Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin Premieres Wednesday, October 3 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)
Streams October 4 via pbs.org/secrets and PBS apps
On October 4, 2011, construction workers were shocked to uncover human remains in an abandoned lot 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, however, revealed a remarkably different story. 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. But who was she? Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin 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.
- The iron coffin was created in 1848 by Almond Dunbar Fisk, a stove manufacturer from New York. The coffin was created to preserve bodies for sanitary storage and for transportation prior to modern embalming. The airtight coffins also preserved bodies well enough for legal identification purposes. Iron 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.
- New York, one of the largest slaveholding states, officially abolished slavery on July 4, 1827. Following the abolishment, freed African Americans began to establish communities in New York City, including the Queens community of Newtown (now Elmhurst), where a body was found at what was once the location of an African Methodist Episcopal church and burial ground.
- The “Woman in the Iron Coffin” was first discovered by construction workers on October 4, 2011 and was believed to be a victim of a homicide. Archaeologists were called to the site on October 5, 2011, where they discovered metal fragments, suggesting the woman was buried more than 150 years ago.
- From initial examinations, it was determined that the body was that of an African American woman, 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.
- 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, the “Woman in the Iron Coffin” was given a proper burial by the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church of Jackson Heights.
- For a non-evasive way to further examine the woman’s remains, Warnasch seeks the help of Prof. Jerry Conlogue to conduct a “virtual” autopsy. Using sophisticated computer software and hardware, Warnasch and Conlogue determine the woman was between 25 and 30 years old, and died from smallpox.
- Forensic imaging specialist Joe Mullins creates a facial reconstruction of the “Woman in the Iron Coffin” by using a CT scan of the skull, digitally fixing the damaged parts of the skull, and incorporating age-and-ancestry-appropriate features from a database of thousands of body parts. To give back to the Queens community, Warnasch shares the image of the woman with members of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church
Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin is a production of Impossible Factual. Directed by Adam Luria. Stephanie Carter is executive producer for Secrets of the Dead.
Funding for Secrets of the Dead is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by public television viewers.