Updated July 7, 2022: Stream Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin before it expires on July 30, 2022. It premiered in October 2018.
In October 2011, while building an apartment complex, construction workers were shocked to uncover human remains in an abandoned lot at 90-15 Corona Avenue in the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York. So great was the level of preservation, witnesses first assumed they had stumbled upon a recent homicide. Forensic analysis revealed a remarkably different story.
THIRTEEN’s own Secrets of the Dead series investigates this fascinating – and little-known – chapter in New York history in The Woman in the Iron Coffin.
Buried in an elaborate and expensive iron coffin, the body belonged to a young African American woman who died in the first half of the 19th century, before the Civil War and the federal abolishment of slavery. She was dressed in a long white nightgown with thick, knee-high socks and a hand-crafted comb that held a delicate knit cap on her head. Who was she, and why was she buried there?
The film follows forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch and a team of historians and scientists as they investigate this woman’s story and the time in which she lived, revealing a vivid picture of what life was like for free African American people in the North.
Warnasch joins forces with Jerry Conlogue, Professor of Diagnostic Imaging at Quinnipiac University, to conduct a “virtual” autopsy. Using sophisticated computer software and hardware, they determined the woman was between 25 and 30 years old, and died from smallpox in the 1850s, more than 150 years ago.
The ornate iron coffin also provides clues about the woman’s identity. Created in 1848 by New York stove merchant Almond Dunbar Fisk, the coffin was designed to preserve bodies for sanitary storage and transportation prior to modern embalming. These airtight coffins were very expensive for the era and used by the wealthy and elite, including former first lady Dolley Madison, former President Zachary Taylor, and former Vice President John C. Calhoun.
Why was this woman — possibly an escaped slave from the South, or someone born into slavery in New York as it was slowly abolished in the North — buried in a coffin normally reserved for the rich?
Historians Clarence Taylor and Jeffrey Kroesser, of Baruch College and John Jay College respectively, and Carla Peterson, author of Black Gotham, offer additional clues, sharing insights on the lives of newly freed African Americans living in the North.
When New York, one of the largest slaveholding states, officially abolished slavery on July 4, 1827, newly freed African Americans began to establish communities in New York City, including Seneca Village in Manhattan (which gave way to Central Park’s development), Weeksville in Brooklyn – home to the Weeksville Heritage Center, and Newtown (now Elmhurst) in Queens, where The Woman in the Iron Coffin was found at what was once the location of an African Methodist Episcopal church and burial ground. These emancipated settlements became beacons to those still enslaved in the South and the target destination for many of those brave and lucky enough to escape. But African Americans in New York, while legally free, still faced racism, low-wage jobs, and poor-quality housing.
Precious little remains of these early communities formed in the first decades of freedom. The Woman in the Iron Coffin sheds light on this lost part of New York history.
After examining the body and studying the 1850 Census of New York City, Warnasch determines that the remains likely belonged to Martha Peterson, a 26-year-old African American woman living in New York City in 1850. Peterson was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson, prominent figures in Newtown’s African American community. Public records also noted that Martha Peterson lived with William Raymond, the brother-in-law, neighbor and business partner of Almond Dunbar Fisk, the iron coffin creator.
In 2016, five years after a construction crew dug up her coffin, Martha Peterson was given a proper burial by the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church of Jackson Heights.
“Because of her and because of the finding of her, our church has had a renewed fervor in learning more about who we are and who we were,” Pastor Kimberly Detherage said. “We lost some of the history throughout the years.”
How to Watch and Learn More
This Secrets of the Dead episode originally premiered on October 3, 2019 and THIRTEEN members can stream The Woman in the Iron Coffin on the THIRTEEN site, the Secrets of the Dead website and the THIRTEEN Explore app. After you’ve watched the episode, visit theSecrets of the Dead website for a three-part web series about free black communities in 19th-century New York City. Join the conversation on Facebook (facebook.com/SecretsoftheDead) and Twitter (@SecretsPBS) using the hashtag #SecretsDeadPBS.
Forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch delves further into the history of iron coffins in the United States in an article on the Secrets of the Dead site.
Secrets of the Dead partnered with the historians at the Dig: A History podcast to discuss The Woman in the Iron Coffin and provide additional context on slavery in the Northern United States, how it came to an end, and the lives of free black people in the United States. Listen now.
The New-York Historical Society, the museum and library located on 170 Central Park West at West 77th Street in Manhattan, shares the answer to the question, “When Did Slavery End in New York State?”
In 1799, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation act that freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults. In 1817 a new law passed that would free slaves born before 1799 but not until 1827. By the 1830 census there were only 75 slaves in New York and the 1840 census listed no slaves in New York City.
Learn about how the science-based series Secrets of the Dead itself is made in this podcast interview with its executive producer, WNET’s own Stephanie Carter.