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18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of The Woman Who Invented Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb


I love murder. And I'm not alone. Aside from the many people who have committed it, the true crime genre is killing it (financially speaking) in books, tv, and podcasts. It's so popular SNL has a great skit about women's obsessions with "murder shows".

I love the psychology of murderers. Why do they do it? And, like so many, serial killers are the most fascinating, likely because they feel so foreign, so powerful, and are psychological gold-mines. Crimes of passion don't really do it for me--unless I'm writing them. But, I have been trying to identify why true crime has become such a draw for me. It's a rather new taste for me. I had a roommate in NYC who would spend hours in the bath tub reading true crime; I didn't get it. But at that time in my life, I was avoiding my trauma, and pretending everything was ok. Now, I'm dealing with my mental heath head on, and know that for most of us it's not ok. I think maybe true crime is a salve. It gives us perspective--there are worse things out there. Or maybe these crimes aren't worse, but we can relate to the survivors. We're not alone in our being traumatized. IDK.

I started reading true crime because our library started a true crime book club, and as research for my new book, the The Shanghaied Case of the Pretty Dead Coed. But along with so many real crimes that inspire my writing, it also brought me back to the case of my missing babysitter who disappeared in the 80s. (She was in the 8th grade and didn't fucking run away.) That crime rocked our tiny community, and though many assume she was taken by someone traveling through on I-70, I can't help but wonder if someone local got away with murder. (Someone did for thirty+ years.) And if the person who took her was known to her, maybe known to to my mother and her friends, to me, how did they get away with it?

The town I grew up in is small and was ruled by an old-boys-club that eliminated the Town Manager position (in a weak mayor government) because it was the only way they could rid themselves of the female town manager who had the audacity to do her job and not their bidding (and *gasp* not wear skirts or dresses all the time). (Yes, she was my mother.) Often true crime books and documentaries reveal inept and sometimes corrupt law enforcement. Could that be the case in my town? Did the investigators get it right in the case that inspired The Pretty Dead Coed? Should I write PDC the way law enforcement says it went, or they way these cases often go?

Solving crimes also fascinated Frances Glessner Lee and motivated her to build a system to teach law enforcement officials how to do it. And so, that brings us to Bruce Goldfarb's wonderful biography and obscure history: 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics.

Born in the Victorian era, Frances Glessner Lee lead the life she was supposed to: she got married and raised two kids. But like so many women who simply do as society tells us, she was bored, even with volunteering. Luckily for us CSI fans, she was friends with the Boston Medical Examiner and after her kids were grown helped him build a forensics science program at Harvard for law enforcement around the country. She collected books on medical forensics and science, created the largest collection in history, and made 18 miniature murder scenes for students to practice with. And all law enforcement were well trained and all murders were solved after that. The end.

Just kidding. Despite having their first murder solved by forensic science years before, Harvard eventually killed the program because police were too low-brow for them.

What I found so interesting about 18 Tiny Deaths is that the context that spurred Frances to start a school of forensic science (at a school she was not allowed to attend because she was a woman--fuck you Harvard) hasn't changed much. While CSI has lead us to believe solving crime in America is done by brilliant scientists with fabulous technology, most of America is governed by a Coroner system invented in the middle ages, where in anyone over the age of 18 and with a high school diploma can be elected or appointed (depending on the state) to the position of County Coroner. A fun aspect of the coroner system is that they can call an inquest where a jury of community members are called to decide what happened to the victim. IDK how often that happens any more, but I'm sure it still does. The point is that while CSI would have us believe if were killed someone educated in forensic science would help solve our murder, they probably won't. In fact, it's such a misconception, that it's created what lawyers call the CSI effect--when jurors expect exact perfect forensic evidence that isn't possible. (I learned so much in this book!)

In Frances's time, Coroners would sell bodies and so all sorts of corrupt things. And they still do! It was easy to get away with murder. And it still is. Only roughly half of all violent crimes are reported, and police only solve about half of those. Not counting the ones they get wrong, that means only about a quarter of all violent crimes are solved. This includes sexual assault and abuse, but those crimes are often linked to murder eventually.

Goldfarb's book is brilliant because it gives us context and part of the history as to why it's still so easy to get away with murder. And it tells the story of a lesser-known woman with tenacity and passion who pushed through the road blocks men put up for her to have a major impact on our society.


Back of the Book:

"As America ramps up efforts toward victory in World War II, Frances Glessner Lee stands at the front of a wood-paneled classroom within Harvard Medical School and addresses the young men attending her seminar on the developing field of forensic science. A grandmother without a college degree, Lee may appear better suited for a life of knitting than of investigation of unexpected death. Her colleagues and students, however, know her to be an extremely intelligent and exacting researcher and teacher―the perfect candidate, despite her gender, to push the scientific investigation of unexpected death out of the dark confines of centuries-old techniques and into the light of the modern day.

Lee's decades-long obsession with advancing the discipline of forensic science was a battle from the very beginning. In a time when many prestigious medical schools were closed to female students and young women were discouraged from entering any kind of scientific profession, Lee used her powerful social skills, family wealth, and uncompromising dedication to revolutionize a field that was usually political, often corrupt, and always deeply rooted in the primal human fear of death."