When construction workers accidentally unearthed the corpse of a young African-American woman in Queens seven years ago, her body was so well-preserved, police thought she’d recently been murdered.
But further examination of the mysterious remains revealed something far stranger than anyone could of imagined.
Broken pieces of metal sprinkled near the construction equipment were discovered to be fragments of an elaborately decorated and costly iron coffin. Designed to fit to the woman’s form, the airtight environment had preserved the body in extroadinary condition, which is why officers first believed she was recently deceased.
Iron coffins were popular for only a brief time in the 19th century. This, along with the style of clothes she was buried in, allowed experts to date her death to the mid 1800s. Still, this discovery led to further questions, such as who was she? And why was she buried in such an unconventional fashion?
Well, the identity of the woman has now been revealed, thanks to a new documentary The Woman in the Iron Coffin. Forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch, who in 2011 was working for the New York City Chief Medical Examiner, was called to the scene to document the uncovered remains. He instantly recognised the iron pieces as fragments of a coffin, as he’d come across similar piece in an excavation in New Jersey a few years prior.
“I’ve been obsessed with these iron coffins since 2005, when two were found under the Prudential Center in Newark,” Warnasch said. “I told the crew, ‘This is historical, this isn’t a crime scene.'”
The coffin had been unearthed after a backhoe broke it open, dragged the corpse, and hid it under a pile of dirt. As Warnasch and his team shifted the dirt, they realised that the body was that of an African-American female, dressed in what appeared to be a 19th century nightgown, with a knitted cap and knee socks.
However, this wasn’t all that caught Warnasch’s attention. The woman’s skin was so well-preserved, he was able to recognise small pox lesions on her forehead and chest. Therefore, work on the body was temporarily suspended while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention checked that the disease was no longer a threat.
When work could begin again, MRI and CT scans allowed scientists to inspect the corpse non-invasively. This led to a biological profile of the woman, which revealed she was 5ft 2 and 25 to 30 years old.
Further investigation revealed that the area she was discovered had once been an African-American church and cemetary, which was founded in 1828 by New York’s first generation of free black people. A look into local census records revealed that the body probably belonged to a woman named Martha Peterson, a NYC resident and daughter of John and Jane Peterson. She was 26-years-old when she passed away, and despite being highly infectious, her body was painstakingly prepared for burial. Warnasch says this gives us a peak into the tight, emancipated community that she was a part of.
“Despite the fact that she was contagious with smallpox, they still cleaned her body, dressed it, did her hair — even though this was a potentially life-threatening disease,” he explained.
As for her container, iron coffins were produced for less than a decade, but were designed to better preserve the bodies of loved ones. Patented by stove-maker Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, they were created to be form-fitting and impenetrable, and according to Wanasch, were favoured by the political elite in Washington DC.
“In 1849, Dolley Madison — the former first lady — used one of these for her funeral, and that put Fisk on the map,” he said.
But how did Martha, a young African-American woman, end up in an iron coffin? As it turns out, iron coffins were also perfect for quarantining bodies with a contagious illness. Using an airtight coffin to bury someone with small pox would allow for a proper funeral, as well as preservation.
“She looked like she had been dead for a week, but it was 160 years,” he said.
The Woman in the Iron Coffin is available to stream on the PBS website and app now.