Mysterious 150-Year-Old Corpse Discovered To Be Of One Of The First Free African-Americans

October 3, 2018

By: Ryan Velez

While we often read about the horrors and slavery and how it came to end as an institution in the U.S., one detail that often gets left out of history in school and beyond is what happened to that first group of African-Americans who managed to become free. The Grio reports on a recent flashback to a glimpse of these people from a PBS documentary on a mysterious corpse found in Queens, New York.

The documentary in question, called The Woman In The Iron Coffin, followed a team a team of “forensic experts as they investigate the preserved remains of a young African American woman from 19th century New York,“ born decades before the Civil War on church grounds founded in 1830 by the first generation of free African-Americans, according to PBS. Later discovered to be named Martha Peterson, when the iron coffin was first discovered in 2011 underneath an abandoned lot, the body was so well-preserved that the construction workers who unearthed it thought it could be a recent homicide.

Scott Warnasch, former New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner forensic archaeologist, told the New York Post: “It was recorded as a crime scene. A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward.’” However, forensic scientists were shocked to see that the woman in the coffin actually died of smallpox, and dated all the way back to only a few years after New York abolished slavery. “The body was so well preserved that I would not have been shocked if the smallpox virus had survived,” Warnasch added.

Martha Peterson is the woman in the iron coffinOn the afternoon of Oct. 4, 2011, a backhoe dug into an excavation pit in Elmhurst, Queens

As a part of the documentary, a CT scan of Peterson’s skull was made to see what the young woman looked like when she was alive, before she was given a proper burial the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church of Jackson Heights in 2016.

From historical record, we know Peterson was 26 when she died, and was the daughter of two prominent figures in Newtown, a predominantly black community at the time that would eventually become modern Elmhurst. Notably, the creator of her iron coffin was the business partner and neighbor of the man she lived with, William Raymond.

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