It’s October 4, 2011 – a routine Tuesday for some construction workers clearing a vacant lot in the Elmhurst district of Queens, New York. Then, suddenly, 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 morbidly memorable day.
Way back when, the Queens neighborhood of Elmhurst was originally a village called Middenburgh that had been established by Dutch settlers in 1652. Middenburgh was a suburb of New Amsterdam, as the settlement was then called. But then the British came along in 1664 and renamed the Middenburgh district New Town, which in time became Newtown.
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. And in its day the apple was highly popular – although it has since become overshadowed by modern varieties.
Newtown had a certain importance within Queens County and became a town seat in the 1680s. It was endowed with its own tax office, jail and town hall. Then later, during the mid-19th century, the settlement began to grow more quickly after the introduction of a horsecar line in 1854. And further development subsequently came when the Long Island Rail Road opened a line through the town in 1876.
In 1896 a local landowner called Cord Meyer then suggested that the district change its name to Elmhurst, which did indeed happen the following year. The new name stemmed from the elm trees that were common in the area, although it seems that there was also a desire to distance the neighborhood from the notorious Newtown Creek nearby.
But back to those unfortunate construction workers who had just unearthed something unusual in Elmhurst in 2011. The discovery was, in fact, a body, and it was dressed in a white shirt and socks that came up to the knee. What’s more, the corpse appeared so well preserved that the men’s first thought was that they’d stumbled across a recent murder victim.
So, the workers dialed 911 to report their grisly find. Speaking to the New York Post, Scott Warnasch, who was working at the time as a forensic archaeologist at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, recalled the discovery that had been made on that October day.
“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. You see, although the body was remarkably well preserved, the individual in question hadn’t died in recent years.
This was in fact the body of someone who’d been buried over 150 years ago. And what was now a vacant lot in Elmhurst at 47-11 90th Street had actually once been a burial ground in Newtown. The small cemetery had, you see, been located at the back of a church.
This place of worship was the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church – and four men bought the land on which it stood for $75 in 1828. At first, though, these men – who formed a group that became known as the United African Society – worshiped informally in an old carpenter’s shop on the plot until the church itself was built.
Fascinatingly, those four men who’d bought the land – whom we know only as Coles, Doyle, Johnson and Peterson – were all freed slaves. Elmhurst had in fact been among the earliest districts of New York State to abolish slavery. Yet on the flip side, New York itself was the first part of North America to have introduced African slaves.
It had actually been the Dutch who’d first introduced slaves into the country, with 11 Africans brought to their colony – then called New Amsterdam – in 1626. The first slave auction then took place there during the 1650s. And after the British took over the territory in 1664, renaming it New York, they only increased the number of slaves in the colony. By the early-18th century, then, more than four in ten of the city’s households held slaves.
Still, 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 purchased the parcel of land in what was then Newtown, Queens. Newtown was, then, a place where formerly enslaved African-Americans established a thriving community with its own church.
The St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church stood on its original site until 1929, when the land was sold and the church was relocated. Corona Avenue was widened around this time, too, and there was much development along both this thoroughfare and 90th Street. And even following several moves, the church still exists today – now on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, Queens.
However, the site of the burial ground itself was left alone – and it was therefore still a vacant lot when construction workers were clearing it in 2011. And there’s a story behind this too. At the time of the church’s first move in 1928, the congregation had made efforts to have the bodies in the cemetery exhumed and re-interred.
Specifically, the 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. And an 1886 estimate of the number of people buried in the St. Mark church cemetery put the total at around 300 – meaning the majority of those bodies are likely still there today in that vacant lot.
It was, then, one of those bodies – buried sometime around 1850 – whose grave had been unintentionally disturbed by the workers with their back-hoe in 2011. And as we’ve seen, the teeth of the digger had first hit something metallic – which sounded like pipe – before actually pulling the body out of the ground.
So what was the metallic object that the back-hoe had initially hit? Well, forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch gave 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.
Warnasch in fact found as many as 60 shattered fragments of iron. He was also able to identify them as having come from a coffin. And this particular casket had, according to Warnasch, been made by a company based in Providence, Rhode Island, called Fisk & Raymond, whose iron coffin design had been patented in the 1840s. As a result, the woman whose body had been accidentally disinterred was dubbed the “Iron Coffin Lady.”
These coffins 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. The items didn’t come cheap, however, selling for around $100 apiece – at a time when standard pine caskets could each be bought for a mere $2.
Nevertheless, the caskets proved to be a hit with the wealthy, and there were two reasons for this. One was that once a cadaver had been placed inside the iron coffin, it was effectively sealed there. This in turn meant that a body could be transported long distances by ship or railroad if necessary. However, there was another, slightly more sinister reason for the popularity of these caskets.
People in fact believed that these robust iron coffins would ward off grave robbers. Yet Fisk himself – originally a cast-iron stove- and boiler-maker – was inspired to invent the casket for his own personal reasons. His brother, you see, had died in 1844 in Oxford, Mississippi – far from their family’s burial plot in New York.
Fisk’s father, who was a man of the church, was especially disturbed by this turn of events. So, Fisk used his familiarity with metalwork to come up with a solution to the funereal problem of relatives dying far from home. Thus was born the airtight cast-iron coffin. And Fisk subsequently entered into partnership with his father-in-law, too – the “Raymond” in the company name.
But death was never far from the picture. After setting up an iron foundry in Long Island at Winfield Junction, Fisk died in 1850 at the age of just 32. So, his brother-in-law, William Mead Raymond, stepped in to keep the business going. The coffins themselves were each made in the shape of the human body, and each one featured a glass panel through which mourners could view the face of the deceased.
And so the fact that the body uncovered in Elmhurst was remarkably well preserved is down to it having been interred in one of Fisk’s iron coffins. But here the story takes a slightly ominous turn. Why? Because as Warnasch examined the body – which he now knew was that of a young woman – he became concerned that this amazing level of preservation might even be dangerous.
Warnasch believed, you see, that he had identified the cause of the 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.
And just as Warnasch had predicted, an autopsy on the body showed that the woman had indeed suffered from smallpox – and that the infection had spread to her brain. This was also almost certainly the cause of her premature death. But fortunately, analysis indicated that the smallpox virus was no longer a danger. The postmortem shed light on some other details too. For example, the woman’s age at the time of her death was determined by examining her bone structure, and Warnasch estimated that she had been between 25 and 35 when she’d passed away.
Meanwhile, 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. And examination of hair concluded that she’d enjoyed a balanced diet. However, Warnasch wanted to find out more about her. Could he even identify her as a particular individual?
To put a name to an anonymous person who’d died in about 1850 definitely seemed like a tall order. Yet Warnasch nonetheless set about his task with determination. And he started off with the very reasonable assumption that this woman had come from the immediate area around the old African-American burial ground.
His big breakthrough, though, came when he examined the census for Newtown that dated from 1850. And it was certainly serendipitous. The fact that this comprehensive survey of the local population even 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.
“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.
“Finding out who she was, I got goosebumps,” Warnasch admitted. He further believes that Martha Peterson worked as a domestic servant for Raymond. But this created another puzzle. How could a woman who toiled as a servant in the mid-19th century possibly have afforded one of those $100 coffins?
However, there was an answer to this enigma as well. The fact that Peterson lived in William Raymond’s house could, you see, explain why someone of humble background had been buried in such an elaborate casket. Very likely, Raymond had provided the coffin since he was a partner in the Fisk casket business. And this supposition is supported by the fact that the patent mark on the coffin is upside down – an error that might have meant this casket could not have been sold.
But, once Warnasch had pinned down the identity of the Iron Coffin Lady, there was still something that he remained curious about. What had this woman actually looked like? While it was true that Fisk’s airtight iron coffin had done an excellent job of preserving Martha Peterson’s remains, her face had, you see, nonetheless subsequently suffered badly.
Unfortunately, the 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.
So, the archaeologist called in another specialist: Joe Mullins. A forensic-imaging expert who has frequently worked on criminal and missing-children cases with the FBI, Mullins is a specialist in producing images of people to show how they might have changed as they aged.
Here, 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, he said, “The skull tells where the eyes are.”
“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. And knowing that Martha Peterson was African-American, Mullins decided to give her brown eyes and a medium skin coloring.
“I saw this woman come to life on the screen. Putting a face to history is remarkable,” the expert said. The results of his work do indeed verge on the miraculous; it’s extraordinary to see the face of a woman who died the best part of 170 years ago. And for all those years, the body had lain undisturbed in what had become a vacant lot.
After the unplanned exhumation of her body, members of the modern-day St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal held a funeral service for Martha Peterson. Then, her remains were laid to rest at the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens. Local people have a campaign underway to halt development of that vacant lot in Elmhurst, too. They want to see it preserved as a landmark site – recognizing its significance in the history of freed slaves in New York State.