In 2011, construction workers stumbled across what they initially thought was a homicide victim. The site was in New York City in the borough of Queens. When detectives arrived they realized, that whether it was homicide or not, the body that was unearthed was not your typical murder victim.
Construction equipment had inadvertently damaged what later turned out to be an expensive, iron coffin. Apparently the coffin had been airtight and allowed preservation of a woman's body inside it.
The presence of the coffin indicated that this burial was much older than originally thought, since they were manufactured during the mid-1850s. The clothing and the shroud on the body was also from the same time period.
Scott Warnasch, a forensic archaeologist who was called to the site immediately recognized that bits of metal scattered around the body belonged to an iron coffin manufactured prior to the Civil War. He realized this was a historical discovery and not a crime scene. Further examination found that the woman was African-American and she was dressed in a nightgown, cap and thick knee socks.
When examined more closely, the mummy was so well preserved that lesions from smallpox we seen on the upper body, and the CDC was called in to make sure that the virus was no longer active.
Later it was found the site was on the grounds of the Dutch Lane Cemetery which had been adjacent to the African Methodist Episcopal Church established in 1828. The church moved to another location in 1929, however those that had been buried in the graveyard were left behind.
Scans were made of the body with X-ray tomography and an MRI and to create a biological profile of this person. It was found she was 5'2", approximately 25 to 30 years and she was African American.
Researchers turned to the 1850 census in order to find out who she was. They concluded that most likely her name was Martha Peterson, age 26 and that she had lived in the household of William Raymond, who was the brother-in-law, neighbor, and business partner of the iron coffin maker Almond Dunbar Fisk.
She had been lovingly prepared for burial despite the dangers of contagion, which also accounted as to why she had been buried in the airtight iron coffin. These coffins had been invented by Almond Dunbar Fisk, intentionally made to be airtight so that bodies could transported long distances without decomposing. They had a glass window over the face which was covered with a small iron door that could be moved aside so that the person inside could be viewed and identified if necessary. They were very expensive and used by the political elites in Washington D.C.
During the time of Martha's death, Queens was a rural area, and the area of Elmhurst was known as Newtown and had a large African American population.
New York in of itself was rife with disease due to overpopulated tenements and lack of hygiene. In 1856 a smallpox hospital was opened on Roosevelt Island in order to quarantine those who had been infected with different types of diseases.
In 2016, five years after her discovery, Martha Peterson was re-interred at the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church of Jackson Heights.
Source - LiveScience
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