Saturday’s featured speaker was archeologist Scott Warnasch, who was working out of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office identifying 9/11 remains in October 2011 when he was called to the construction site at 90-11 Corona Ave. to investigate a homicide.
“The operator of a backhoe shattered the coffin and dragged the body out,” Warnasch said. “The construction crew headed for the hills and called us and that’s where I came in. She was so well preserved, we discovered lesions on her skin.”
The archeologist knew the woman had died from smallpox and he was intrigued by her casket, which resembled an Egyptian sarcophagus. Warnasch knew it was the type of coffin that was very expensive and used to bury elites the likes of Dolly Madison, Daniel Webster and President Zachary Taylor, not an African-American woman in her 20s or 30s.
Warnash began years of research and discovered from an 1850 census on Newtown that the woman, who was likely named Martha Peterson, did domestic work in the home of the man who produced the special caskets in a Woodside foundry.
“Clearly the Iron Coffin Lady was loved by her community and was given everything she needed for a proper burial despite the fear of smallpox,” Warnasch said. She was buried in the cemetery at the original location of St. Mark, and Rev. Detherage was determined to pay her back for the indignities of her unearthing.
“She reminds us of where we come from and where we are going as a people and a community of faith,” Detherage said. “When people don’t know their own heritage, they are discounted.”