When a New York construction crew stumbled on the body in 2011, officials called it a recent homicide. The woman's skin was still intact and she wore a white gown with knee-high socks. "It was recorded as a crime scene," Scott Warnasch, a city forensic archaeologist, tells the New York Post. "A buried body on an abandoned lot sounds pretty straightforward." But the iron seemed odd—50 to 60 pieces bits of it scattered around the find in Elmhurst, Queens. As Warnasch explains in the PBS documentary The Woman in the Iron Coffin, airing Wednesday, the woman was indeed buried in an iron coffin designed to transport corpses via ships and trains in a sanitary way. Seems she was buried on the grounds of a church founded in 1830 by the first generation of free blacks.
But who was she? Her bone structure puts her age at 25 to 35, and an autopsy says she likely died of smallpox in the brain. Knowing that Elmhurst (then Newtown) was home to free blacks by the 1850s, Warnasch looked up an 1850 census report and found a good fit: Martha Peterson. "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," says Warnasch, who figures she worked for Raymond and was buried in one of his coffins. Her face was smashed by the backhoe, but forensic-imaging specialist Joe Mullins recreated it based on a CT scan (see it here). "I saw this woman come to life on the screen," says Mullins. "Putting a face to history is remarkable." (Stream the documentary here starting Thursday.)