In October 2011, construction workers uncovered a human body during the process of redeveloping a 1.4-acre property at Corona Avenue and 90th Street in Elmhurst, Queens. Thought to be a possible crime scene, forensic anthropologists from the Medical Examiner’s Office were called to the site. They determined that the remains were of a young African American woman who died in the early 1850s. Her body had naturally mummified in the iron coffin she was buried in, which had broken open during the excavations. Inquiries confirmed that the property was used as an African American cemetery in the 19th century, and archaeologists subsequently recovered tombstone and coffin fragments from the site, as well as bone fragments representing at least nine other individuals.
The Iron Coffin Lady, as she has been dubbed, was recovered from the site of a cemetery associated with the United African Society of Newtown, later known as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church. In 1828—a year after the abolition of slavery in New York—a white farmer, William Hunter, and his wife Jane, deeded two acres to the United African Society for the purpose of building a church and parsonage. This property was on the north side of Dutch Lane (later Union Avenue, and now Corona Avenue), between what is now 90th Street and 91st Place. A cemetery was perhaps already in use on the site—some sources say the property had been set aside as a “Negro burial ground” in 1818. Services for black worshippers were offered for nearly 100 years at the church built at the site, but the congregation was continuously torn by struggles between a Presbyterian faction and another preferring the Methodist ritual. In 1907, the United African Society joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and reemerged as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church.
Throughout the 19th century, members of Newtown’s earliest African American church were buried in the cemetery on Corona Avenue, which likely also served as a general burial ground for the black community of Newtown Village (today’s Elmhurst). Over 300 burials had been made in the graveyard by 1886, when the church appealed for assistance in enclosing the cemetery and making necessary repairs. The improvements had been made by 1891, when the Newtown Register reported that a “neat fence” surrounded the entire church grounds, and the graves, previously “covered with underbrush and sadly neglected,” were “entirely cleared and neatly fixed over,” presenting “a sightly and pleasing appearance.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of the burials made in the restored cemetery:
Fesius Hoff was a negro who lived in the village of Newtown for many years, dying in April 1892. He made his living by doing chores about the village and was universally liked. He lived in a tumbledown, one-story house that many times needed the necessaries of life. But no matter how hard-pressed he was no one ever heard him complain. He took life easy and if he had anything to eat he was glad, and if he had not it was all right. He trusted to luck, and many times it deserted him. To the small boys of the village, Fesius was an oracle. If a question was to be decided, to him the boys went and always abided by his decision. In all matters Fesius was their counselor and guide, and when they grew up they had always a kindly word for the old negro. Friday afternoon, in the burying ground attached to the colored church, where Fesius’s body had been laid to rest, a monument was set up over his grave … The Rev. J.W. Van Zandt, the pastor of the colored church, delivered an oration and prominent citizens made addresses. The little churchyard was crowded and flowers were laid upon his grave…
The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the “Colored Cemetery” on Corona Avenue in 1919. No inscriptions or locations of graves were recorded during the survey, but information was obtained from Mr. John Ferguson of Brooklyn, “one of the oldest members of the church.” Mr. Ferguson said that no one had kept a record of burials in the cemetery and interments there had ended by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1929, St. Mark’s A.M.E. sold the property at Corona Avenue and moved to a new church at 95th Street and 32nd Avenue in East Elmhurst. Before the move, in April 1928 the New York Amsterdam News reported that St. Mark’s had applied for a permit to remove all the remains from the burial ground at Corona Avenue and reinter them in a plot purchased at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, but the application had been refused by the city. Mount Olivet’s burial register records the remains of 20 individuals from the Corona Avenue cemetery that were transferred to two graves at Mount Olivet in May 1928. Why only these 20 were moved is unknown. It seems most of the burials at the Corona Avenue burial ground were left in place and built over when the property was sold. By the 1940s, the Peerless Instrument factory and other structures had been built on the site.
The body discovered during construction at the site in 2011 was a 5-foot-3-inch-tall mummified African American woman, buried in an elaborate and expensive Fisk Metallic Burial Case shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Her long hair, falling over her shoulders, was preserved, as were the chemise, shroud, bonnet, and stockings she was wearing. Lesions on her skin suggested she died of smallpox.
After five years of testing, investigation, and research by a diverse team of experts, in 2016 the Iron Coffin Lady was reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where she was laid to rest near the 20 individuals who were reinterred there from the Corona Avenue cemetery in 1928. The discovery of her body in 2011 fascinated scientists and historians and spurred local interest in this forgotten African American burial ground and Newtown’s historic black community. At the 2016 reburial ceremony held at the St. Mark’s A.M.E. successor church located at 95‐18 Northern Boulevard in Queens, the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage stated, “It was no accident that her body was found…God ordained that we should have another opportunity to know and discover our history and how important our history is to the building of New York and this nation as African Americans.”
***On October 3, 2018, PBS will air Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin, which follows the team of scientists and historians who investigated the remains discovered at Elmhurst’s African burial ground in 2011.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 51; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975), 3; History of Saint Mark A.M.E. Church; “After Freedom in Newtown, Queens: African Americans and the Color Line, 1828-1899,” Long Island Historical Journal, 5(2), 157-167; Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995), 19, 21, 61, 119; Phase 1A Archaeological Investigation—Documentary Research and Sensitivity Assessment of the 90-15 Corona Avenue Project Area… (McLean 2006); Phase IB Archaeological Field Testing…90-15 Corona Ave…(Bergoffen 2012); “Sexton Ransom’s Charge, The Sun, Aug 30, 1880; “To Restore the House of God,” Newtown Register, May 27, 1886; “Improvements Around a Church,” Newtown Register, Sept 16, 1891; “Notes from Newtown,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 30, 1892; “A Monument to a Negro,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 11, 1893; “Obituary Notes,” Newtown Register, Oct 26, 1899; “Old Deed Was Useful,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 7, 1913; “Church Members Seek Accounting,” New York Amsterdam News, Apr 18, 1928; “Congregation 111 Yrs. Old, In Anniversary Celebration,” New York Amsterdam News, Apr 1, 1939; “St Mark’s Church In Corona Founded 1828,” New York Age, Nov 27, 1954; “St. Mark AMEC Commemorates and Buries 166-Year-Old Mummy,” Christian Recorder, Dec 29, 2016