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A 160 Year Old Coffin Was Found Beneath New York In 2011. Now The Body Has Finally Been Identified

Image: Joe Mullin via New York Post
It’s October 4, 2011, a routine Tuesday for the construction workers clearing a vacant lot in the Elmhurst district of Queens, New York. The back-hoe operator hits something solid. It sounds like iron, probably a pipe. But as the driver raises the arm of his machine, this humdrum Tuesday is transformed into a horribly memorable day.
Image: Joan Blaeu
Going back in time, the Queens neighborhood of Elmhurst was originally a village called Middenburgh established by Dutch settlers in 1652. Middenburgh was a suburb of New Amsterdam as the settlement was then called. But the British came along in 1664 and renamed the Middenburgh district New Town, which in time became Newtown.
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Image: Leslie Seaton
One contribution that Newtown made to America was an apple, the Newtown Pippin. The fruit is said to have grown from a random seedling sometime around 1700 on land owned by an Englishman called Gershom Moore. In its day it was highly popular, although the apple is now grown only in limited quantities.
Image: Johannes Vingboons
Newtown had a certain importance within Queens County and became a town seat in the 1680s. It was subsequently endowed with its own tax office, jail and town hall. Newtown began to grow more quickly in the mid 19th century after the introduction of a horsecar line in 1854. Further development came when the Long Island Rail Road opened a line through the town in 1876.
Image: Google Maps
In 1896 a local landowner called Cord Meyer suggested that the district change its name to Elmhurst, which did indeed happen the following year. The new name came from the elm trees that were common in the area. It seems there was also a desire to distance the neighborhood from the notorious Newtown Creek.
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Image: John Wozniak via Iron Coffin Mummy
But back to those unfortunate construction workers who had just unearthed a corpse in Elmhurst in 2011. The body was dressed in a white shirt and socks that came up to the knee. The men’s first thought when they saw the corpse was that they’d stumbled across a murder victim.
Image: Cezary Piwowarski
So the workers dialed 911 to report their grisly find. Speaking to the New York Post Scott Warnasch, working at the time as a forensic archaeologist at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, recalled the discovery on that October day.
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Image: YouTube/PBS
“It was recorded as a crime scene. A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward,” Warnasch told the newspaper. But it wasn’t a crime at all. Although the body was remarkably well preserved, the individual in question hadn’t died in recent years.

Image: Facebook/Corona East Elmhurst Historic Preservation Society, Inc
This was actually the body of someone who’d been buried over 150 years ago. What was now a vacant lot in Elmhurst at 47-11 90th Street had in fact once been a burial ground in Newtown. The small cemetery had been at the back of a church.
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Image: YouTube/PBS
This place of worship was the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. Four men had bought the land it stood on for $75 in 1828. At first, they built a carpenter’s shop on the plot. This became the home of the United African Society and served a dual purpose as an informal place of worship until the church was built.

Image: Mathew Brady
Those four men who bought the land, whom we know only as Coles, Doyle, Johnson and Peterson, were all freed slaves. Elmhurst had been among the earliest districts of New York State to abolish slavery. However, New York itself was the first part of North America to have introduced African slaves.
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Image: Howard Pyle
It had been the Dutch who had first introduced slaves, with 11 Africans brought to their colony, then called New Amsterdam, in 1626. The first slave auction was held during the 1650s. And after the British took over the territory in 1664, renaming it New York, they increased the number of slaves in the colony. By the early 19th century, four in ten of the city’s households held slaves.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
But after a long struggle, slavery was finally abolished throughout New York State in 1827. And as we’ve seen, it was a year later when those four freed slaves bought the parcel of land in what was then Newtown, Queens. And Newtown was a place where formerly enslaved African Americans established a thriving community with its own church.
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Image: Facebook/St Mark AME Church
The St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church stood on its original site until 1928, when the land was sold and the church was demolished. Corona Avenue was widened around this time, and there was much development along both this road and 90th Street. After several moves, the church still exists today, now on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Image: S. Lampkin, U.S. Air Force
But the site of the burial ground was left alone and was still a vacant lot when construction workers were clearing it in 2011. At the time of the first move in 1928, the church’s congregation made efforts to have the bodies in the cemetery exhumed and re-interred.
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Image: via The Indelible Clearing
Church members put in a request to the local authorities to have the deceased reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Maspeth district of Queens. In the end, though, only some 20 bodies were re-interred at Mount Olivet. An 1886 estimate of the number of people buried in the St. Mark church cemetery put the total at around 300. The majority of those bodies are likely still there today in that vacant lot.
Image: hpgruesen
And it was one of those who had been buried, sometime around 1850, whose grave had been unintentionally disturbed by the workers with their back-hoe in 2011. As we saw, the teeth of the digger had first hit something metallic before actually pulling the body out of the ground.
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Image: YouTube/PBS
So what was the metallic object that the back-hoe initially hit? The forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch had an indication early on in his investigations. “I came across metal fragments that are pretty distinctive. Right away, I knew what they were,” Scott recalled.

Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy
Warnasch found as many as 60 shattered fragments of iron. And he was able to identify them as coming from an iron coffin. This particular casket had been made by a company based in Providence, Rhode Island, called Fisk & Raymond. Almond Dunbar Fisk had patented his iron coffin design in the 1840s. So now the woman whose body had been accidentally disinterred was dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady.”
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Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy
The coffin had first been introduced to the public in 1849 at two exhibitions in New York: the American Institute Exhibition and the State Agricultural Society Fair in Syracuse. These coffins didn’t come cheap, however. They sold for around $100 at a time when a standard pine casket could be had for a mere $2.

Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy
Nevertheless, they were a hit with the wealthy, and there were two reasons for this. One was that the cadaver was effectively sealed in the iron coffin, preventing decay. This meant that a body could be transported long distances by ship or railroad if necessary.
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Image: via Iron Coffin Mummy
The second reason was that people believed that these robust coffins would ward off grave robbers. In fact Fisk, originally a cast-iron stove and boiler maker, was inspired to invent his casket for personal family reasons. His own brother died in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1844, far from his family’s burial plot in New York.

Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
Fisk’s father, who was a man of the church, was especially disturbed by this turn of events. As a result, his son was inspired to use his familiarity with metalwork to come up with an answer to the problem of relatives dying far from home. Thus was born the airtight cast-iron coffin. These caskets became a success with the rich, and Fisk when into partnership with his father-in-law, the Raymond in the company name.
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Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
Fisk set up an iron foundry in Long island at Winfield Junction but died in 1850 at the age of just 32. However, his brother-in-law, William Mead Raymond, stepped in to keep the business going. The coffins themselves were made in the shape of the human body and featured a glass panel through which mourners could view the face of the deceased.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
So the fact that this body uncovered in Elmhurst was remarkably well preserved was down to it having been interred in one of Fisk’s iron coffins. And Warnasch, who was now examining the body, was concerned that this amazing level of preservation might even be dangerous.
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Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
That was because Warnasch believed he had identified the cause of what he now knew to be a young woman’s death. Her body had clearly preserved lesions, the type of sores that are a telltale sign of smallpox. “The body was so well preserved that I would not have been shocked if the smallpox virus had survived,” Warnasch told the New York Post.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
Indeed, an autopsy of the body showed that the woman had suffered from smallpox, and the infection had spread to her brain. This was almost certainly the cause of her premature death. Fortunately, analysis indicated that the smallpox virus was no longer a danger. Her age at the time of death was determined by examining her bone structure, and Warnasch estimated she was between 25 and 35 when she passed away.
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Further research by a geo-chemist on the woman’s teeth showed that she had spent many years residing in the northeast of the U.S. Moreover, examination of hair showed that she’d enjoyed a balanced diet. But Warnasch wanted to find out more about her. Could he perhaps identify her as a particular individual?
Image: via YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
To put a name to this anonymous person who’d died in about 1850 seemed like a tall order indeed. But Warnasch nonetheless set about his task with determination. He started off with the very reasonable assumption that this woman had come from the immediate area around the old African-American burial ground.
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Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
And his big breakthrough came when he examined the census for Newtown that dated from 1850. That this comprehensive survey of the local population existed was, to say the least, a lucky break. “It was the first to list everyone in the population by name, age, sex and race,” Warnasch pointed out.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
“Only 33 individuals fit her criteria,” he added. And one of them fitted the bill better than any other. This was an African-American woman called Martha Peterson. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” Warnasch explained.
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“Finding out who she was, I got goosebumps,” Warnasch admitted. And he further believes that Martha Peterson worked as a domestic servant for Raymond. This created a puzzle. How could a woman who worked as a servant in the mid 19th century possibly afford one of these $100 coffins?

Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
But there was an answer to that enigma as well. The fact that Peterson lived in William Raymond’s house could certainly explain why someone of humble background was buried in such an elaborate casket. Very likely, Raymond provided the coffin since he was a partner in the Fisk casket business. This supposition is supported by the fact that the patent mark on the coffin is upside down, an error that might have meant that this casket could not be sold.
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Once Warnasch had pinned down the identity of the Iron Coffin Lady, there was still something that he was curious about. What had this woman actually looked like.? It was true that Fisk’s airtight iron coffin had done an excellent job of preserving Martha Peterson’s remains, but her face had nonetheless suffered badly.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
Unfortunately, her head had been knocked about and damaged when the back-hoe had hit the coffin. “Martha’s skull and face [on the left side] had been so damaged by the back-hoe that I did not know what she looked like,” Warnasch told the Post.
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Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
So the archaeologist now called in another specialist. Joe Mullins is a forensic-imaging expert who has frequently worked on criminal and missing-children cases with the FBI. He’s a specialist in producing images of people to show how they will have changed as they age.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
Mullins had a CT scan to work from, and he concentrated his efforts on the right-hand side of Peterson’s face, as it was the left that had sustained the greatest damage. Describing his technique to the New York Post Mullins said, “The skull tells where the eyes are.”
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“The width of the nose comes from the shape of the nasal aperture; lip thickness is based on teeth enamel. I used the skull to tell me the height and angle of her ears,” Mullins continued. Knowing that Martha Peterson was African-American, Mullins decided to give her brown eyes and a medium skin coloring.
Image: YouTube/C’mon Dude Productions
“I saw this woman come to life on the screen. Putting a face to history is remarkable,” Mullins said. And the results of his work verge on the miraculous. It’s an extraordinary experience to see the face of this woman who died the best part of 170 years ago. And for all those years, she lay undisturbed in what became a vacant lot.
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After the unplanned exhumation of her body, members of the modern-day St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal held a funeral service for Martha Peterson. Her remains were laid to rest at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens. And local people have a campaign underway to halt development of that vacant lot in Elmhurst. They want to see it preserved as a landmark site, recognizing its significance in the history of freed slaves in New York State.

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