18 Tiny Deaths

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 14 Feb 2020

Member Reviews

While interesting and informative, this book was not what I thought it would be. This biography was most definitely well researched but I felt as though it delved too much into other people and the money of Frances versus her contribution to Medical Law. I definitely learned a lot from reading this book, but I feel as though it would have been more powerful with more cases to show how this new field helped to grow and become so instrumental in solving crimes. 
Note: I was gifted a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.
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This was a fascinating read.
It started off on the slower side for me with all Lee's background. (I even found her parents' home on Google Earth - beautiful building. I had to laugh at the one neighbour's complaint regarding the house - to me it looks as if his house is no longer there, but the house he hated still stands. Am pleased it was not demolished)
I found it so interesting that just one phrase that Magrath mentioned to Lee could spark such an interest for Lee.
She was fortunate to have access to great personal wealth to be able to achieve all she did.
I just wonder what she could have achieved in her lifetime if she was allowed to study further as her way of thinking was light years ahead of some "educated" men.
I found the book very well researched with detailed notes and references.
The author's connection to Lee and why felt he needed to write this book are well explained in the author's  note.
A nice touch was all the further reading and resources. Photographs are always a nice addition.
I initially wondered about the title - I thought at first it referred to the deaths of 18 babies, but that mystery was cleared up by the end of the book.
I really enjoyed this book.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me the chance to read this book.
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This is a fascinating story of the woman who changed crime solving in America. Truly an important book to read if you like history, shows like CSI, and true crime stories.

(I received a copy of this book through NetGalley and Sourcebooks in exchange for an honest and original review.)
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When I requested 18 Tiny Deaths, it was this sentence in the description that caught my attention:  

"The fascinating story of the forgotten woman who pioneered forensic science."

I'd never heard of Frances Glessner Lee, but one of my reading objectives is to read more nonfiction and more biographies of women.  The idea of a woman having pioneered forensic science was an irresistible bonus to a fan of mysteries and police procedurals.  

Frances Glessner was born in 1878 to a family of great wealth and influence.  She and her brother were home schooled by private tutors, receiving a wide-ranging education significantly beyond what a public school could offer.  They were also encouraged to be children and to appreciate the outdoors, music, and arts and crafts in ways outside of academics.  Although her brother went to Harvard, women were not admitted to those "hallowed" halls and Frances did not go to college.  While she may have been brilliant and accomplished (more so than most college educated men), she personally felt the lack of formal education.

It is a thorough biography; however, since Frances did not become interested in what was termed medicolegal pathology until the latter portion of her life, it is in the last half of the book that her efforts to transform medical legal medicine into a unique division of medicine  is presented.  Inspired by her friend and mentor George Magrath, Frances used her wealth and influence to improve the system.

"She persisted" genuinely applies to Frances' efforts to revolutionize the ways sudden or suspicious deaths were examined, to replace the ancient coroner system with medical examiners, and to train police to preserve crime scenes and become intently observant.  

Previously much of what can be found about Frances Glessner Lee  has to do with her dioramas, the nutshell models--and they are important.  But Bruce Goldfarb has brought to light all of what the woman accomplished.  While the nutshell models are crucial, what impressed me most was the money, energy, time, and effort Frances put into her attempts to end a corrupt coroner system and replace it with trained medical examiners and to educate crime scene investigators (patrolmen and detectives) on how to observe and preserve a crime scene.  

A compelling look into the life of the woman who is responsible for scientific approaches to crime investigation.  A remarkable book about a remarkable woman--highly recommended for those interested in history, crime, and forensics.

Extensive primary and secondary sources.

A look at the Nutshells.

Nonfiction/Biography.  Feb. 4, 2020.  Print length:  336 pages.
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I had really mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, it's a biography of a woman who deserves significantly more credit for her role in the founding of the modern medicolegal system than she has received. I learned about the Nutshell Studies from a friend who was able to visit the Smithsonian exhibit in 2018, and they are fascinating. And the parts of this book that discuss the foundation of the medicolegal system in the US are really interesting.

But - and here is the but - the first thirty percent of the book is just... boring. I know this is a biography, but the author truly included too many details. It's so dry. You literally read about Lee's tutoring subjects, the architectural history and square footage of the house she grew up in, her brother's allergies, and approximately seven thousand other pieces of utterly unimportant trivia. This section of the book drags. And there are honestly some large sections of the latter part that are similarly overly detailed - seriously, I did not need at least six mentions of the fact that Lee did not want her library absorbed into the broader medical school's library, and I really didn't need a dinner menu for the homicide detectives' banquets.

Overall, I think this book had a lot of potential and is on a fascinating topic, I really enjoyed the sections discussing the creation of the Nutshell Studies, but it's overly detailed and fairly dry. If you are REALLY, REALLY interested in Lee or REALLY, REALLY like biographies, this might be interesting for you, but otherwise, I'm not sure I'd recommend it.

This advanced reader copy was provided to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Thank you, NetGalley, for a complimentary copy of this book!

I'm a huge fan of forensics and CSI. I used to binge watch every show on Investigation Discovery. So, I was super excited to see a book like this being released. From the perspective of a forensics fan and everything related to detective work, this book was super interesting. I had no clue how much forensic medicine progressed because of this one lady and how little progress we have made since we lost this powerhouse of a woman! Shows like CSI and Medical Detectives make it look like we are really advanced in our methods. While we have made a lot of progress in this field, I can see from the historical perspective after reading this book, that we have actually only made baby steps since the 50s. That is a surprise, considering all the technical and medical milestones we have achieved, such as in DNA technology, hair analysis, etc. This book is really an eye opener as far as that is concerned.

I have to admit that some of the chapters went too much into detail. It is interesting to learn about everything that this amazing woman has done for STEM and forensic medicine in particular even without a college degree and in-depth medical expertise, but the author lost my interest a few times when there was too much mention of every minuscule detail in the communication with Harvard University and others. That is the only reason I give this book only 4 stars. Other than that, I really loved the book.
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Considering my general obsession with all things true crime, this book surprised me in that one, I didn't know nearly as much about Frances Glessner Lee as I thought I did, and two, because it just wasn't as captivating as I'd hoped it would be.

It wasn't bad, and I'm definitely glad I read it, but it was just so slow for so long before it got interesting. Sometimes I'm good for a slow build, but that's not usually the case with nonfiction. The backstory leading up to her work in building the foundation of forensic science as we know it just dragged on a bit too long for me, but it does pick up. And from there...I mean, it's still kind of dry, but in a more to-the-point way. It's very factual, very straightforward, and not especially flowery, but it works just because Frances Glessner Lee was a really interesting woman, forward-thinking and relentlessly curious. 

Probably won't pick this one up for a re-read, but I do recommend it for people whose interests gravitate toward the scientific aspects of true crime, to the forensics, because this book would be right up your alley, and if nothing else, Frances was just a really cool lady. Highly intelligent and sharp and just a real delight to read about, once you get to the weightier bits of her life. If you're second-guessing because you've already picked it up and are trudging through, stick with it. It's worth it if you can get over the initial slow slump.

Thank you muchly to NetGalley, Bruce Goldfarb, and Sourcebooks for a free copy of 18 Tiny Deaths in exchange for an honest review!
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I expected this book to be a career biography about doctor/investigator/scientist who was instrumental in developing the field of forensics as we know it. I expected that she had been forgotten due to her own success. I was a little off all the way around.

This is a birth-to-death biography of Frances Glessner Lee—gilded age heiress untrained in any field. In midlife she found out about the field of legal medicine through a close friend, and she put all her efforts and devoted the rest of her life (and much of her money) to developing a department at Harvard and introducing the possibilities to police and legal departments around the country.

There is very little science here—this is largely about the strength of one personality who used her connections, her time, her talents, her wallet, and threats of withdrawing money to accomplish what she envisioned. 

Did she accomplish it? Not in the form she envisioned, but yes, her skills (and money) were important. She received several honorary degrees and police captaincies during her lifetime. She even had a hand in the first police procedural movie (Mystery Street with Ricardo Montalban).

This book is well written and meticulously researched, and Goldfarb has amazing access to materials as an employee of the Maryland ME’s office. 

I learned a lot reading this book--about the establishment of forensic science/legal medicine, about Harvard's Medical School, about the coroner and medical examiner systems, and about police death investigations. This is, however, a biography of Lee's entire life--including her childhood. There is little about the actual "invention" of modern forensics. This is a history of science, not the science itself.

Perfect for: fans of biographies and police procedurals and those interested in the history of crime, Harvard’s medical school, and policework.
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This very informative book tells the story of Frances Glessner Lee, and how determination, money, and a refusal to back down can have a lasting impact on the world. The book sags a little around the middle when people who are not Lee are being discussed. I was fascinated by her and was impatient to return to her story.
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This was one of my most anticipated books for 2020, forensics is something I’ve always had a strong interest in. So I was thrilled when I got approved for this arc.

 Frances Lee Glessner was born into a very wealthy family in Chicago and incredibly well educated. She always had a strong fascination with medicine and death. 

This book is supposed to tell us how she got into forensics to become one of the people that helped to establish medical examiners as well as courses at Harvard on the subject. However I never got that far as this novel is DRY AS A BONE. 
I love nonfiction, it makes up the majority of my reading, I’ve read some dry nonfiction in my life. But this was just too dry, and boring.

We are reminded every few pages about how wealthy Lee and her family are. For at least half of the book, we are following her and her wealthy family and all the eccentric things they got up to. This is all interspersed with tidbits about how the coroner system worked in the states during her time, as well as some notable cases that went unsolved because of shoddy work on part of the coroners. While this was interesting, it's not what I intended to read and I found myself not wanting to pick the book up or read at all. 

So, I DNF’d it at 50%. 
I realized I didn’t enjoy reading this at all and couldn’t force myself to read more.

2 stars.

** ARC provided by Sourcebooks & NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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I usually find it hard to read my way through non-fiction in a few days. It takes time and mental investment to keep myself going even if I find the content inordinately interesting. This was probably one of the few books where I did not have to struggle. It was also a very fascinating character study. 

The title, although attractive, does not really do justice to the content. The story spans the growth of Legal/forensic medicine in the US as well as the rise of Frances Glessner Lee and her family. It begins at the very beginning of how law and order started post-colonial times and the different aspects of it. The presentation was enough to have someone like me, who is very removed from the US or its legal system feel like the time invested in reading about it as time well spent. We can draw so much from the story. The impact of industrialization, and how people got wealthy, how some people used their wealth and perseverance of some who changed their worlds. I picked this book up because I saw a youtube video about the dioramas that were her crowning glory, and I was rewarded with a lot more than just information about it. 

The lady in question is painted in so many shades by the author. She is not described as self-effacing in the sense that she had confidence in her thought process and used her mind to alternatively charm or use persuasive words to get her way. That said, she did not want the credit for achieving all the things she did. She has left a life long legacy in the country, and if she had had her way, people would not be talking about her at all! These contradictory stands were shown using letters written to and by and about her. All in all, I would highly recommend this to anyone with a passing interest in the history of forensics in the US (probably because of the miscellaneous TV shows), or just of pioneering women who fight against the odds and work long and hard at what they are good at to make a dent in history in general. The author has let his interest in the subject and the woman behind it shine through making for some fascinating reading.

I received an ARC thanks to NetGalley and the publishers, but the review is entirely based on my reading experience. The only bias I have is the inclination to binge-watch well done US crime shows.
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There are always points in biographies or historical nonfiction such as this that I think to myself “I do not care.” 

That never once happened with this book. I was captivated through every chapter. Frances Glessner Lee had a vision and she pursued it with determination and vigor, relentlessly. While the money she had certainly helped the situation, what this story truly was to me was a story of passion and how finding out passion can transform our lives.

Also, there was the true crime bit which I loved just as much. Where would forensics be without Frances Glessner Lee? It is truly hard to say because she is so interwoven in its beginnings that the histories of both are inseparable.

TLDR; I loved this.
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Coroners were responsible for investigating unexplainable deaths starting in the Middle Ages.  In the 1800’s  coroners were political appointees or sometimes the local undertaker.  Scandals and corruption often affected what was written on death certificates.  Sloppy coroners allowed criminals to escape.  In 1900, a few large cities in the United States had medical examiners with medical training.  Frances Glessner Lee was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago industrialist who spent time in a luxury hospital with George Magrath, a friend and medical examiner in Boston.  Marath told stories about his work to Lee.  He explained his disappointment over the state of hs  profession.  Lee became inspired to try to help the medical examiner take the place of coroners.  In 1931, Lee went to the Harvard University’s president to offer to pay for a chair in legal medicine — it would be the first in the United States.  Harvard accepted.  Lee lobbied and spent liberally to not only reform the coroner system but also provide education in death investigations.  She sponsored seminars on this subject that still continue.  Lee died with many honors.  Sadly, coroners still serve about half of the United Staes population in less than 30? states and many of those have no medical/scientific training.

The biography of Frances Glessner Lee is fascinating.  She brought America’s forensics into the Scientific Age.  A woman who was not college educated did much to change and help forensics to be a much more important role in unexplained deaths.
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This is a fascinating and inspiring read about the woman who contributed to the birth of forensic science and helped make it what it is today. I found the academic bits somewhat boring though and found myself skipping those pages.

The miniatures sounded so astounding that I searched the internet to see some photos. They are truly spectacular.

Thank you, Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the ARC. This is my honest review.
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"18 Tiny Deaths" is a biography of Frances Glessner Lee, but it's also about the beginnings of the medical examiner system and the teaching of forensic science to pathologists and police. The book covered the time period from around 1900 to 1962. The author talked about the origins of the corner system and the failings of that system. He then talked about Frances' life up to when George Magrath inspired her to put her money and her efforts behind promoting the medical examiner system. We learned about what he did as a medical examiner and some of the cases he worked on, especially cases that would have been misidentified without the training he had as a forensic pathologist.

While I was aware that Frances created small dioramas of crime scenes to help train police to observe a scene and identify clues, this book covered just how much influence she had on the development of forensic science in America. She used her money and influence to create a forensic pathology department at Harvard to train medical examiners, and she personally taught police the basics of forensic science.

The author used letters and other documentation to frequently quote comments people made and details of plans and arguments. While the book gave plenty of details about the making of the dioramas, I'd been hoping for more pictures of these dioramas than just those on the cover. (My review copy didn't contain pictures.) Overall, I'd recommend this biography to those interested in the beginnings of the medical examiner system and forensic science in America.
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Frances Glessner Lee is the woman we all owe for our crime procedural novels, shows, but haven't heard of. The daughter of a wealthy Chicago tycoon around the turn of the twentieth century, Lee became fascinated with medicine after a tonsillectomy as a child. As an adult, she advocated tirelessly for what we now call forensic pathology, what she called legal medicine. Lee from created and funded the first legal medicine department in the United States, at Harvard Medical School. Far from being a silent donor, she was a force that shaped the early content of the curriculum, and instituted a week-long course for police officers. Lee also helped lead a charge to replace the coroner system, with its roots in the Middle Ages and political cronyism, lobbying for a system of trained medical examiners investigating deaths. She was also appointed a captain of the New Hampshire police and was honored by a number of other state police departments. While the United States still maintains a plethora of systems for investigating suspicious or sudden deaths, Captain Lee’s work and mission was key to the adoption of the techniques contemporary procedural consumers take for granted. 

I devoured this book, and highly recommend it, particularly for fans of homicide procedurals, such as Bones. Lee is not presented as a flawless hero, but a very real woman who believed in her work with every fiber of her being, sometimes to the detriment of others around her or her own well-being. This is not a book that delves into the details of forensic pathology, it is a biography first, history of a scientific movement second. Some scientific details are mentioned, but few of even the most gory moments would feel out of place in the coziest of cozy mysteries.
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I am a crime geek - I love books on crime, I watch crime-based shows, I read cozy mysteries and regular mysteries. And I, at one time, wanted to be a criminal forensic scientist or pathologist. Alas, that was not to be as I am allergic to many of the chemicals that they use daily and there there is the whole math issue. I think that disappointment is why I really dive into books and shows about this subject - I live vicariously now through all of that.  BUT! with all that knowledge, I had NO FREAKING IDEA that a woman [and a formidable one at that] both created and developed what is now modern forensics. So when I saw this book, I jumped at it. And B O Y -howdy am I glad I did. What an amazing read and an even more amazing woman. WOW. 

This book is really for true forensic fans/geeks/lovers. It is, at times, fairly technical. And at times, it is not. Her story is really amazing and how she was treated [I am looking at you Harvard University] over the years just blows my mind, even though I know what it was like for women then [and now. You'd think things would have changed. Sigh.] I really loved every second of this book - in the discovery of how photos helped catch criminals. The conversations about H.H. Holmes [who I had learned about in Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" - a serial killer that STILL makes my blood run cold], and other conversations that I had previously read about, but had no idea that the basis of them came from Frances Lee. 

IF you truly love forensics and stories about crimes that were seemingly impossible to solve, but were eventually solved because of the amazingness of forensics, then this book is for you. We all should know about this woman, her life and her huge contribution to the invention of forensics. You will not be sorry. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks [Nonfiction] Publishing for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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When I was about half-way through this book, I was fascinated with the whole subject! But much as our hero in the book - Frances Glessner Lee - discovered, she is the only one who maintained the enthusiasm and passion to change police procedures and death investigations. I felt like as Lee beat everyone else's interest in the project she was championing to death, she did the same thing to my interest in her story. Let me back up a bit.

Frances Glessner Lee was filthy rich, but also smart and bored. She was jealous that her brother and his friends got to go to Harvard (Harvard didn't admit women to study there until 1945, when Lee was 67 years old). Instead, she raised her children and followed her interests with no regard to expenses. And she did some cool stuff, for sure. That was some of the fun part of the book. I don't want to give away the fun side-stories of some of the events that Lee ended up involved in, close to, or influenced by. They were my favorite parts to read.

Eventually, no one else was actively helping Lee further her purpose of getting the U.S. to adopt a Medical Examiner system instead of a coroner system to investigate deaths. She still had money left, though, so she kept buying her way into the story. It wasn't a terrible use of her money, but it didn't feel like a realistic option for most of the rest of the universe, right? I did love the descriptions of how she hosted the police training events at Harvard, and of course her fantastic mini-models of potential crime scenes (which I believe the author is currently in charge of).

Overall, the first half of the book was great, but then it started to feel repetitive and less-productive. While just the beginning of Lee's life story would have gotten a higher rating from me, the whole book deserved 3/5 stars in my opinion.
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This is a very detailed book about the rise of forensic medicine in America.  Starting from English Medieval Coroners, it explains how the craft developed.  It seems to be undecided whether it is an exploration of the medical examiners' role or whether it is detailing the life story of Frances Glessner Lee and her role in this.  The first quarter of the book deals with her early life, marriage and privileged upbringing.  It explains the role of the first medical examiner, Magrath, a friend of Frances' brother and how at quite a late stage in life this woman began to become interested in medical forensic science.

It is easy to write her off as a dilettante, becoming involved because she had little to fill her time.  In fact she was much more.  Unable to apply for Harvard as at this stage it did not accept women students, she became a wife and mother.  However, she was able to use her privilege and money to promote the cause of having a medical examiner who was independent from any political or financial bias.   

From here she set up a Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard, and furthered her belief that crime scenes offered many clues that were being overlooked.  She established a series of Homicide Seminars at Harvard for serving police officers, so that they could learn these skills, which she funded from her own pocket.  She also created a series of dioramas (her Nutshell Cases) to show a series of homicide scenes as teaching aids for the officers.  

She sounds an amazing lady, and my only issue with the book was that it could not decide whether to be a biography or a history of forensic medicine.  A good read, albeit only looking at the science from an American viewpoint, despite the fact that in Europe the role was not partisan and moving along much quicker.

Thank you to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for allowing me access to the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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This book was exceptionally interesting & informative, though the storyline dragged at times at I found it  difficult to follow at certain points. It also became mired in minute details which made the book seem to drag on at times. In all, I enjoyed the story of Ms. Lee's life & pursuit of forensic science, & would recommend it to others.
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