Secrets of the Dead


The Woman in the Iron Coffin

Follow a team of forensic experts as they investigate the preserved remains of a young African American woman from 19th century New York and reveal the little-known story of early America’s free black communities.

AIRED: October 03, 2018 | 0:55:11

-Queens, New York.

Construction workers discover the body of a young woman.

At first, it appears to be a homicide.

But something about the scene doesn't quite add up.

-My colleague was finishing off sweeping away

the last residue of the soil

That's when he discovered something kind of shocking.

-Now, forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch

wants to piece together this historical puzzle.

With the help of a close-knit New York community...

-We can identify with her because she does look like us.

And so, it does make it personal.

-It was my honor to complete that circle.

-...leading scientific experts...

-Lots of different chemicals that are captured in her teeth

that told us a little bit more about how she lived.

-...and cutting-edge technology...

-This is unbelievable.

I have never seen anything like this before

-...we open the door to a neglected history...

-It's like a digital puzzle that we are piecing together.

-It is really important that we create this rich

and diverse tapestry

of African-American life in the 19th century. reveal the mystery behind

"The Woman in the Iron Coffin."




-This area right here is north Queens, Corona-Elmhurst border.

-Middle class. Not a bad area.

-It's a mixed population here.

A lot of local businesses,

not really a bad place in terms of crime.

Crime can happen anywhere,

In my career, I've seen over 1,000 homicides.

You get a little bit numb to it, but it doesn't get easier.

-To be called out for a D.O.A. in this area

is not really that uncommon,

but it's not a frequent event in this area.

[ Line ringing ]

-911 emergency...

-On October 4, 2011,

construction workers at a site in Queens made a grim discovery.

-We received a call at Crime Scene

at about 9:15 in the evening.

-It was a D.O.A., and it was deemed

that they discovered under suspicious circumstances.

The workers at the construction site

were working with the heavy equipment

and they hit something, which they believed was a pipe,

and they saw an individual in it

and that's when they decided to call the police.

-Detectives Warren Davis and Robert Saenz

were two of the first responders.

-What we had when we came to the site,

we found it was all plywooded up

It was dark, there was no lighting

and in the background what we had was a field,

and we could see it barely with our flashlights,

but we knew down in the pit area

was where this backhoe unearthed this individual.

-But what at first seemed like a recent homicide

soon became something much stranger.

-There was some metal that was very intriguing to see.

-What they did see over there obviously was very unusual.

It was surprising to see how well-preserved the remains were.

-Who did these remains belong to?


-My name is Scott Warnasch. I am a forensic archaeologist.

I spent a lot of my early career in archaeology

working on traditional archaeological sites --

historical and prehistoric -- and I gravitated

towards excavating skeletons and cemeteries

or burial grounds.

I was always interested in forensics

although I was very squeamish and I didn't think

I would be able to get through the proper coursework

to actually get that formal degree.

I originally began working at the medical examiner's office

in the World Trade Center,

handling the remains, doing the case file work,

and releasing the remains to the family members.

Recovering potentially human remains

and identifying the victims

puts my usual work at a much higher level of satisfaction

than typical archaeological projects.


October 5, 2011, started off like a normal day,

although a normal day at the medical examiner's office

is probably a bit different than everybody else's.

When we got to work, we were told

that we had to get a crew together

for the forensic anthropology unit

to respond to a potential crime scene in Queens.

Apparently, a body was discovered in Elmhurst.

So we arrived at the scene on Corona Avenue,

walked into the site, and spoke to the detectives

to get a little background on the situation.

The team lines up as we approach the scene,

and we're looking on the ground,

looking for any type of evidence

that may have been dug up from the machinery

and spread around the site.

It was then when I noticed this piece of rusty metal.

It wouldn't have been anything to anyone else on the site.

However, I had some idea of the significance of it.

This told me that this wasn't an ordinary crime scene.

This suggested that the person died over 150 years ago.

As we were uncovering the body and exposing it,

we quickly realized that we were dealing

with an African-American woman.

She seemed to have been buried in some kind of white nightgown

and high, thick knee socks.

Forensic protocol suggests that you leave the most

sensitive parts of the body covered until the last minute.

That way they're protected from the sun or any other situations.

My colleague Chris was finishing off

sweeping away the last residue of the soil

around the woman's chest and around her face.

That's when he discovered something kind of shocking.

And as he's sweeping away, we can see these lesions

all over the top of her chest and on her forehead.

It looked a lot like smallpox.

So, the situation went from a potential crime scene

to an archaeological discovery

to a potential biohazard within like an hour.

So, there were two things that we needed to do right away.

One was to take extra precautions

when handling the body

and messaging that down the line to the morgue

so everybody involved with this

understood what we were dealing with.

The second was to call the experts.

-My name is Kevin Karem, and I am a medical researcher,

and I work for the Centers for Disease Control

and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

My career and my role at the CDC over the years

has been as an infectious disease researcher.

So really helping to protect the public health of the country,

and we actually have an extensive global program,

as well.

Within days after getting the call from Queens County,

we prepared to come up to New York

and help them with the case.

We thought, "Well, there is no way we are going

to find anything viable."

And so, we agreed that the examination

would be quick and brief.

We'd take a few specimens and move on.

Well, that changed the next morning

when we got to the morgue.

One of the more shocking things for me

was actually opening the body bag

and seeing the sheer number of lesions

across this young woman's body from head to toe.

The preservation of the body was just totally unexpected.

And so that point I got a little more nervous

about the possibility that there might be a contagion risk here.

Smallpox is very unusual, in that it is thought

to have killed more people in human history

than any other agent that we know of.

It was transmitted by aerosol droplets.

So, when someone had a fulminant cough or sneezing,

it could actually be carried on those particles in the air.

And that's thought to be one of the reasons

why it was so contagious.

Its transmission rates are around 60%,

which is actually higher than Ebola.

The mortality rate, depending on the outbreak,

could be anywhere from 10% to 60%.

But it's very devastating

and the denser population in a community,

the higher the probability of spread.

-We tend to forget that in the cities

of the early 1800s,

even throughout the 19th century,

there was a very active disease environment,

and you didn't have great sanitary conditions.

-New York was an incredibly unhealthy place

to be in the 19th century.

There are waves of epidemics that sweep the city

against which the population, you know, has no recourse.

And it attacks

those who are living in the least healthy environments.

And that was where African-Americans, of course,

were allowed to live.

Death by epidemic was absolutely very common.

-By the middle of the 20th century,

there was a huge effort to wipe out smallpox once and for all.

-In 1959, there was a World Health Assembly meeting

where they talked about a mandatory vaccination program

to eradicate the disease.

So, disease in the United States was eliminated

really before 1970.

Vaccination among children of the United States

actually stopped in 1973,

and then the rest of the world followed suit.

And in 1980, the World Health Organization

declared the world to be smallpox free.

-Although we understood that this woman probably died

over 150 years ago,

it was important to examine the body

to determine whether this was a public health concern.

-So, in this case the type of specimens

we took from the skin tissue

as well as internal organs were very good samples for a test

we call called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

And in that test, we can actually look specifically

for viral DNA sequences

based on what we know about smallpox virus.

And it was the most effective way for us to test quickly.

What we found was that we could not detect any DNA.

And what it really told us was that the tissue

and any viral DNA was degraded,

probably due to how long it had been since she died,

the moisture in the body, that sort of thing.

We felt confident at that point

that there was not a contagion present,

and that the body really posed no risk relative to smallpox.

-With the results from the CDC showing

there was no public health threat,

Scott's part of the job was officially over.

But he couldn't let the case go.

He wanted to know more about this woman

and the world she inhabited more than 150 years ago.

And so, to help him solve the mystery,

Scott turned to science.

-I was able to get in touch with a specialist

on non-invasive ways of examining a body.

-My name is Jerry Conlogue.

I'm emeritus professor of diagnostic imaging

and co-director of

the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac.

I guess you could say I'm a mummy man.

I've probably X-rayed well over 1,000 mummies

in maybe 16 different countries.

-For me, the real excitement, and I still feel this

after 40 years of doing mummies --

to be able to use X-ray

to find out what's inside the mummy.

An individual's skeleton is kind of record

of what their body was like

from when they were an infant until when they died,

so the history is definitely in the bones.

My job is to be able to get that information out of the bones

so that it can be interpreted by someone like Scott,

an anthropologist.

-This is unbelievable.

I have never seen anything like this before.

We've seen X-rays, we've seen some CT scans,

but this is a 3-D version of this woman.

-The original CT scans Jerry made of the woman

have been loaded into a piece of groundbreaking software.

It allows for a virtual autopsy of the body,

unlocking the secrets contained within

without making a single incision.

-Normally I am looking at sections

or regions of the body, but this thing lets me

see the entire body, and I can spin it and roll it

and go into it and come out of it.

This is a way that I have never been able

to look at a body before.

-With just the swipe of a screen,

it can move between multiple layers of the body,

digitally stripping back skin, revealing internal organs,

and showing the skeleton beneath.

-If we had examined her let's say in 2000,

we would have not have had the capability with the CT

and the MR, and this wonderful table would have not been there.

-Yeah, right. We would have X-rays.

-We'd just have plain X-rays

-Typically, in an archaeological situation,

you never really know how someone died,

the cause and manner of death.

Based on what's left is usually the skeleton

unless they have a bullet hole or an arrowhead in them.

Here we can see clearly the cause

and manner of this woman's death was smallpox.

-Well, on the surface, you can see all these

smallpox lesions on her head, on her neck, on her chest,

down into her thigh area, and even down into her feet.

-And then on her heel, and on the pad of her foot,

and the ball of her foot.

-Typically with smallpox,

the rash really initiates in the mouth,

in the oral cavity, and so, they become very sore,

you have lesions inside your mouth,

and then it becomes a full-blown skin lesions

in a centrifugal pattern.

That means predominantly in the limbs but also on the trunks.

And quite often it was documented that they would

have you know exceptional fever, immune response,

and then a significant drop in blood pressure,

which indicates some type of organ failure

-I would have only expected lesions on the surface,

but if we look inside her skull, this is her brain.

Now, covering the brain there is this tissue that is very dense.

It is kind of the consistency of canvas,

and that's to protect the brain.

And it is called the dura.

And there are lesions on the dura.

What makes this really unusual is that I don't think anyone

has ever imaged an individual with smallpox, looked inside.

And here we have got evidence that

the lesions are in fact inside.

-It is amazing.

It is like we have a map of how smallpox

colonized the human body.

That's a first. That's a medical first.

-The woman's body was so well-preserved,

the smallpox that killed her remains clearly visible,

something Jerry and Scott

wouldn't usually get to see from skeletal remains.


The airtight coffin perfectly preserved the woman.

-The iron coffin was invented by Almond Dunbar Fisk.

He was originally a stove manufacturer in Lower Manhattan.

In 1844, Almond Fisk's brother William died in Mississippi

during the summertime, and there was no way

to transport his body back up to New York.

This caused a lot of sorrow for his family

and especially his father,

and this seemed to be the instigation

for the development of the coffin.

-If you died far from home in the early 1800s,

that is where you were buried.

You are not going to be transported -- a corpse --

hundreds of miles over weeks or months.

That is out of the realm of possibility.

You will be buried where you fell.

-In the age of steam travel, Fisk's iron coffin was invented

to address the issue of people dying far from home.

The coffins were designed to preserve bodies

for sanitary storage

and long-distance transportation.

If someone died far away, he or she could now

be sent back home for a proper burial among kin.

-He bought a large farm outside of Newtown, Queens,

and in one of his barns,

he set up a little furnace for himself

and started his own foundry and started experimenting.

-Today, the Fisk Avenue subway stop

stands a short distance from the location

of the 19th-century foundry.

-In 1848, Almond Fisk was granted a patent

for his metallic burial case

and started a company with his brother-in-law William Raymond,

the company being Fisk & Raymond.

-We're here at the Canton Historical Society Museum

in Collinsville, Connecticut.

They have the most extraordinary example

of a Fisk metallic burial case.

There are so many little details

that you never get to see from the iron coffins

that get excavated from archaeological sites.

There's so much care and craftsmanship in this

that it's just unbelievable.

Although they're considered a manufactured

from a factory product, this was the 1840s and '50s,

and it took a long time to finish one of these.

So, it was sort of maybe a bit of an assembly line,

but it wasn't like they were being pumped out

like chocolate bars or anything like this.

This was still a product of many craftsmen

and many hours of work.

This coffin was invented prior to modern embalming.

This was the closest they could get to some way of preserving

the dead for transportation and storage.

The coffin body itself would be cast in the sand,

however certain parts of it were manufactured separately,

as sort of like medallions

and could be pressed into the sand mold

to show these different motifs.

So, the face plate, the nameplate, and the footplate --

they had some variation, they had choices

on what they wanted to represent on the coffins.

A very important feature of these coffins of the time

was that it also had a window for viewing the deceased.

This was a time before photography had really caught on

as a mode of identification.

And it was important for the next of kin to be able

to view the body in order to determine

that it was in fact them.

-The Fisk iron coffin was completely airtight.

A body sealed inside was kept so well-preserved

it would be recognizable for the purpose of legal identification.

-Once the viewing was over,

the lid would be put back on and bolted shut.

And theoretically the whole coffin

would be airtight at this point.

The foot of the coffin is probably the most important part

for the marketer and inventor, Almond Fisk.

This is the patent mark that was granted to Fisk

on November 14, 1848.

It says, "A. D. Fisk, patent, November 14th,"

and then a 48 in the center.

The coffins were a marvelous invention

to preserve bodies for transportation.

As an archaeologist, most of the time

all you're expecting to find

are skeletons in varying degrees of preservation.

But in this case, oh, my God!

We have everything here. This woman is so well-preserved.

-Most bacteria and organisms responsible

for bodily decomposition require oxygen.

But in this case, it was difficult

for them to do their job

because the iron coffin was airtight.

-I've certainly never seen a body

that is in this state of preservation

that has not been artificially embalmed.

What I am seeing here is her liver.

The liver would be the first organs

that will probably start to decompose.

So decomposition was stopped,

so that speaks to the efficiency of the coffin.

-The coffins were very expensive for the time.

They came in many sizes, and they were

generally associated with the rich and the elite.

In 1849, former first lady Dolley Madison passed away,

and she was one of the first famous people

to be buried in a Fisk coffin.

She was a very beloved American icon at the time.

Her funeral was covered in all the papers,

and the fact that she was in one of these coffins

put Fisk and Raymond into a much larger world.

Many more famous politicians -- Henry Clay,

President Zachary Taylor, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun,

even President Lincoln's son Willie

was preserved in a later version of these coffins

when he died while the president was still in office.

When we were originally discovered the woman in Queens,

it was revealed that she was African-American.

That was quite a shock

because that certainly didn't fit the pattern

of who you would expect to be in one of these elaborate coffins.

Once we understood that she probably died of smallpox,

that sort of started to make sense

why she might be quarantined in one of these coffins.

However, how she got the coffin would still remain a mystery.

-So, what we have here are a bunch of photos

of coffin fragments that were recovered from the scene.

I spent some time trying to put it back together,

and it turned out that we had about 50 or 60 fragments,

but not the whole coffin.

However, the most important part of the coffin was recovered.

It was the most important part because it had the patent mark.

Most of the patent marks that Fisk put on his coffins

are aligned a specific way on the foot

and are rotated in a way that you can read them easily,

and that's just his logo at the time.

However, this coffin is significant

because the patent mark is misaligned,

and the whole logo is rotated 180 degrees,

so it was pretty much botched.

Everything about it worked,

except that the main marketing part of it was messed up.

So maybe it was put to the side and saved for a time of need.

-By understanding this one woman,

she provides a window into the time that she lived in.

We can learn a lot about the environment,

her living conditions,

maybe even the types of work she did,

and from there we can extrapolate

into the larger population of the African-American community.

-In trying to reconstruct the lives of African-Americans

in the 19th century and earlier, we face several challenges.

Many African-Americans didn't read or write,

so they didn't leave their memoirs or their stories behind.

In addition, many white historians did not record

the histories of African-Americans.

They were essentially ignored.

-The first step in an identification process

is to create a biological profile,

and as an anthropologist, we would use the skeleton

to start to narrow down potential candidates

of who this might be, based on relative age range,

their sex, potentially their ancestry, and their stature,

and through that, you come up with a thumbnail sketch

about who this individual is.

From the skeleton, you can learn a lot

about the age of the individual

based on how well the bones have been formed

and how they have developed.

The long bones have these caps,

and if the caps at the ends of the bones have fused,

then we can understand that this person is an adult.

Then we also have the spine.

-Yeah, she has some arthritic changes.

This lipping on the ends of the bones --

so as arthritis develops, you'll get a bridge

or excess bone formed because of the wearing action on the bone.

She has got minimal, so I would say she's probably over 25

but I don't think she is really that old.

I don't think she's much older than 30.

-And we can see a little bit of arthritis in her lower back.

It does suggest she probably used her back on a daily basis.

-These folks had a physical life.

So if you are bending over a lot,

unfortunately this is the part of your spine

that is going to show these early degenerative changes

-The skeleton isn't suggesting

she did a lot of lifting or carrying.

If somebody had a life of extreme manual labor,

working in the fields,

I think that would be showing up on a body, even this age.

As you can see here, unfortunately, the woman's face

was pretty damaged by the construction equipment

when she was discovered.

The damage to her face is just incredible.

-The right side of her face doesn't look too bad

but the left side...

This area here where you've got a fracture

through the cheekbone, fracture through the jaw,

and when I roll this back and forth --

and it is one of the beauties of this table --

her right ribs look okay,

but her left ribs are fractured.

-While we are in this view,

I get to mention an article of clothing

that is really fascinating on a lot of levels.

It's an exquisite comb carved out of either horn

or maybe tortoise shell.

It's beautiful, almost a nimbus cloud of knots

over 12 long, straight teeth.

This would have been a hand-carved comb.

It was placed in the back of her hair.

It held her hair back and also held a very delicate

knit cap that was on the back of her head.

And it shows really personal aspects of her life.

It has got little nicks in it.

It's got polishing in certain areas.

The little day-to-day motions that this woman had in her life.

And it also represents in a large way

the larger community that was involved

with preparing her body for the funeral,

that they took the time to put her comb in

and put the cap on her head

and prepare her for a proper burial.

-Within the time the woman lived,

it was a very tumultuous period

for African-Americans in New York,

as well as everywhere else in the country.

-America was an emerging nation.

It was not the superpower that we think of today.

The economies were also diversifying.

By the 19th century, slave labor was diminishing in the North

whereas it was growing

and became quite valuable in the South

-There are great differences

among African-American communities

in terms of geography,

whether you are in the North or in the South or in the West.

In the North, the first state to abolish slavery is Vermont,

and Vermont is 1777,

followed by Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

-New York was one of the largest slave-holding states

in the United States,

proportionately surpassing some of the Southern states.

By 1788, 4 in 10 New York families owned slaves.

-New York was one of the last states in the North

to abolish slavery.

-It's a somewhat complicated procedure.

In 1799, a gradual emancipation bill is passed

which says that slaves born before July 4, 1799,

are slaves for the rest of their lives,

but people born into slavery after July 4, 1799,

will be emancipated.

In 1817, another bill gets passed that declares

that people even enslaved before 1799

will be freed on July 4, 1827.

-Finally, on July 4, 1827,

28 years after the state's first emancipation bill,

New York's African-American community

celebrated their liberation.

In all, about 10,000 people in New York state were set free.

-The position of the African-American community

remains very vexed

because you do have slave kidnappers

coming from the South up North

in pursuit of slaves who have escaped to the North,

and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850

meant that they could indeed legitimately go

and catch slaves and bring them back.

But the real problem is that the kidnappers would come up

and were capable of seizing any black off the street

and saying, "Oh, you are a slave.

You are the slave of Mr. Johnson, whoever,

and we're remanding you into slavery."

And that person could protest and say,

"Well, no, I'm free," and "I was born here free," et cetera,

but if you didn't have your papers on you right then

or you couldn't prove it right then and there,

you were kidnapped and sent into slavery.

And that was a process known as black birding.

One great example is the case of Solomon Northup,

who was a free black and who was kidnapped

and taken to the South and was 12 years a slave

and lived to gain his freedom and to write that narrative.


-After emancipation in New York,

the abolition of slavery in New York,

the black population was made up of free African-Americans.

It was also made up of people that had escaped slavery

and had come to New York,

as well as those who had been manumitted from slavery.

-Throughout New York, free African-Americans

established their own communities.

Weeksville in Brooklyn and Seneca Village,

later cleared to make way for Central Park,

were among them.

-New York was a magnet for escaped slaves to migrate north.

What I am really interested to find out

is if this woman was a freed slave,

an escaped slave, or from a family

that had been freed for quite a long time.

-Comparing when the coffin was manufactured

and her age when she died,

this woman must have been born sometime in the early 1800s.

If she was indeed born in New York

after the Emancipation Act of 1799,

then it is more likely that she was a free woman

rather than enslaved.

-One of the best ways

we can determine the origin of a person,

where they were born, is isotope analysis.

-My name is Rhonda Quinn.

I am a biological anthropologist.

I am a professor at Seton Hall University.

And I use geochemistry to answer anthropological questions.

If you are looking to paint a picture

of where someone was from, their place of origin

throughout the time period of their childhood,

even into the late childhood,

teeth are the best place to go.

Teeth are amazing snapshots of time in your life

and the environment itself.

It tells you about diet. It tells you about location.

-Adult teeth begin to develop before birth

and continue growing until they are all in place.

As they grow, they absorb the chemicals

found in the water the person drinks.

These chemicals are unique to geographic regions.

-The first measurement that we did was oxygen isotopes.

Really what this is showing us

is what was the signature of the water that she ingested.

What we first found was that she would have ended up

in this blue part, and what do you know,

it absolutely overlaps with New York.

-So it's like a snapshot of her childhood environment?


I cannot differentiate her from people

who resided in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania.

It's really only the Southern states that I can take out.

So only Florida, Alabama, Georgia.

-Specific isotopes found in the tooth

match the mineral content of the water

in the northeastern United States,

meaning she can't have grown up in the South.

-The other component we really wanted to look at

is lots of different elements in her teeth,

lots of different chemicals that are captured in her teeth

that told us a little bit more about how she lived.

We measured lead.

Lead was much higher than we would have predicted.

You get lead levels this high when you have industrialization.

-That's really interesting because just based

on the general area of

where this woman seems like she grew up,

she was really close to industrial centers of Brooklyn

and Lower Manhattan.

-We have a few locations in the United States

that show us that.

New York is one of them.

-While her teeth give clues

about where this woman came from,

a sample of her hair provides a window

into how she might have lived.

-This represents a different time period in her life.

As you can imagine, the hair on top of your head

is growing at a rate that's much faster,

and it's going to represent a time period very close

to her time of death.

A student of mine collected data

from a number of New York City residents today.

She looks like a lot of New Yorkers.

-So does that mean she ate meat

like most New Yorkers or protein at least?

-For the time period that is represented

with this hair sample,

it looks like she's getting a fair amount of protein.

-So, a balanced diet then? Okay.

-There's probably a little bit of corn in her diet,

but it's not a corn-based system

that we see in the United States today in Middle America.

She looks like other New Yorkers.

-The science seems to confirm

that the woman grew up close to New York City.

But to identify who she was, Scott needs to work backwards

from the place where her body was found

to piece together what Queens was like when she was alive.

-The coffin was discovered right here on Corona Avenue

between Corona Avenue and the railroad tracks.

Obviously, Queens has changed

considerably since the mid-19th century.

Trying to find out a little bit more background

on what was on this property previously,

we contacted the New York City Landmarks Commission.

-What was Queens like in the decades before the Civil War?

1830s, '40, '50s?

You have a major town in Jamaica,

which serves the southern half of Queens.

The other major town is Flushing.

And then there is Newtown, what is now Elmhurst.

What was Newtown like in the 1850s?

It is a small place.

This is a one-street town, and there was nothing beyond.

-The Landmarks Commission explained that the property

where we discovered the body was the site of the African church

right on Corona Avenue.

Originally it was called Dutch Lane,

and it had changed names a few of times

over the period of the 19th century.

I was able to uncover the original deed

for the Dutch Lane cemetery property,

which was sold to the United African Society in 1828.

-Only one year after full emancipation in New York,

the African-American community in Newtown

established its own church.

-The African-American population who lived in Newtown

were either the children of slaves

or they were former slaves themselves.

But at this point, they are free people

who have sufficient funds

that they are able to buy property for a cemetery.

There isn't a lot of wealth

in the African-American community,

but they are able to build a church.

-The African-American community organized itself

right from the beginning in very, very powerful ways.

And the whole concept of mutual relief

was really the bedrock of the African-American community.

You come together in fellowship and brotherhood,

and everybody puts in a certain amount of money,

and that is then reserved to help anybody in need.

And then you have black churches,

black denominations like

the African Methodist Episcopal Church,

AME Church.

-The African Methodist Episcopal Church was a church

that grew out of protest.

African-Americans in Philadelphia,

who were members of the predominantly white

Methodist church were essentially discriminated

and asked to sit in segregated pews.

And they refused to do that and left

and formed their own church,

the African Methodist Episcopal Church,

and this took off and many

other African Methodist Episcopal Churches

were formed as a way of sort of protesting

racial discrimination and segregation in white churches.

-Churches are engaged in political activism,

and one example would be theAmistad case,

when a group of slaves who had mutinied

on the Amistad come ashore.

And so black churches galvanized to send money.

So churches are really important,

not just from a religious point of view

but from a social and political point of view.

-Today, St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal

stands just one mile from the original Dutch Lane church.

Its history can be traced all the way back

to the community established

by the United African Society of Newtown,

more than 160 years ago.

-That church was notified when this woman was discovered,

and they were invited to contribute

their input on what should be done with the woman.

-My name is Kimberly L. Detherage,

and I'm the pastor

at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church

here in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York.

-St. Mark A.M.E. Church moved away

from the Dutch Lane location in 1929.

-The woman that was found represents us.

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 life and her body was not treated disrespectfully,

but most of all that we paid homage to the person

that we believed that she was.

We had to hire a funeral home,

and we wanted to make sure that there was

an African-American funeral director

and a funeral home that would be taking care of her body,

because we understood that as a part of our congregation,

we wanted someone that looked like her and looked like us

to make sure that she was well taken care of.

I'm John Houston, and I am a funeral director.

And I'm originally from a small town

in north Alabama named Decatur.

I have been a funeral director for 23 years,

and this particular funeral home,

we serve the general north New Jersey area.

I got a call from the church,

from St Mark A.M.E.

And I went to pick up the body

and then when I saw her --

the clothing that she had on

and she was still intact --

it was obvious that this was a historical case.

We brought her back here, we took her downstairs

and got an opportunity to look ourselves to see,

and it was unbelievable.

She was fully clothed.

You could see the actual color of the clothing,

and you knew that there was someone

that had taken great care in preparing this woman for burial,

the same thing that we do, and it was just unbelievable.

It was my honor to basically complete that circle --

that she was being cared for again.

I was honored to take care of her.

We were her family during that time.

She was buried in a solid mahogany casket.

There was a casket spray that gave a sense of Africa

and nature.

The choir sang.

It was a service for a person,

just as though that someone had died in the congregation today.

There's no difference.

It was totally unbelievable to me

and probably I'll never get this opportunity

to take care of a case like this again.

It's really part of the African-American heritage.

We did not come to this continent freely.

We were stolen from west Africa

and brought here and treated terribly.

And still we are not treated fairly.

And to see someone who was actually clothed the way

that she was and in an expensive casket,

it gave us a sense of pride

and also gave us a sense of pride to give something back

and give her a great going home service.

-It is important to remember that this isn't just

an archaeological specimen.

This is an individual.

This was a person that had a life.

One of the best ways to humanize her

is to give her an identity.

I began the identification process using two criteria,

first based on the time the coffins were manufactured,

and second the age range of the woman

based on her biological profile.

The date range for the coffin manufacturing

began around 1848 to about 1854.

That gives us a nice window

for the identification process to begin.

-As luck would have it, this time period also gives

Scott the perfect place to look for potential names --

the 1850 census.

It was the first time African-Americans

were listed individually by name in the census,

the first full accounting

of the African-American population of Newtown.

-The biological profile of the woman

gave an age range between 25 and 35 years old.

Combing through the 1850 census

came up with 33 possible candidates

that fit the biological profile of this woman.

-As Scott scours the census records, one name stands out.

-Her name was Martha Peterson,

and she was 26 years old in 1850.


The census data lists Martha Peterson

living with a man named William Raymond.

That's amazing because William Raymond not only

was Fisk's brother-in-law,

he was also his next-door-neighbor

and business partner.

Now we have the name of a woman that fits the biological profile

who was living with the maker of the coffins.

If this woman was Martha, it's an easy jump to conclude

that if Martha died of smallpox in the house of William Raymond,

then she would be buried in one of his coffins.

He would be the perfect person to be able to supply the remedy

to handle this situation.

And the fact that the patent mark was misaligned

and sort of botched may suggest why it was available

at the time of Martha's death.

The woman's clothing suggests that she was taken care of

and was dressed properly for a burial.

So, the question becomes who did care for her?

Potentially family members.

That would be the most likely explanation.

I have been looking at the 1850 census and established

there are five main branches of the Peterson family.

Five males are all within the age range

of what would have been Martha's parents' generation.

I have narrowed that down to one particular couple,

John and Jane Peterson.

-Scott believes the key to identifying John and Jane

as Martha's parents lies in the name

of one of her potential nieces.

-If Martha was the daughter of John and Jane Peterson,

that means that Martha had a brother named Elisha.

Elisha had a daughter that he named Martha.

This is the only other Martha I have found

in the other Peterson branches,

and it is not unrealistic to think

that Elisha might name a daughter

after a departed sister.

-There is also evidence that the Petersons were prominent members

of the African-American community in rural Newtown.

-So if John Peterson is Martha Peterson's father,

it is really interesting because John Peterson

was the president of the United African Society

who purchased the property of the cemetery.

-It's another connection between the possible identity

of the remains and the location where they were found.

-Another interesting fact from the census

is that Martha could read and write.

We know this because there are boxes next to her name

that shows that she could read and write.

-African-Americans craved education.

They wanted to learn how to read and write,

and they would go to great lengths,

including hiring teachers.

-Literacy in many ways simply represents freedom.

Black leaders really see education

as a path to emancipation.

And the one example that sticks out in my mind

has to do with James Pennington.

-James Pennington was an African-American slave.

He was born in 1807 in eastern Maryland.

-He escapes from slavery in Maryland

and ends up in Newtown in Queens.

-Pennington became one of

the leading abolitionists in the United States.

He spoke against slavery.

He traveled overseas,

speaking before religious congregations

against the system of slavery.

He eventually writes his autobiography

that describes his conditions, his life,

his experiences under slavery, and how he escaped.

-He was a blacksmith by trade,

so when he published a slave narrative,

it's titled "The Fugitive Blacksmith."

-James Pennington eventually by the early 1830s

became the first black school teacher

of the first black school in Newtown,

around the same time that Martha would have been school age,

somewhere around 8 or 9 or 10 years old.

It is amazing that Martha may have been taught

by James Pennington, this amazing abolitionist

and voice of the early black movement of abolition.

-Using the 1850 census,

Scott has been able to find a likely name

for the woman in the iron coffin.

But is it also possible

to find out what she might have looked like?

-Giving this woman a face is a little more challenging

than some other situations

because of the damage that she received from the machinery

when she was discovered.

I have asked the forensic artist Joe Mullins

to do a facial reconstruction.

-I'm a forensic imaging specialist, a forensic artist.

My duties entail anything to assist law enforcement

with identifying the deceased, finding the missing.

What we want to start with doing a facial reconstruction

in this software is a pristine, you know, CT scan of the skull.

The skull tells you everything you need to know

about what the face looked like in life.

Everything from the projection of the nose,

to the width of the nose, to the corners of your mouth,

to your eyebrow.

Seeing all that information in, that makes it very easy

to find the right puzzle piece to fit on this face

to get the best representation of how she looked in life.

Step one is to repair the damage to the skull,

so that means there's damage to the lower mandible

and the mouth is open a little bit.

So, we're going to kind of mirror this image over here,

flip it and close the mouth.

The details of the face are all here.

It's just a matter of reading the map

and applying those features on the right spot.

Applying the right facial muscles

is also crucial in identifying how much tissue is there.

We have landmarks on the skull because the muscles attach

on the same place on everybody's skull,

regardless of your age and ancestry.

So it's important as you're building up these features

you're finding the nose, the ears, the lips,

you want to have kind of structure to place it in.

So coming up with that grid,

now the grid is essentially just an outline

to tell us where those features are going to go.

So now we are going to start blocking in some features.

-Joe selects age- and ancestry-appropriate features

from a database of thousands of body parts.

-Coming up with the nose...

this is the nose that fits this skull.

She was well-preserved within the iron coffin,

so we could see the hairlines.

We knew it was parted in the center and braided,

so that takes the guesswork out of it,

which is great for a forensic artist

having that information in front of us.

It's like a digital puzzle that we are piecing together.

The last step is to modify these

and finding the right skin tone,

and then corresponding that to all the pieces,

so making it a uniform skin tone

and make sure it's age-appropriate.

I've stared at this face, after we complete,

I've stared at it probably a hundred times

since we've completed it because I am just fascinated.

It's not just a pile of remains

or a body that was found in an iron coffin anymore.

A person is staring back at me.

I have a photograph of a person who died that I've --

I've brought her back to life.

-It is really interesting to have Joe

reconstruct this woman's face

so we can finally see what she looks like after 150 years.

But what I really want to do is offer some history back

to the community that is directly related to this woman.

Hi, ladies. -Hello.

-Thanks for coming out today

for this wonderful revelation of the iron coffin lady.

As you remember, the iron coffin lady

suffered some damage from the machinery

when she was discovered.

So, we were able to find a forensic artist

to do a reconstruction of what the woman may have looked like,

and I'd like to present that to you today.

-Oh, wow! -Nice!

-She's very pretty.

She's real.

-Very good. -That looks like Taylor.

Our little Taylor.

-Beautiful. -She's very beautiful.

-She looks like us.

-We have a face now.

And we can truthfully say that she looks

as if she's part of us.

I would say.

There's no doubt she's a part of our community.

-I really feel connected.

I feel like I know that she's family.

It's just returning to what is ours.

And she's ours.

-It's the past colliding with the future,

and we're able to see this.

-She became a prompt for us to reveal our history.

Besides being a person, who is a part of our congregation,

besides being a historical artifact,

as a mummy, the iron coffin lady was also a prompt

for St. Mark to, as Judy said, think about our history.

-Once you start asking questions about the people in the past,

you can understand a way of life and that cannot but rebound

to helping you understand your own life.

-Those folks at the bottom also shape history.

It is not just the history of prominent people

who leave their letters, who leave their memoirs,

who have power, who shape the sort of narrative.

Some people call this sort of bottom-up history.

-It is important for us to tell this story moving forward.

Generally, people have reduced African-American history

to a very low common denominator.

If you said African or black American in 19th century,

everybody would say "slaves."

It is really important that we create

this rich and diverse tapestry

of African-American life in the 19th century.

So I think seeing this history

is very important for blacks today to understand

and recognize as part of their history and not just that,

"Oh, we were once slaves in the South."

-The discovery of the Iron Coffin Lady

was actually no accident.

You know that God allowed her to be discovered

at such a time as this

that the community that is changing

might be able to learn and understand

more about the African-American community

and the work and the contributions

that African-Americans have made to New York City and Queens.

Our history has been erased,

so we don't get to see this.

We don't get to see real photos.

We may see a Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth,

but we don't get to see a woman,

just an ordinary, everyday woman

who lived life in New York day by day.

But we can identify with her because she does look like us.

And so it does make it personal.

Her life is a testament to our life.



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