Discovery of 150-year-old iron coffin sheds light on forgotten part of history
Construction workers were working hard into the night when they heard their equipment hit something hard and loud. When inspecting the noise more closely, they thought they had found something straight out of a horror movie: the mummified remains of a woman’s body. Still dressed in a nightgown and thick stockings, construction workers assumed it was the scene of a gruesome crime. But that wasn’t quite the case. Forensic archaeologists uncovered the truth behind the woman unearthed in Queens, New York, who she was, and how she got there, and it formed the basis for the PBS documentary, “The Woman in the Iron Coffin.”
1. There’s something under here
The whine of heavy machinery punctured the backdrop in Queens, New York. Men in hard hats dug deep and worked hard near a railroad. As they sunk their industrial shovels into the ground, a startling crunch of metal beneath the layer of earth caught their ears. The men signaled the machinery to a halt.
At first, they thought they had hit a pipe. Workers approached the area to investigate. They sifted away bits of dirt and realized they found something that didn’t belong. There were chunks of metal scattered around the trench, but that wasn’t the only thing they found. When they realized what they had on their hands, it sent chills up their spines.
2. It looked like a homicide
Under the layer of cold, autumn soil, what they initially thought was a pipe turned out to be large chunks of metal. As they mentally assembled the metal chunks together, they grew wary. Under some shrapnel of metal, they could see the outlines and fragments of a body.
It looked like it was still undergoing decomposition and decay. Though tattered and torn, there were clothes still wrapped around the body. The construction workers at the scene all stepped away from the discovery, afraid of disturbing what they believed was a crime scene. They alerted authorities and soon, New York’s homicide unit was on the scene.
3. They found metal around the human remains
When police officers arrived at the scene, they followed standard protocol for investigating a homicide. Among them were detectives Warren and Saenz, the two first responders. Because of the timing of the discovery, by the time they got there, it was dark. Street lights burned a copper-colored glow near the main street.
The detectives could barely see with their flashlights, but when they looked at the site in question, they were stumped. They looked at each other with confusion etched on their faces. When they recovered the body, they realized two things: one, the body was female and very well preserved, and two, she was surrounded by remnants of what looked like an iron coffin.
4. She was older than she appeared
Well preserved might actually be an understatement. In fact, the body was mummified, so much so that her burial clothes were in near-perfect condition. She was wearing a white nightgown and had a black horn comb tucked in her hair that set a light muslin veil behind her. Her hair was long and braided. Even the pigmentation of her skin was visible.
The woman they had found was African American and buried in an iron coffin. When detectives concluded that that they might be dealing with something outside of their purview, they sought out the help of experts. They called in a forensic archaeologist.
5. He took one look at the metal and instantly knew what it was
With a penchant for the old and strange, forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch took an interest in the mummified remains found in Queens. That day, he never anticipated that he would get a call from New York’s homicide department. Warnasch rounded up a team and headed out to the area.
When they arrived, they were surrounded by police officers and yellow caution tape. They approached the body, and Warnasch slowly worked around the remains. When he saw the metal fragments surrounding the woman, he didn’t have to pick up the pieces to know what he was dealing with. If it were anyone other than Warnasch, it would have taken longer to determine the significance of the metal pieces.
6. The iron was over 150 years old
Indeed, it was the fragments of metal that clued Warnasch in to the fact that this death had occurred a while ago — a century ago. The woman they had unearthed was more than 150 years old. The homicide investigation was closed, but a historical inquiry opened up. Archaeologists had a field day (get it?) and soon, it was no longer in the hands of the law, but of historians and archaeologists.
Typically, forensic protocol calls for keeping most of the sensitive parts of the body covered until the last minute. That way, sun exposure and other weather-related factors don’t accelerate decomposition. However, something alarming was visible to the naked eye while excavating the remains.
7. They discovered something dangerous
Pushing away the loose dirt, the forensic team found lesions all over her body. They weren’t open wounds, but rather, a pattern that dotted her skull, her chest, and all the way to her feet. It looked like smallpox. The investigation again took a turn, as they were now dealing with a highly contagious disease.
Because the body was so well preserved, the smallpox was clearly visible on her skin. There were three things that needed to be done right away: take extra safety precautions, inform the morgue what they’d be dealing with, and call the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
8. They took samples of the body to see if the disease was viable
Medical researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived on the scene to collect samples of the woman’s infected skin. At first, researchers didn’t see the urgency of the situation. Believing the remains were in a deeper state of decomposition, they figured the disease was most likely dead by now.
But when they actually saw the body, they quickly realized the situation was more serious than they initially thought. They handled the body with extreme caution, especially because the symptoms of the disease were visible. Despite the danger, the team knew what to do. They took skin samples of the mummified remains, and sent these to the lab for testing.
9. Smallpox, the epidemic
A contagion risk, smallpox was once one of the most dangerous diseases in the world. Smallpox is believed to have killed more people in human history than any other virus. It could go airborne and be transmitted through sneezing and coughing. Its transmission rate was roughly 60%, which was higher than Ebola during the 19th century.
In dense populations, the disease wreaked havoc. Nineteenth-century New York was an optimal breeding ground for the contagion. Due to poor sanitation systems and densely packed living quarters, those who lived in poverty were at an especially high risk. Our mystery mummy was one of those unfortunate souls who had contracted the disease.
10. The results were negative
The room held its breath as CDC analysts checked the results. There was a collective exhale when the results returned: The disease was not viable. Researchers and forensic analysts could continue their research with the remains safely. Though Warnasch’s job was over, he was still curious about the woman buried in the iron coffin.
Who was she, and why was she buried in a coffin made of iron? He wanted to know much more than how she died. His curiosity about the woman in the iron coffin tugged at him. He wanted to figure out the identity of this woman and learn her story. Warnasch turned to science.
11. They consulted the ‘mummy man’
There are a handful of people in the world who could comfortably categorize themselves as “mummy men.” One of the people who can say they are is retired professor Jerry Conlogue. Conlogue specializes in X-raying mummies. His research is able to ascertain history through the bones of the deceased. Once he obtains the necessary information, Conlogue can also make educated assumptions about how the deceased lived.
In doing so, Conlogue makes it possible to glimpse into the past. Conlogue’s not-so-secret weapon in his craft is computers. Specifically, 3D imaging. Thanks to computers, Conlogue could unlock the secrets of the mummified woman without having to touch her. He X-rayed the skeleton and uploaded the information on his computer. From that, he was able to determine some things about the mysterious woman.
12. They conducted a virtual autopsy
With 3D imaging, analysts could peel back the layers of the female’s remains. By doing so, they could see not just the skeleton, but also her internal organs. Her bones revealed the woman had a lot of strain on her lower back — likely the result of early-onset arthritis. The team deduced that the woman likely worked a labor-intensive job that required her to bend over a lot.
Because her bones were fully fused, analysts confidently assumed the woman was an adult and had died at a relatively young age. They estimated that the woman in question was between 25-35 years old, but probably no older than 30 years. Those weren’t the only things they found out about the woman in the iron coffin.
13. The lesions were more than skin-deep
Researchers also confirmed that the cause of the woman’s death was indeed smallpox. Upon further investigation, they determined the contagion was blistering. When smallpox blisters and opens, it leaves permanent scarring. That signified that the woman had endured a high fever and most likely entered a comatose state before her death.
The smallpox on her body was so severe that the lesions on her head penetrated her skull and reached the thin membrane around her brain cavity. They knew, with 100% certainty, that it was the pox that killed her. However, the question of her identity remained, as well as why she had been buried in an iron coffin.
14. Dolley Madison was buried in an iron coffin
Ten bucks says you didn’t know former first lady, Dolley Madison, was buried in said iron coffin. They were manufactured by Almond Dunbar Fisk (imagine someone being named Almond). Fisk was originally a stove manufacturer out of lower Manhattan in 1844.
When his brother William Fisk passed away in Mississippi, Almond decided to do something revolutionary. At the time, where people died was the place they were most likely to be buried. To be transported from one state to another was logistically difficult, especially over long distances. The Fisk family was mourning, which prompted Almond Fisk to create something unusual.
15. Almond Fisk designed the iron coffin for transportation
Fisk bought a barn and created a foundry for his iron coffins. In 1848, he was granted a patent for his creation. Iron coffins were a means to transport a deceased loved one before the invention of modern embalming. The coffin was an airtight casket with a logo at the head and the name of the manufacturer and the year in the center.
The face of the coffin had a porthole that could swivel open and allowed for loved ones to see the deceased behind a glass window. Once the viewing was over, the window was closed and bolted, and the coffin was sent to wherever it needed to be sent. But iron was expensive, and a whole coffin made of it didn’t come cheap.
16. The coffins were not cheap
Iron coffins were an effective way to both preserve and transport bodies. However, they often had a high price tag. As such, they were most commonly bought by members of high society, including first lady Dolley Madison. It was rare that a member of the working class would be able to make such a purchase.
So how did this working-class woman end up in a coffin usually only accessible to the wealthy? The answer lied in a usually unknown part of history. Before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many Northeastern states were still slave states, including New York. However, in 1799, New York passed a new law that would change everything.
17. New York passed the Gradual Emancipation Act
The Act for the Gradual Emancipation of Slavery was passed in 1799. It declared that any slave born after July 4, 1799, was free, while those born before July 4, 1799, were to remain slaves. It wasn’t until 1817 that a new law passed, freeing all slaves in the state. Even so, it wasn’t officially enacted until 1827.
Was the iron woman once a slave, brought to New York in the pursuit of freedom? How can we tell? Once again, we turn to scientists to peer into what was most likely a tumultuous life for the lady. To get more answers, scientists examined something that had a lot of answers: her teeth.
18. Was the lady in the iron coffin racing toward freedom?
Our mystery lady was born somewhere in the early 1800s, this much is true. How do we know? Fisk’s coffins were manufactured between 1848-50, and looking at the bones, the woman in question couldn’t have been older than her early 30s. The math places our mummy in the earlier part of the 19th century.
The next question was where she was born? Her teeth gave the best answer. Teeth absorb the chemicals in the water we drink, and by analyzing the chemicals found in her molars, researchers were able to determine where in the U.S. the woman in the iron coffin had lived during her life. The results were positive.
19. She was a true New Yorker
The chemicals found in her teeth matched the same chemical composition found in the water in the Northeast during the 19th century. The amount of lead found was higher than predicted, and those levels would most likely occur in urban settings, specifically in New York, while industrialization was at its peak.
What she ate and drank was a reflection of how an average New Yorker lived. From a strand of her hair, scientists were able to determine where she might have lived and even what her diet consisted of. Where she was and what she did in her day to day were integral parts of her identity. So, what did this discovery tell us about life in New York in the 1800s?
20. We’re not in Dutchland anymore
Queens has changed a lot since the mid-19th century, to say the least. Official city records reveal that Queens was made up of several towns — two of which were Flushing and Newtown, the location where the iron coffin was discovered. It was a small place: a one-street town with nothing beyond.
As it turned out, the area where she was discovered used to be the site of an African American church, on what used to be called Dutch Lane. Once a primarily Dutch community, the land was later sold to an African American community. It was a stable community that shared religion, politics, and social communion. The iron lady likely was a member of this community.
21. They found a census report
After they bought it from the Dutch, the community organized the funds to build a communal place of worship and a plot for a cemetery. They also set up a fellowship aimed at providing support to community members in need.
However, record keeping at the time was, at best, spotty. Until 1850, there was no census that logged the African American population — they did not yet have the right to vote. But researchers got lucky and discovered something truly serendipitous in the case of the lady in the iron coffin. They found a name in a census that could have belonged to the woman.
22. Her identity was found
The 1850 New York census was the first to include African Americans. There, researchers found a name that might very well belong to the lady in the iron coffin. Thirty-three candidates were chosen as potentials, but one stuck out to investigators: Martha Peterson. Martha Peterson was 26 years old in 1850, and lived with a man named William Raymond.
William Raymond was iron coffin creator Almond Fisk’s brother-in-law, neighbor, and partner. Martha Peterson was the daughter of prominent members of Queens’ African American community — the same community where the mummified remains were found. Was the body in question that of Martha Peterson?
23. Their profiles matched almost perfectly
The fact that Martha was living with Raymond (the coffin maker’s brother-in-law) was significant because, as mentioned earlier, the cost of the iron coffins was prohibitively expensive. As investigators dug a little deeper, they found that Martha was part of a small-town African American community that was well respected and pious.
Like her community, Peterson must have been well loved and respected, evident in what she wore and how she was laid to rest. Investigators now had a name and reason. Many would have closed the case after discovering Peterson’s identity. But investigators took things one step further. With her name revealed, it was time to give her a face. More science ensued.
24. Science helped reconstruct her face
A forensic specialist uses facial reconstruction software to put a face to the deceased. Their job is to help law enforcement identify victims that have no identity. Using a computer via CT scan, the reconstructionist looks at the skull to ascertain details about what the person’s facials features were like.
The skull helps the specialist determine facial features, including the shape of their eyes, nose, and mouth, all of which are pieces of the facial puzzle. Because the iron lady was damaged upon her discovery, the first step was to repair the damage to the skull. Never having to touch the remains, specialists were able to reconstruct the skull using digital programs.
25. The face was like a puzzle
Once completed, the specialist added the muscles in her face. To build up those features, they sourced a database of skin tones, noses, and eye shapes. Everything came together as a unified image, and soon, forensic artists were looking at a very lifelike face for Martha Peterson. It was all made possible by technology.
She was no longer the anonymous lady in the iron coffin; she now had a name and an identity. With that, investigators had an intimate connection to the person she once was and could have been. She was no longer an idea or a figure of the past. Now, she was an individual who, like everyone else, was living her life day by day until her untimely death.
26. They gave her a proper burial
The mystery was solved. There was only one thing left to do, and that was to lay Martha to rest. But it wouldn’t be done unceremoniously. Though the African American church had moved from its original location where the body was discovered in 1929, the community still exists today. The members of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church were contacted.
Upon hearing of the discovery of Martha Peterson, the church was in a buzz of excitement. To the community, it was more than just identifying a mystery woman from 150 years prior. It was a connection to an important part of their past.
27. A darker side to history
For many African Americans, life during the 19th century was lost to a lack of education, documentation, and literacy. To find Martha Peterson was to find a piece of their own history that was not well documented. What makes Peterson so significant to her community is that she represented an entire population of people.
She wasn’t a Harriet Tubman or a Sojourner Truth, but a woman with an ordinary life. That was what many in the Queens community could connect with her on. She represented the early struggles, triumphs, and mundane lifestyle realized by those living during this transitional point in history.
28. Martha Peterson represented everyday people
When the congregation of Saint Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church received Peterson, they treated her like someone who was recently deceased. They took her body to a funeral home, where she was placed in a new mahogany coffin, and received a proper funeral. “The woman found represents us,” said Pastor Kimberly L. Detherage.
“She was found in our African American burial ground, and because of that, she is a member of our congregation. And as a member of our congregation, it was important for us to make sure that we treated her with the very, utmost respect, that her life and her body was not treated disrespectfully. But most of all, we paid homage to the person that we believed that she was.”
29. She was more than just an exhumed body
What Martha Peterson looked like was more than a superficial visualization of a woman who died. It gave a face to how she lived alongside her community. She represented the everyday minority struggle during a time when Americans were pleading for citizenship and the right to vote, and living in poverty.
Many didn’t just wear the physical and mental manacles of slavery, but wore the manacles of history. What we know about that experience in history is found in rare autobiographies of the past, such as that of Solomon Northup, a free man who was taken into what would be 12 years of slavery (the basis for the Oscar-sweeping film). Finding Martha Peterson was much more intimate.
30. Martha is a reminder to keep the past close
Martha Peterson is physical evidence of time too close to forget. It’s rewarding to shed light on the African American community and their contribution to New York in the 19th century, though it is hidden and unknown. Although there are no writings about her life, Martha Peterson’s remains wrote that story for her.
She stands to remind many of the past, for them to carry as they usher into the future. It’s important to know the history, because it can be a useful tool in contextualizing the present and informing the future. As long as there are bones, it’s impossible to erase history.