‘The Woman in the Iron Coffin’: Body ‘perfectly preserved’ for 150 years is identified

The identity of a 150-year-old body discovered in New York City in 2011 has been revealed, the New York Post reports.

On October 4, 2011, construction workers “assumed they had hit a pipe” as they took a backhoe into an excavation pit in Elmhurst, Queens, and hit iron, according to the newspaper. However, when the claws emerged, they instead brought up “a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Officials initially thought they were looking at a crime site.

“It was recorded as a crime scene,” Scott Warnasch, a New York City Office of Chief Medical forensic archaeologist at the time of the discovery, told the New York Post. “A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward.”

However, what researchers found out—that the nearly “perfectly preserved body” was that of a woman from the 1800’s—is now the subject of a documentary, “The Woman in the Iron Coffin,” which premieres Wednesday on PBS.

According to the report, the woman is believed to be Martha Peterson, who was buried in what had once been the grounds of a church founded in 1830 by “the first generation of free African-Americans.” The state of New York abolished slavery in 1927.

Peterson is believed to have worked for a local white man, William Raymond, who is thought to have been in favor of ending slavery, and made iron coffins for Fisk & Raymond—the same make of coffin that the woman’s body was discovered in.

The coffins of the now non-existent company were airtight, and made to allow corpses “to be sanitarily transported via trains and ships.”

That, according to Warnasch, would explain how well Peterson’s body was preserved. In fact, he noted that “smallpox lesions covered her body,” and wondered if the virus could have remained active because of how intricately preserved the body was.

“The body was so well preserved that I would not have been shocked if the smallpox virus had survived,” Warnasch said.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe the disease took over Peterson’s brain and “most likely killed her.”

But how did researchers identify the woman?

Apparently, chemicals were pulled from the woman’s teeth, showing “she had lived for years in the Northeast,” which led Warnasch to investigate the area in which her remains were found.
Data was also collected from the deceased woman’s hair, proving a balanced diet. Her bone structure suggested she was between 25 and 35 years old at the time of her death.

An 1850 census report in Elmhurst, previously known as Newtown, reportedly led Warnasch to 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 said.

While Peterson “may even have relatives living in New York City right now,” not much has been investigated beyond a couple generations of the woman, according to Warnasch.

“Finding out who she was, I got goosebumps,” Warnasch stated. “But Martha’s skull and face [on the left side] had been so damaged by the backhoe that I did not know what she looked like.”

Working with a forensic-imaging specialist with the FBI, Joe Mullins, the two were able to create an age-progression photo of Peterson.

“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,” Mullins told the New York Post. “I used the skull to tell me the height and angle of her ears.”

Based on the information he had on Peterson’s race, Millins then painted “brown eyes and a medium dark skin tone.”

“I saw this woman come to life on the screen,” Mullins recalled. “Putting a face to history is remarkable.”

[Feature photo: Andy Scott/Wikimedia Commons]