Five years ago, a crew of construction workers stumbled on something unexpected while working on a new apartment complex in Elmhurst, Queens: An IRON COFFIN. Inside was a woman so well-preserved investigators initially mistook her for a recent homicide victim. But no, she had been there, in that coffin, for 160 years.
Archaeologists determined the perfectly intact mummy (awesomely dubbed “the Iron Coffin Lady”) was an African American woman in her 30s, likely killed by smallpox. But what was she doing there?
It turns out the site was the original location of the St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by the United African Society of Long Island in 1828. The church has had a few moves since then, eventually winding up on Northern Boulevard in Corona. But up until the discovery of the Lady, few church members — including the clergy — were aware that there had even existed an Elmhurst location at all, much less a burial ground.
“Because of her and because of the finding of her, our church has had a renewed fervor in learning more about who we are and who we were,” Pastor Kimberly Detherage told NY1. “We lost some of the history throughout the years.”
One key giveaway of the woman’s death date was the elaborate iron coffin in which she was buried, which forensic archeologist Scott Warnasch said resembled an Egyptian sarcophagus, complete with a viewing window over her face. (Warnasch, who works for the Office of the Medical Examiner, was apparently called away from his duties identifying the remains of 9/11 victims to look into the mummy.)
Another tell was her outfit. Reverend Deborah Jackson, an associate minister, told the Voice that the Iron Coffin Lady was buried in a chemise and shroud, along with a bonnet and knee-length stockings. The remains of 15 others were also found at the site, though it’s unclear why they weren’t dignified with their own airtight coffins.
Little is known about the woman, though on Saturday that might change: The church is hosting an exhibit with photos and two speakers who spent the last several years researching the body — Warnasch, the archaeologist, as well as Quinnipiac University’s Gerald Conlogue, who performed diagnostic imaging.
Jackson adds that because the corpse was so impeccably preserved, researchers have been given an unprecedented chance to study smallpox and its effects. (There was even some initial concern that the virus might have still been alive when the coffin was pried open, but those fears have since been proven unfounded.)
On Sunday, the ICL will be transferred from her erstwhile resting place at a Queens funeral home to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth.
As of now, work on the new apartments has been stopped until the developers can reach an agreement with the church on an appropriate memorial.