A new documentary scheduled to premiere Wednesday on PBS explores how scientists collaborated to determine the identity of a Black woman buried at an excavation site in New York City, which was once a 19th-century burial ground for Black people.
Researchers believe her name was Martha Peterson, the New York Post revealed, ahead of the airing of “The Woman in the Iron Coffin.”
“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 Scott Warnasch, the forensic archaeologist who first examined Peterson’s remains for New York City officials.
Construction workers discovered Peterson’s iron coffin in 2011 while excavating a site in Elmhurst, Queens. Her body was almost perfectly preserved because it was sealed in an airtight Fisk iron coffin.
In fact, Warnasch at first suspected that he was working with a recent homicide. But he soon figured out that she had been born and buried decades before the Civil War. The excavation site was once the grounds for a church founded in 1830 by free African-Americans.
Figuring out her identity involved the work of a geochemist who extracted chemicals from Peterson’s teeth and hair. That tests revealed that she lived in the Northeast and ate a balanced diet. An examination of her bone structure yielded an approximate age between 25 and 35. She likely died from smallpox, the team discovered.
Census data enabled the team to find out her name, where she worked and other details. It turned out that Peterson was a domestic in the home of a man who was not only the coffin maker but also an abolitionist.
Members of the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church gave Peterson a proper burial.