Segments in this Video

First Responders (05:18)


Detectives describe homicide rates in Queens. In October 2011, construction workers unearth the remains of a skeleton. Forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch recounts initial site examination. An iron shard suggests the remains over 150-years-old; they are also African American and contain smallpox lesions.

Public Health Threat (03:55)

Kevin Karem describes his expertise and determines no risk of epidemic; smallpox is highly contagious. Unsanitary and densely populated conditions spread disease. In 1959, a world health assembly eliminates smallpox by mandating vaccination.

High Tech Examination (04:49)

Prof. Jerry Conlogue describes working with mummies. He uses CT scans to create a three dimensional model of the remains for virtual autopsy, confirming smallpox as cause of death. He discovers how the disease colonizes the body.

Fisk Metallic Burial Case (04:07)

Experts learn that Almond Fisk invented the iron coffin that preserves the woman's remains. See Canton Historical Museum's intact casket; Warnasch explains its manufacture and features.

Preservation of Remains (03:18)

The airtight iron coffin preserves the woman's corpse; organisms responsible for decomposition require oxygen. The caskets are typically associated with the elite, not African Americans. The foot plate patent is botched and substandard products are reserved for noncommercial use.

Minority Subjugation (07:23)

Prof. Clarence Taylor describes 1800s African American life. Conlogue and Warnasch assess the woman's age at death as under 30. Peterson discusses abolishment and "Black Birding." On July 4, 1827, an Emancipation Act liberates New York blacks from slavery.

Local Upbringing (04:05)

After Emancipation, free African Americans establish communities where escaped slaves take refuge. Rhonda Quinn analyzes teeth samples and determines the unknown woman grew up in the northeastern United States. A hair sample is consistent with chemicals and proteins of other New Yorkers of the time.

Burial Site (03:44)

In the 1800s, Queens was a small, country town; the body is found where an African American church once stood. Experts discuss community, mutual relief, and the formation of black churches in response to segregated worship.

Final Resting Place (04:04)

Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal is one mile from the original church; the congregation receives notification of the woman's remains. Funeral director John Houston describes her as a historical case, expressing honor in preparing the remains.

Naming the Mystery Woman (05:27)

Warnasch searches for the woman's identity. In the 1850 census, he discovers Martha Peterson, age 26; her parents were prominent and she was educated. Peterson and Taylor recount James Pennington's story, pondering possibilities of him being her teacher.

Facial Reconstruction and Shaping History (07:22)

Forensic artist Joe Mullins reconstructs the woman's face. Warnasch presents the outcome and her identity to the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church Historical Committee. Taylor and Peterson discuss the importance of her discovery. (Credits)

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Woman in the Iron Coffin

3-Year Streaming Price: $169.95



In 2011, construction workers uncovered the remains of a woman in an abandoned lot in Queens, New York. This program follows a team of historians and scientists as they investigate this woman’s story.

Length: 56 minutes

Item#: FMK169130

Copyright date: ©2018

Closed Captioned

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