By The Historical Committee, St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church
In October 2011, St. Mark AME Church, Jackson Heights, received a phone call that the body of a dead woman had been found on the church’s original site located at 90-15 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst, New York, formerly Union Avenue, Newtown, New York. Development was underway to build condos on the site. While digging with a backhoe, the construction company struck metal, which turned out to be an iron coffin and the feet of a Black woman spilled forth.
The construction crew called the police because they believed her body may have been the result of a recent homicide. The police called the New York City Medical Examiner and the intact, mummified, fully clothed—down to her bonnet and stockings—body of St. Mark AME Church’s former parishioner was unearthed. The Medical Examiner’s Office called St. Mark and reported that the woman was not a victim of a homicide but an African American woman who died on or about 1850 of small pox and had been buried in the Church’s former cemetery. If the woman had not initially been mistaken for a murder victim, St. Mark might never have known that she existed.
After almost five years of testing, investigation, research, and negotiation, the Historical Committee felt that it was time that the Iron Coffin Lady be laid to rest. The Committee planned a memorial reception, traditional funeral, and reburial of the Iron Coffin Lady befitting her as an historic figure and past parishioner of St. Mark’s first incarnation on November 5-7, 2016.
The Memorial Reception commenced on Saturday, November 5, 2016, at 11AM and featured exhibits, a silent auction, a commemorative journal and presentations that intertwined the history of African American burial grounds and the Church’s history with the possible story of the Iron Coffin Lady’s past life. Over 150 people were in attendance, including local media, academicians, and church and community members.
Speakers included archeologist Scott Warnash, who was working out of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office identifying 9/11 remains when he was called to the site in Queens to examine what was thought to be a murder victim’s remains. Warnash has made an extensive study of iron coffins and the remains found inside them. He spoke on the history of iron coffins, identification of the iron coffin in which the Iron Coffin Lady was buried, the foundry near the original church site where iron coffins were manufactured, as well as the possible identification of the Iron Coffin Lady through her DNA, artifacts, and the historical significance of her well-preserved clothing.
Michael Hutchinson, Director of the African American Burial Ground in New York City, addressed the history of African Americans during the Colonial Period in New York City, the location of African-American burial grounds, the history of the development of the African American burial ground in New York City, and the preservation of similar burial grounds throughout New York.
Professor Gerald Conlogue, of Quinnipiac University, who has extensively studied and scanned her mummified remains, related his findings on the Iron Coffin Lady and the history of the smallpox disease. Doctor Conlogue explained that pre-colonial Africa had the knowledge of immunizing against smallpox. He presented a report of research findings from the CDC as well as findings on her burial clothing. Despite her disease, she had loved ones who cared about her and made sure she was buried in the proper clothing of the time. She wore a chemise, shroud, bonnet, and stockings, all found intact due to their preservation in the iron coffin.
A traditional funeral was held on Sunday, November 6, 2016 at 4PM. The Iron Coffin Lady’s remains had been stored by the TriBoro Funeral Home since they, as the law directed, removed her from the City’s custody to St. Mark’s, and took great and loving care of her body while it was researched and investigated. The Iron Coffin Lady was transported to the church for her funeral in a custom recreated 1932 Rolls Royce glass-sided hearse and laid to rest in great style.
The Iron Coffin Lady was eulogized by the pastor of St. Mark, the Rev. Kimberly L. Detherage, Esquire, who stated that “it was no accident that her body was found… It was no accident that her body was preserved, mummified with hair, clothes intact, and wearing a bonnet and stockings. 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… The unearthing of the Iron Coffin Lady has helped us to understand the importance of our history and the need to tell our own story and not allow others to tell it for us.”
The traditional home going service featured tributes from the St. Mark AME Church family as well as Bishop Gerald G. M. Ingram and Presiding Elder Ron McCune. On Monday morning, November 7, 2016, at 11AM, the Iron Coffin Lady was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, near the 20 members who were re-interred in 1928. The Iron Coffin Lady was re-interred and her body finally laid to rest.