In the age of “CSI,” it’s hard to imagine the world of crime solving before the introduction of forensic science. These books transport readers to the birth of the innovative police work that’s still cracking cases today.
In 1932, America was gripped by the headlines coming out of rural New Jersey: 20-month-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the son of celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was stolen from his crib as his parents sat downstairs. His tiny skeleton would later be found on the side of the road, breaking hearts and inciting outrage around the world. The crime shocked the nation and created a ripple effect that echoed through history.
Though certainly the most famous kidnapping of the era, the Lindbergh case was by no means a singular event. In The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America, journalist and author David Stout recounts the bewildering rash of kidnappings that swept the United States as gangland rose to prominence and much of the country was swallowed by desperate poverty. Interweaving the Lindbergh kidnapping through narratives of lesser-known abductions from coast to coast, Stout examines this wave of crime from many angles: the lives of the abducted, the circumstances of the abductors and the state of a nation in which organized crime flourished because of people’s dire financial circumstances. This movement coincided with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and the Lindbergh case itself saw the first flickerings of psychology and forensic analysis, including fingerprinting, being used in criminal cases.
It is surprising, then, that in 1951, Hoover would turn down a visit from a grandmotherly figure who seemed particularly insistent upon gaining an audience with him. An unlikely presence in the world of criminal investigation, Frances Glessner Lee was a leader in the emerging forensic sciences and a staunch advocate for the adoption of the medical examiner system. Best known today as the creator of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dioramas depicting homicides in miniature for officers to practice their observational skills upon, Lee is the subject of Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. Born to wealth but denied a career because of her gender, Lee employed her considerable curiosity, intellect, willpower and fortune toward the burgeoning field of “legal medicine,” the application of medical sciences toward criminal investigation. The scope of what Lee accomplished in her lifetime is breathtaking, and Goldfarb has written a worthy tribute to the passionate life’s work of a deeply singular woman.