A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces

Construction workers operating a backhoe found her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit building a new apartment complex.

They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Because the body, determined to be that of an African-American woman, was so well preserved, a forensic medical examiner assumed she was a recent homicide victim.

But as Scott Warnasch, a forensic archeologist from the city medical examiner’s office, investigated what was deemed a crime scene, he noticed dozens of metal fragments in the ground.

The fragments were identified as part of an iron coffin (above ad, from the Brooklyn Eagle) that had housed the woman’s remains and kept them eerily preserved in airtight conditions…until the backhoe smashed it open, according to Live Science.

Who was this woman, and how did she die? Her burial clothes held clues, appearing to be from the 19th century. The iron coffin also helped narrow things down; these were only produced in the mid-19th century, wrote LiveScience in 2018.

And there was something else: investigators found what looked like smallpox marks on her forehead and chest. Nineteenth century New York was no stranger to smallpox outbreaks. Though a vaccine had been developed, the virus killed a quarter of its victims and left survivors pockmarked or blind, wrote The New York Times in 2003.

The disease was so feared, a Smallpox Hospital was opened on Blackwell’s Island in 1856 (above).

How the woman died became clear…but still, who was she? Tests determined she was between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in a section of Queens that had a free black community at the time, so Warnasch turned to the 1850 census.

The name Martha Peterson seemed to fit. “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,” Warnasch told the New York Post in 2018.

The discovery of Martha Peterson and the effort that went into identifying her was captured in a PBS show: “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.

She was given a new burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery by congregants of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights in 2011—a fitting end to the story of a resurfaced body that served as a reminder of New York’s deadly disease outbreaks of the past.

[Top image: From the preview for Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin”; second image: Brooklyn Eagle; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Brooklyn Star, 1858]

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8 Responses to “A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces”

  1. NYC News: The "Buying Whiskey for a Good Cause" Edition Says:

    […] September of 2018, a construction crew in Elmhurst accidentally exhumed the mummified remains of a smallpox victim from the 1850s. Was that a bad omen? (Ephemeral New […]

  2. Judy Warner Says:

    I have wondered several times about republishing one of your great emails. I do a historical email for the Harvard Historical Society in Harvard MA. Would it be ok for me to republish one, with attribution of course. Thank you for these excellent reports.

    Judy Warner, Assistant to the Board, Harvard Historical Society

    On Mon, Mar 30, 2020 at 2:22 AM Ephemeral New York wrote:

    > ephemeralnewyork posted: “Construction workers operating a backhoe found > her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit > building a new apartment complex. They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” > explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe e” >

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:


  4. Newtown Historical Says:

    Martha Peterson was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, not Flushing Cemetery. https://www.thechristianrecorder.com/st-mark-amec-commemorates-and-buries-166-year-old-mummy/

  5. Scott Warnasch Says:

    Thank you for publishing with references

  6. Beth Says:

    PBS did a whole show on this a while back. It was fascinating; I knew nothing about iron coffins before this. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/the-woman-in-the-iron-coffin-full-episode/3964/

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