October 4, 2011, a backhoe was digging into a pit in Elmhurst, Queens when it struck iron. Workers on the construction site thought they may have hit a pipe but when the iron piece was brought up from the ground it ended up being a casket with a body wearing a white gown and knee socks.
The New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner forensic archaeologist, Scott Warnash initially thought the body found was from a recent homicide. “It was recorded as a crime scene. A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward," Warnash tells the NY Post. The body was so perfectly preserved that they assumed it was a recent death however it turns out the body was actually of a woman born DECADES before the Civil War. She was buried in what was a church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans. Now a new documentary, “The Woman in the Iron Coffin,” premiering Wednesday on PBS, provides the woman’s identity.
The body is believed to be Martha Peterson, a woman who worked for a local white man with "abolitionist leanings."
Warnasch said that “smallpox lesions covered her body.” Initially he was concerned by this: “The body was so well preserved that I would not have been shocked if the smallpox virus had survived.” After looking at an 1850 census report, they were able to identify the body. “Only 33 individuals fit her criteria," he says. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” said Warnasch.
More photos here.