19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case

Trista - May 7, 2019

In 2011, construction workers in Queens, New York made a horrifying discovery. A backhoe hit unexpected metal, which drew the attention of the workers. When they went to investigate, they found shredded metal and mummified human remains. Fearing they’d discovered the site of a homicide, the workers alerted the police about their gruesome find. The truth that was uncovered through extensive scientific research shed light on a largely forgotten part of America’s history. The Woman In the Iron Coffin ended up educating people through a documentary that followed the trail of her life, as reconstructed by historians and scientists.

 

30. Workers Hit a Snag

Workers using a backhoe at a construction site in Queens, New York in 2011 felt the machine hit metal unexpectedly. Fearing that they had struck a water or gas pipe, they immediately called a halt to investigate the snag. What they found was far more surprising than a mislaid pipe. In the excavation site was what appeared to be old iron, ripped apart by the digging of the backhoe. Upon closer inspection, they also realized a mummified body was present.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Mummified remains in a museum. Wikimedia.

29. They Find a Body

As the construction workers surveyed the scene, they saw more and more pieces of old-looking iron. As they tried to piece the shapes together in their mind, they were horrified to realize a body-like shape was under the dirt and fragments of metal. As they dug down, they realized the body was still in tatters of clothing and seemed to be in an active state of decay, rather than just old bones. Fearing that they had discovered something sinister, they alerted the authorities.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Crime scene tape. Amazon.

28. Murder and Metal

As many of us would, the construction workers immediately suspected that they had discovered the scene of a homicide. Why else would all that metal surround a still decomposing body in a random construction site? The authorities arrived later the same day and began their investigation. Using flashlights, they surveyed the scene and realized the body was a woman’s and it appeared she had been buried in some metallic coffin. However, who was she, and how did she come to be buried here?

 

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
An Egyptian mummy. Wikimedia.

27. The Mummy

The body was removed to a morgue for investigation. It turns the body was incredibly well preserved, being basically mummified. Her clothing was still mostly intact, and her hair was braided with a black comb in the back. The pigment of her skin was still visible, leading the police to identify her as a black woman quickly. From the scraps of metal, they were able to determine she’d been buried in an iron coffin. However, why, and by whom?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Scott Warnasch and an iron coffin. Iron Coffin Mummy.

26. A Fortunate Expert

Realizing that they did not have the expertise for such a bizarre case, the Queens police called in a forensics expert. Luckily for the police, they were able to reach forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch who specializes in old burial practices. Warnasch was the perfect expert for the case, as he recognized the type and age of the metal immediately and was able to confirm that this woman had been buried in an iron coffin at least 150 years ago. If not for his expertise, the iron may have stumped police for far longer.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A 19th Century European coffin. Flickr.

25. Old Iron

The age of the iron itself gave Warnasch his first clue. It was quite old. Having studied iron coffins, he knew the age of the metal made it very likely that this woman was buried during the heydey of high society iron coffins. However, how did a black woman come to be laid to rest in such a device? The forensic scientists, historians, and archaeologists also soon made a grisly discovery: her remains seemed to harbor a terrifying ancient disease.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
An electron micrograph image of Smallpox.

24. An Ancient Disease Looms

Smallpox. Ever since its eradication in the 1970s, few diseases inspire as much fear when discussed as a resurgent disease or weapon of bioterrorism. As forensic scientists examined the mummified remains of the mystery woman, they began to notice lesions all over her body. Her body was so well preserved that smallpox lesions could be seen from her head to her feet. Did the high level of preservation of her body preserve the infectious nature of smallpox as well?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Wikimedia.

23. The CDC Gets Involved

Fearing the worst, the researchers sought the help of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Upon hearing the request, the CDC was initially unconcerned because they assumed the body was in an advanced state of decay which would render the virus inactive. However, when CDC workers arrived and saw the state of the body they were immediately alarmed. They sent samples of the mummified woman’s skin to the CDC headquarters for testing.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A US Smallpox quarantine sign. Wikimedia.

22. Killer Smallpox

The fear of forensic scientists and the CDC is indeed understandable. Before its eradication, Smallpox was an incredibly infectious and deadly disease, causing numerous epidemics. Smallpox has likely killed more humans throughout history than any other single infectious agent, including the Black Death. In highly dense urban areas, like 19th century Queens, Smallpox tended to wreak havoc and infect many of the city’s poorest residents. The mummy appears to have been one of those victims

 

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
An Illinois man with Smallpox in 1912. Wikimedia.

21. A Narrow Escape

Thankfully, the CDC was able to determine that the mummy was safe quickly. The Smallpox in her remains was not viable. The virus was dead and could not cause any further infection. Given that the world’s population is now mostly unvaccinated due to the virus’ eradication, it would have been a tremendous public health disaster if the disease saw any resurgence. The mysterious woman’s mummy was now deemed safe for further research. Warnasch and others were now free to try to put together the pieces of her life.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Jerry Conlogue. Quinnipiac University.

20. Mummy Men

In yet another case of great fortune surrounding this case, Warnasch new one of the few men in the world who could be described as a “mummy man.” Retired Professor Jerry Conlogue was an expert on conducting forensic research on mummies, including X-Raying the remains to determine facts about their lives. He was also able to use 3D imaging to reconstruct elements of mummies’ lives. What would he be able to learn about this mysterious smallpox victim?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
3D imaging machine. Siemens Healthcare.

19. Digital Autopsy

Professor Conlogue was able to determine an incredible amount about the mummified woman’s life by conducting 3D imaging of her remains. The imaging showed not only her bones but also her internal organs, giving scientists clues about both her life and death. The imaging allowed them to deduce that she was an adult woman, but likely no older than 30 at the time of her death. She also showed signs of early arthritis in her back, indicating that she probably had a physically demanding job.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
An illustration of someone stricken with smallpox. Wikimedia.

18. Smallpox Strikes Again

The 3D imaging allowed the researchers to determine, with certainty, that smallpox was indeed the cause of the mummified woman’s death. When examined more closely, her smallpox lesions were blistered. This evidence indicated the woman likely endured a very high fever before her death, which was a common cause of death in smallpox victims. Her case of smallpox was so severe that the lesions penetrated her skull and had damaged the membrane surrounding her brain. They determined that the mummy likely slipped into a coma for at least some time before her death.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A Daguerreotype of Dolley Madison. Wikimedia.

17. High Society Coffins

Researchers now knew that their mummy was a smallpox victim. However, that implied she might have been a poor resident of Queens. How did she come to be buried in an iron coffin? Warnasch knew, from his research, that iron coffins were typically reserved for high society burials. In fact, first lady Dolley Madison was buried in an elaborate iron coffin. If such devices were primarily reserved for the wives of US presidents and other wealthy members of society, why was a black smallpox victim found in one?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
An iron coffin. PBS.

16. A Fancy Traveling Coffin

The inventor of the iron coffin, Almond Fisk, created the first model in the 1840s after his brother died out of state. Almond lived in New York, where he owned an iron stove manufacturing shop when his brother died in the Mississippi. Not wanting his brother buried away from family, he invented an iron coffin to allow the body to be transported by train without offending the passengers. Without any way of embalming corpses, sealing them in an iron coffin was the only safe method of transport.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Another iron coffin. PBS.

15. High Priced Body Transport

After successfully transporting his brother’s body, Almond Fisk received a patent for his design in 1848. He began manufacturing the airtight iron coffins with a company logo and the year of production at the head. The coffins featured a porthole that could be opened, allowing loved ones and mourners to view the face of the deceased behind a pane of glass. The materials alone were expensive, given the amount of iron required, and the completed iron coffins were extremely spendy. Which again raises the question, how did a young black woman end up buried in one?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A page from New York’s emancipation legislation. Wikimedia.

14. Gradual Emancipation

The dates in question led the researchers to wonder if the mummified woman was even free at the time of her death. New York embraced emancipation slowly and in stages. In 1799, slaves born after July 4th, 1799 would be considered free in New York, but any born before that date were still legally slaves. A new law in 1817 declared all slaves free, but it wasn’t enacted until 1827. Was this woman born a free New Yorker, or had she escaped southern slavery?

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Slaves in a cotton field. The Daily Beast.

13. Was She Free?

Researchers knew the mummified woman must have been born sometime during the early 19th century. She must have died between 1840 and 1850 to have been buried in one of Almond Fisk’s iron coffins. Based on her bones, she likely wasn’t older than 30, placing her birth roughly between 1810 and 1825. To determine if she was born a free woman or had found freedom during her lifetime, researchers would need to find a way to figure out where she had been born.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
Fifth Avenue in NYC in 1898. The Iron Mummy.

12. New York Woman

The forensic researchers turned to her teeth. Teeth have long been a useful historical record, as they can indicate diet, exposure to certain metals, and more. The chemicals found in the mummified woman’s teeth revealed a high level of lead, consistent with exposure to an urban area’s water supply. Her diet also indicated that she likely lived in a metropolitan area. The combination of these two factors led researchers to believe that the mummified woman was a New Yorker, born and raised.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A 19th-Century photograph taken in Queens, New York. Wikimedia.

11. Queens

Queens, New York has long been a diverse and rapidly shifting borough of New York. Formerly a strongly Dutch area, the township of Newton, where the iron coffin was laid, was at one time home to a large and independent free African American community. Researchers eventually learned that the site where the coffin was found was once home to an African American church, which would explain why her body was discovered there. However, it still doesn’t answer how she came to be buried in such an expensive coffin.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A census record. Family Search.

10. Census Records

Historical inequities soon threw up roadblocks for the researchers. While trying to find the identity of the woman, they could find no census records for the African American Queens community of the early 19th century. Since African Americans were not allowed to vote, census takers were not instructed to speak with and document black Americans. No census until 1850 officially tracked African Americans. Thankfully for the researchers, the 1850 census included a record that filled in the historical gaps.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A census record with Martha Peterson. History 101.

9. Found!

The 1850 New York census included a curious record. While 33 records were researched, one stood out in particular: Martha Peterson. Ms. Peterson was a 26-year-old woman who reported living with a white man, William Raymond. Martha Peterson was the daughter of prominent members of the Queens African American community. William Raymond was none other than the brother-in-law of Almond Fisk, inventor of the iron coffin himself. It seems as though researchers indeed found their mark.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
William Raymond. Iron Coffin Mummy.

8. She Was Well-Loved Woman

Upon further research, scientists found that Martha Peterson was part of a small, close-knit African American religious community that was well-respected for its piety in the New York community. She was well-loved and respected given the cost of her burial in an iron coffin. The means of acquiring one also became much more understandable given her relationship with the brother-in-law of the inventor of the device himself. William Raymond himself may have been wealthy, and it’s also possible that Almond Fisk gave his brother-in-law an iron coffin as a gift.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A facial reconstruction of Nefertiti. Realm of History.

7. Scientific Reconstruction

With her identity looking very likely, scientists turned their attention to recreating as much of her as possible. Early 21st century advancements in facial reconstruction have been used to create faces for famous figures like Nefertiti and King Tut. With the carefully preserved remains of Martha Peterson, scientists hoped they could likewise recreate a detailed face. Using CT scans, forensic researchers painstakingly recreated a look using the bone structure and musculature of the mummified remains. What emerged was a truly incredible glimpse into the past.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A reconstruction of Martha Peterson’s face. ABC News.

6. Her Face Lives Again

Thanks to the wonders of science, Martha Peterson was no longer a nameless mummified remain. She had a name, a history, and now, incredibly, a face. Through extensive 3D imaging and modeling, forensic scientists were able to reconstruct Martha’s face. The woman who was initially believed to be a far more recent homicide was not only named, but historians could now present her face to the world along with her story. All of this work exposed not only her history but also that of her community.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A casket with flowers. Mordialloc Florist.

5. A Proper Burial

While the original church no longer stood where Martha was buried, the congregation still existed. Researchers contacted the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose members were incredibly excited about the discovery. To them, Martha Peterson was not merely a fascinating mystery woman but a connection to an essential part of their congregation’s past. She stood for the lives of many of the forgotten black Americans in history. The church gave Martha a new burial, attended by the congregation. She was buried with honor and respect.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
A 19th-Century black New York family. Brownstoner.

4. Missing History

Researchers were incredibly fortunate that Martha lived in 1850. Any earlier year, and there would have been no official US government record of her existence. For the members of Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church, she represented a bitter part of the past of many of their families. The 19th century was a time of great discrimination, even for those African Americans fortunate enough to be freed. It was a time marked by illiteracy, lack of educational opportunities, housing discrimination, and more. New York may have emancipated slaves, but it did not treat former slaves and free Blacks the same as the state’s white residents.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
The interior of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Queens. NYC AGO.

3. Representing a Community

It was Martha Peterson’s very existence as a free woman living a regular life in such a transitional and challenging era that made her so unique to the members of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. The pastor of the congregation said, “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.” Her daily life and struggles echoed the lives of many of the congregation’s ancestors.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers edited by Hollis Robbins. NPR.

2. A Symbol, Not a Body

The incredibly well-preserved state of Martha’s body, as well as the ability for modern science to recreate her face with such beautiful clarity, gave her case a real intimacy to modern historians and members of the black community in Queens. Seeing her face allowed people to empathize with her on a higher level and picture her day to day life and struggles in a society that may have granted her freedom but didn’t make any effort to offer equality and opportunity.

19th Century Woman Mummified Inside the Airtight Metallic Case
19th-Century black Americans. History of American Women.

1. Keeping the Past Alive

While Martha’s case may seem like ancient history, it is of vital importance to recognize that her death was only 169 years ago. Her account is a relatively recent part of our collective past. We must remember her not only as a fascinating case of forensic science but as part of an America whose inequity continues to linger today. Her persistence, even in death, is a reminder that history cannot be erased and there is always more to learn from the struggles of those who came before us.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Discovery of 150-year-old iron coffin sheds light on forgotten part of history” Leslie Gonzalez, History 101. October 2018.

“Airtight Iron Coffin Found in Queens Held a Mysterious 19th-Century Mummy” Mindy Weisberger, Live Science. October 3, 2018.

“The Woman in the Iron Coffin: 150-Year-Old Mummified Remains Discovered In New York Finally Identified” Hannah Osborne, Newsweek. October 2, 2018.

“Mystery Solved: Identity of mystery woman buried in iron coffin finally revealed seven years after her preserved body was found” Michael Kaplan, The Sun. October 1, 2018.

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