How an instructor of Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Homicide School’ helped to solve the almost perfect murder

Frances Glessner Lee (25 March 1878 – 27 January 1962) is best known as the creator of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death that are miniature, detailed crime scene reconstructions of suspicious deaths. But Lee’s contribution to the modern era of forensic science is much more than just her “murder dioramas.” She helped fund and manage a crime lab and forensics curriculum at Harvard Medical School, part of which still survives today.  One of the instructors at the ‘Harvard Homicide School’ was the chief medical examiner of Maryland, who was instrumental in solving the 1952 murder that many called the ‘almost perfect murder.’

In 1939, Frances Glessner Lee donated part of the endowment to establish the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The mission of the department, nicknamed the ‘Homicide School,’ was to teach crime scene investigation methods to university students and law enforcement officers, consult with local medical examiners on cases, and conduct forensic research.  Then in 1945, Lee founded The Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS), an annual seminar that promotes research in “in scientific crime detection,” provide police with the latest developments in forensic science, and develop a more cooperative relationship between police investigators and medical examiners (Read more about the life of Frances Glessner Lee at Death and the Maiden.)

One of the instructors at Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine was Dr. Russell S. Fisher, who was the chief medical examiner of Maryland from 1949 to 1984.  He was chief M.E. when the body of 33-year-old Dorothy May Grammer was found at the scene of an apparent car accident in 1952.  But appearances can be deceiving in suspicious deaths.  The subsequent investigation would reveal a murder worthy of its own ‘Nutshell Study.’

Shortly after midnight on Wednesday, August 20, 1952, two Baltimore County police officers on patrol in Parkville, a suburb of Baltimore, observed an out-of-control Chrysler speeding downhill on Taylor Ave toward a dead end at Belair Road.  The car briefly went airborne and flipped onto its right side.  The driver, a woman in her early thirties, was already dead when the cops reached the vehicle.  Her body was lying on the passenger side with her head between her legs under the dashboard.  When the policemen lifted the woman’s body out of the car they noted a “small white object at the base of the accelerator.”

The woman was soon identified as 33-year-old Dorothy May Grammer.  Dorothy was married to her high school sweetheart, George Edward Grammer, for thirteen years.  The couple had lived in New York City with their three daughters.  Then in early 1952, Dorothy and the kids moved to Parkville to be near her parents after she found out her father was sick.  After her dad passed away, in May of that year, Dorothy stayed in the area to help out her mom.  But George continued to work in New York City during the week and commute to the Baltimore suburb on the weekend to be with his family.

A Baltimore County ambulance transported Dorothy Grammer’s body to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner the morning of August 20th. When Dr. Russell Fisher performed the post-mortem examination, he observed numerous lacerations and wounds to Dorothy’s head, arms, and hands.  He concluded that her fatal injuries were from blunt force trauma to the skull, which caused bleeding, brain contusions, and aspiration of blood.

Then Dr. Fisher and homicide investigators inspected Dorothy’s Chrysler to see if they could match any of her injuries to anything inside the car.  But they were immediately struck by the lack of damage to the outside of the vehicle.  There was no broken glass inside the car that would explain the number of lacerations.

There was also a large pool of coagulated blood on the driver’s side of the car.  Investigators discovered that the “small white object” under the accelerator was a stone that had been placed in the spring to compress it and keep the pedal in the down position.

Dr. Russell S. Fisher, 1952. Image Credit: The Evening Sun

Dr. Fisher eventually deteremined that Dorothy Grammer’s cause of death was homicide because he could find no correlation between her injuries and the supposed accident.

According to the Baltimore Sun, when Fisher was later asked about Dorothy’s cause of death, he said, “She’s got too many different lacerations on her head, she’s got injuries that took time to swell and discolor. This doesn’t happen in two or three minutes.”

George Edward Grammer, 1952. Image Credit: The Evening Sun.

The evening after Dorothy’s body was discovered, the police questioned George Edward Grammer.  He said that because he was in the Baltimore area for work that day, he decided to have dinner with his family.  His wife picked him up from the train station around 4:30pm.  They had dinner then Dorothy dropped him back off at the train station so that he could catch the 11:28pm train back to New York City.  He claimed that he caught the train and got home early the next morning, just in time for a quick nap and to change clothes before heading to the office.

The police questioned Grammer a couple more times over the next week and each time he told the same story.  But investigators did not believe him due to some discrepancies.  For example, Dorothy had glasses that she wore every time she drove and both her glasses and her purse were not recovered from the scene of the crash.

Investigators were also suspicious of his actions the morning after he returned to New York.  Although his train arrived at Penn Station in the early morning hours of August 20th, he took an hour-long subway ride to his apartment in the Bronx rather than make the fifteen-minute walk from the station to his office to deliver the important papers that were the reason for his trip to Baltimore.  Not to mention the blue gray suit he wore the day before completely disappeared from his closet.

Map of the crime scene from Taylor Avenue to Belair Road (1952). Image Credit: The Evening Sun.

Police canvassed the properties along Taylor Avenue to look for witnesses and evidence. On August 22nd, investigators found an iron pipe about twelve to fifteen inches long in an empty lot at the Maryland School for the Blind on Taylor Avenue. Dr. Fisher later said that the shape of the pipe was consistent with the pattern of injuries on Dorothy Grammer’s body.

Officers also found a witness at the school who heard a woman scream around 12:30am the morning of August 20th. The scream was followed by the sound of a horn beeping and a car speeding off.

Eventually Grammer confessed to killing his wife but he alleged that he beat her during a drunken rage and did not plan it.  Police suspected he was minimizing his responsibility in his wife’s murder.  Grammer would later claim that his confession was not voluntary.

During the trial, in October of 1952, the prosecution presented their theory of Grammer’s motive, how he committed the crime, and tried to cover it up.

The prosecution revealed Grammer started an affair with a Canadian woman in November of 1951.  The romantic relationship heated up pretty quickly, so much so that they traveled together on one of his business trips to Chicago a month before the murder.  The prosecution argued the affair was the reason Dorothy was murdered because George wanted to start a new life with his mistress.

The night of August 19th, George and Dorothy left the family home around 11:00pm so that he could catch a train back to New York City for work the next morning.  At some point the couple took a detour and ended up on the property of the Maryland School for the Blind, where the married couple got into a fight.  Around midnight, George picked up a piece of pipe, that he either brought with him or found at the scene, then beat his wife to death.  When Mrs. Grammer screamed during the bludgeoning her cries were heard by one of the school’s residents.  Dorothy likely died soon after her husband started to beat her.

George needed a way to cover up the murder so he drove out to Taylor Avenue and put his wife’s body in the driver’s seat.  Grammer started the car and put a rock in the accelerator return spring to hold the pedal down.  He put the car in gear so that it would race down the Taylor Avenue and make Dorothy’s death look like the result of a car accident.

He then caught a train to Penn Station in New York City, took a subway to his apartment, showered, and threw his blue gray suit down the incinerator chute outside of his apartment door-likely because it had blood stains from the assault.

The judge found George Edward Grammer guilty of his wife’s murder.  He was hanged on the Maryland Penitentiary gallows on June 11, 1954.

Harvard’s Department of Legal Medicine closed in 1967.  Harvard loaned Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Maryland, where Dr. Fisher was the chief medical examiner.  The Harvard Associates in Police Science Seminars (HAPS) was also transferred to the Baltimore M.E.’s office, where they continue to this day, but they are no longer associated with Harvard University.

Categories: Forensic Science

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