysis of the “Nutshell Studies.”  Attendees were given 90 minutes to analyze the minute clues hidden in each model, and then present their findings.  Graduates of the seminars became Harvard Associates in Police Science, a distinction they would use when testifying in court cases.

Captain Lee planned an elaborate banquet at the conclusion of each seminar, held at the Ritz.  A typical banquet would run $3,000, with the dinner served on a set of gold-leafed china made especially for her use. 

Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels, was one of the few “laymen” allowed to attend a seminar.  Afterwards, he dedicated his newest book, The Case of the Dubious Bridegroom, to her.  In addition to proclaiming her “one of the few women who ever kept Perry Mason guessing” he went on:

“I have dedicated this book to her as an expression, in some measure, of my appreciation; and in admiration of the manner in which her mind, working with the accurate precision of a railroad watch, 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.  I herewith tender her my profound respect, my deepest admiration, and my eternal gratitude.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Glessner parlor abuzz with Christmas activity

Christmas is a special time at the museum.  We are fortunate to have extensive documentation on Christmas customs in Frances Glessner’s journal, which allows us to recreate quite accurately how the family would have celebrated the holiday. 

The museum will be decorated for Christmas from Wednesday November 23 through Saturday December 31.  However, the Glessners would be shocked by that!  Unlike today, where the sights and sounds of Christmas appear earlier and earlier each year, in the Glessners’ day, the celebration was confined to just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  In Frances Glessner’s journal, she discusses the decorating of the house on Christmas Eve, and quite often the tree and other decorations are taken down the evening of Christmas Day.  The tree was usually lit briefly (10-15 minutes) on each day. 

Our newly restored parlor features a number of activities that the family would have undertaken preparing for the decorating and gift-giving parts of the holiday.  The game table is opened in front of the banquet, and several activities are underway.  To the left, popcorn and cranberries are being strung to decorate the tree, and this garland may be found on both the small tree in the schoolroom and the larger tree in the main hall.  After the tree was taken down, the strings of garland would be hung outside on tree branches, so that birds could take advantage of the tasty treats.

At the right side of the table, pomander balls are being prepared using oranges, cloves, and cinnamon.  The balls were meant to be decorative as well as fragrant and they were usually placed in a closet, piled in a bowl, or at Christmas, hung on the tree.  They were decorated with ribbons and often small artificial birds or flowers.  The dried fruits would last for an extended period of time. 

Hand crafted items were popular Christmas gifts and several pieces are represented.  The black wool muffler represents a similar piece Fanny once knit and presented to her father as a Christmas gift.  The small red velvet pillow is in the process of having a vintage lace panel reading “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year” attached.

An interesting item, seen in the foreground of the photo, is the Glessners’ “literary salad.”  This parlor game was a popular activity for Victorian-era teenagers.  The host or hostess prepared the “salad” ahead of time by writing a selection of literary quotations on paper and then gluing them to green tissue paper “lettuce leaves.”  Each guest, on being served “salad,” read the quotation aloud and guessed at the author’s name.

Frances Glessner, her two sisters Helen and Anna, and her daughter Fanny, were all extremely talented needle workers, and hand-embroidered items would have been popular gifts from the women.  On the banquette, an embroidered panel of flowers is underway, sitting next to a red work bag.  Frances Glessner had many of these bags, used to hold fabric, needles, thread and other items for her embroidery work.  She also frequently made the bags and gave them as gifts.

To the left in the above photo is the Christmas 1890 issue of Ladies Home Journal.  Periodicals such as this were widely read by women who relied on them to provide useful information on the latest trends in gift giving and decorating. 

Special Christmas-themed tours of both Glessner and Clarke House Museum will be offered on Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11, with tours at , , and .   Learn more about these and other Christmas customs, and conclude the tour with refreshments at the nearby landmark Wheeler Mansion.  Call 312.326.1480 for more information or to make reservations.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rocks Estate

In August 1883, John and Frances Glessner and their children George and Fanny moved into their new summer home, which they called the “Big House” at their estate “The Rocks” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, mid-way between Littleton and Bethlehem.  The Glessners had first considered the White Mountains for their summer home at the suggestion of George’s doctor, who indicated that George might experience significant relief from his severe hayfever by leaving Chicago and traveling to this part of the country.  When George first visited the White Mountains in 1878, the relief was dramatic and immediate, so the Glessners opted to make the locale their annual destination.  The Glessners continued to make The Rocks their home every summer until their deaths in the 1930s, and both George and Fanny later made the estate their permanent home.  A portion of the estate at the western end of the property is still in the possession of two descendants of George Glessner, making six generations of the family to call The Rocks home. 

In 1977, two of the Glessners grandchildren, John Glessner Lee and Martha Lee Batchelder, made the decision to donate the majority of the property (1333 of the approximate 2000 acres assembled by their grandparents) to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.  The Society had been formed in 1901 to acquire and protect forested lands throughout the state in response to widespread clear-cutting being undertaken by farmers.  John Glessner was a strong supporter of the Society and joined in 1903, just two years after it was founded, so it was a very appropriate choice for the grandchildren to present the organization with The Rocks property.  The estate includes numerous original buildings constructed by the Glessners from the 1880s through the 1910s designed by Isaac Scott, Hermann V. von Holst and others, as well as more than 500 species of trees and other plants. 

The Rocks Estate is supported in large part today by its use as a Christmas tree farm, which satisfies one of the stipulations of the gift requiring the Society to keep an active crop growing on the estate at all times.   Open to the public year round, the estate also offers a number of hiking trails and other activities which help visitors to explore the vast beauty of the property.  Visit for more information.

At the museum, we carry on a Glessner family tradition begun more than a century ago by shipping a Christmas tree from The Rocks every year.  The Glessners originally used small table-top trees (their 1888 tree is pictured above), but by the early 1900s adopted the custom of a larger tree which they displayed in the main hall, where the museum places the tree each year.   Click on the link below to see the tree selected for this year’s celebration:

Glessner and Clarke House Museums will be decorated for Christmas from Wednesday November 23rd through Saturday December 31st.  A special part of the holiday tradition at the museums is our annual Candlelight Tours, scheduled this year for Saturday December 10 and Sunday December 11.  During these special tours, attendees will learn about Christmas traditions of the mid- to late-19th century and see both houses decorated in historically appropriate fashion.  Afterwards, participants are invited to the nearby Wheeler Mansion for refreshments.  For more information, visit , or call 312-326-1480 to make reservations.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Novel on Prairie Avenue to be released in 2012

Prairie Avenue is due to receive some well-deserved attention with the release of a novel, The Pursuit of Lucy Banning, in June 2012.  The volume, book one of three in the “Avenue of Dreams” series, has just been added to the online catalog of the publisher, Fleming H. Revell. 

The title character in the series, Lucy Banning, was born on October 8, 1871 (the same week as George Glessner, and also the date of the Great Chicago Fire), and is turning 21 at the time the novel opens.   Banning has enjoyed the privileges of a Prairie Avenue upbringing, but yearns for more than a life of ease and the obligatory marriage to a banker that her family expects.  Although the story is fictional, it is deeply rooted in the history of Prairie Avenue, with countless references to the actual people who lived on the street during its heydays in the 1890s.  Just like Arthur Meeker’s fictional Prairie Avenue, which was published in 1949, the novel brings to life the “sunny street that held the sifted few” during one of the most remarkable periods in Chicago’s history, including the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The series was conceived by Glessner/Clarke House docent Stephen Reginald in collaboration with author Olivia Newport.  Reginald did the research (including frequent inquiries to the Glessner house), and Newport did the writing and character development. 

A release party and booksigning will be held at the museum in June 2012.  If you are a fan of Prairie Avenue and Chicago history, this novel is sure to appeal to you.

For more information, click on the link below to The Pursuit of Lucy Banning on the website of Revell (now a division of Baker Publishing Group) at:

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