New York City Construction workers can handle job site chaos. Scaling sky-high scaffolding or trudging into the rat-infested depths of the subway system are just parts of another average workday. The gross, dirty, and sweat-inducing labor comes with the territory.
But recently, workers in Queens got something they weren’t expecting on the job. On-site, when the backhoe pulled back the earth, instead of dirt and roots the construction crew was staring down at creepy glimmer of history that went back hundreds of years.
When workers digging at a typical dig site in Queens heard the loud clank of metal connecting with metal, they stopped everything they were doing to check out what they’d struck.
Where they expected soft dirt and rocks, they found oddly clumped sheets of metal. Shifting one large sheet aside, they noticed the shape of something underneath that turned their stomachs.
Certain that they weren’t dealing more than an old rusty pipe, the construction workers quickly called the cops to report their accidental discovery, and the detectives who arrived grimly confirmed the truth.
Detectives Warren and Saez were sure: it was a human body. They’d handled their fair share of grisly crime scenes, but they’d never witnessed something quite like this. There was more going on than met the eye.
See, further inspection proved this wasn’t a crime scene. Where there should’ve been dust and bones, lay a startlingly well-preserved female corpse, carefully dressed in clothing from at least a century in the past.
Staring down at the mummified body — and with no idea what to do with it — the officers’ next call was to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, forensics division. Scott Warnasch was their guy.
Scott wasn’t in the habit of fielding calls from the homicide department. At the word mummy, he called in some colleagues. The second he saw the metal fragments his pulse quickened, “Right away I knew what they were.”
Luckily, Scott nursed a passion for the old, strange, and sometimes morbid. He recognized the metal scraps as a rare find, curiously located in the soil of Elmhurst, Queens — the remnants of an iron coffin.
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Armed with the info this person was buried in an iron coffin, Scott could pinpoint that the body had been laid to rest around 150 years previously. Wheels started turning in his mind over the identity of the woman given the unique, costly casket.
From what they could visibly observe, the deceased wore a nightgown and a muslin veil. Her hair was braided with a black horn comb placed carefully into the plaits. She was African American, and they noticed something unusual peppered her skin.
Iron Coffin Mummy
Forensic scientists know to shield bodies from weather exposure to buy themselves time from the ticking clock of decomposition. But in this case, odd markings on the skin caused them to ignore the rulebook entirely.
A sequence of dotted marks traced the skull, which hinted towards a contagious affliction — smallpox. Given the level of preservation, the forensic team felt obligated to inform the Center for Disease Control.
Retreating until the scene was contagion free, the CDC researchers took over. They assessed the scene and immediately agreed it had potential to spread.
Smallpox took more lives across the globe than any other disease. In the 20th century alone, the illness claimed between 300 and 500 million deaths. In the 19th century, New York was a hotbed for infection.
The timeline from Scott’s estimate of the 150-year-old iron coffin overlapped with the smallpox outbreaks, which suggested this poor girl was one of the many New Yorkers ravaged by the disease.
Thankfully, samples sent to the lab revealed that the disease was no longer viable. With the fear of contagion squashed, they dove into unraveling the mysterious identity of the girl in the iron coffin.
As far as the law goes, the case was closed. But Scott wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the mystery girl. Luckily, he had some scientific connections to help him piece together the puzzle.
Jerry Conlogue retired professor, mummy x-ray technician scanned the remains to compile a virtual 3D rendering. The bones gave another critical point in the right direction to find out who she was.
It turned out smallpox had indeed cut her life short. They estimated from her fully fused bones that she died between ages 25-35. Lesions, a telltale sign of the progressed infection, reached all the way into her brain cavity.
You might be guessing that an iron coffin could be the act of desperate survivors looking to ward off smallpox contamination. Nope, this funerary device was reserved for those willing to pay the high price tag.
To take your eternal slumber in one of those unique caskets, you had to be someone important. For instance, it was the choice of former First Lady Dolley Madison.
Back then, it was the only way to attempt transporting a body after death; otherwise, you were buried not far from where you took your last breath.
In fact, Almond Dunbar Fisk created them after his brother died several states from home. Soon, he patented the technology, but they never became a true mainstay.
So, how was this girl buried in this hard-to-come-by vessel? Their next course of action was to examine a body part that offers a mouthful of details — her teeth.
High levels of lead in her teeth revealed her location as an urban setting, a common consequence of the industrialization of the early 1800s. Armed with that info, they turned to public records to track her down.
Queens in 1850 was split into two towns, Flushing and Newtown. The burial site for Jane Doe was the latter, along the only street in town, Dutch Lane, next to the former site of a prominent Black church.
The Black community in Newtown was growing in the 1850s. That year marked the first census recording African Americans, despite denying them the right to vote. Researchers were hopeful that their girl would be named on the list.
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From the list, they narrowed it down to 33 names. Some mild digging into the persons listed left researchers wholly convinced that one particular individual was the girl in the iron coffin, a 26-year-old named Martha Peterson.
New York in 1850 was still transitioning from slave to free state, but Martha Peterson was free. Records indicated she lived in the home of a person with a direct connection to the ominous-looking iron coffins.
The census placed Martha as a resident of the home of William Raymond, who just so happened to be the brother-in-law and business partner of one Almond “iron coffin creator” Fisk.
In their mission to solve the case of missing identity, they’d learned about the pious close-knit African American community to which Martha had belonged.
She represented a group of people passed over and forgotten, in a time when bookkeeping and stories of the average black person were obscured.
Everyone agreed Martha deserved a proper burial, and they knew a church that would be glad to welcome her home. Since 1850, the church that Martha was buried beside moved, but not too far.
They contacted Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church and filled them in on their late congregant’s fascinating history.
Thrilled to have a window into their past, the church found Martha’s story was significant. Officials provided a mahogany coffin and held a funeral to honor her memory.
Pastor Kimberly L. Detherage explained, “It was important for us to make sure that we treated her with the very utmost respect. But most of all, we paid homage to the person that we believed that she was.”
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One last curiosity kept the researchers from fully letting Martha go. She felt like a friend at that point, so they wanted to put a face to her incredible story and share it with her community.
Taking scans of her skull, they used reconstruction software from forensic specialists to see what she would have looked like in life.
After digitally reconstructing her bones, muscles, and features, they were left looking at the face of Martha Peterson. Her visual image is an important reminder that she wasn’t just a name on the registry; she was living person in a world not so far in the past.