In 2011, construction workers who were excavating an abandoned lot in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York, unearthed a human body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.
The body was in such a good condition it was initially thought that the construction workers stumbled upon the remains of a homicide victim.
“It was recorded as a crime scene,” Scott Warnasch, who was then a forensic archaeologist for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, told the New York Post. “A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward.”
It turns out, however, that the almost perfectly preserved body belonged to somebody who was born decades before the Civil War.
Warnasch found distinctive metal fragments at the site, which offered clues about the body and led to the identification of a woman named Martha Peterson.
Warnasch said that the 50 to 60 pieces of iron that were smashed by the backhoe were from an airtight Fisk iron coffin. In the 19th century, these caskets allowed corpses to be sanitarily transported via ships and trains.
The caskets were made more than 160 years ago between 1848 and 1854, and Peterson died in 1851.
Elmhurst used to be called Newtown. In the 1850s, this place was home to a community of free and freed blacks. Peterson was buried in what used to be the ground of a church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans.
Assuming that the woman was a local at the place when she was alive, Warnasch checked a census report of the time to see if he could learn more about the woman’s identity.
The 1850 Census of New York City, the first to list everyone in the population by name, age, sex and race, revealed that Peterson worked for the household of William Raymond, a white coffin maker with abolitionist leanings. Raymond was the partner of Fisk & Raymond, which made Peterson’s iron casket.
The coffin appears effective at preserving the remains. The skin was so intact to the point that Peterson appeared to have been dead for only a week. Smallpox lesions in her skin remain apparent to this day.
Peterson was 26-years-old when she died from smallpox, which used to be a serious viral infection. An autopsy revealed that the disease infected Peterson’s brain. The infection was likely the reason she died.
The findings will be featured in the new documentary The Woman in the Iron Coffin, which is scheduled to premiere Wednesday on PBS.