Coffin From Civil War Uncovers Mystery

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The rusty iron coffin stubbornly resisted hammer and chisel as researchers in a warm Smithsonian laboratory sought a glimpse of an American who lived more than a century and a half ago.

``This is a person and we want to tell this person's story. She is our primary obligation,'' anthropologist Doug Owsley said as the lid was lifted to reveal a young body wrapped in a brown shroud.

The coffin was found in April by utility workers digging in Washington.

Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, said the body was well preserved. The young man wore a shirt and vest, pants and drawers, all hand-sewn, as well as a pair of socks. Only the socks appeared machine-made, Owsley said Thursday.

The cast iron coffin was shaped a bit like an Egyptian mummy and is of a type called Fisk style patented in 1848. This particular model was popular in the early 1850s among the well-to-do, Owsley said.

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