Born into a wealthy Chicago family in the 1870s, Frances Glessner Lee was supposed to marry well and raise a family. A career was never on the cards. Let alone one that would see her recognised as the mother of modern forensics.
Instead a chance encounter with an old family friend, George Magrath, changed her path entirely. Finding themselves reunited during a hospital stay, Magrath, a medical examiner, spoke passionately about the obstacles in his profession, most pressingly the often untrained coroners getting in the way of the truth.
A spark was lit for Lee, who began to dedicate her life to dismantling the coroner system, and pushing for qualified medical examiners to replace them.
Bruce Goldfarb‘s 18 Tiny Deaths chronicles Lee’s fascinating life, culminating in the creation of eighteen meticulously detailed crime scene dioramas, still used in medical examiner training today. Her work also saw her named the first female police captain. Meanwhile, a homicide investigation training program she ran in the 1940s and 50s was so successful, Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner would try a wrangle a place in class. Gardner would also write her obituary when Lee passed in 1962.
Carried by Lee’s irrepressible personality and dogged determination, Goldfarb’s work reads like a novel. It’s well paced and engaging, whilst Lee’s struggles make for interesting – if infuriating – reading. Her battles with Harvard (happy to take her money, less happy to have her decide how its spent) and with the coroner system at large particularly sting. That much of the US is still served by the coroner system today only goes to show that Lee’s work is far from done.
18 Tiny Deaths is an incredibly well researched and truly compelling biography. Sure to appeal to CSI fans, its reach truly deserves to be a little wider. Anyone with an interest in true crime, politics, detective stories (Lee herself was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan), or just fascinating figures from history would do well to pick this one up!
Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 Tiny Deaths is out now through Endeavour/Hachette.