Mystery and Tragedy at Airtight Bridge

Airtight Bridge spans the narrow Embarras River in rural Coles County. It was designed by Claude L. James and built in 1914. In 1981, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historical places on account of “event, Architecture/Engineering.”

Before this “event,” the bridge was known as a drinking spot for local teens as well as students from Eastern Illinois University. Otherwise, the bridge, which even 26 years ago was described as “old” and “creaky,” had a pretty mundane existence.

That all changed on the pleasant Sunday morning of October 19, 1980. According to newspaper reports, two men from rural Urbana spotted what looked like the body of a nude woman about 50 feet from the bridge as they drove past. A local man soon joined them at the scene and the three quickly discovered that the head, hands, and feet were missing from the cadaver. They called the sheriff’s office, and 20 minutes later a full investigation was underway.

Police used scuba divers and dredged the river to find clues, but the body parts, which had been severed “fairly cleanly,” were never found. There were several false leads in the case, including missing person reports, as well as a sack of clothes that was discovered north of Charleston. The cause of death, which probably lay in the head, was never determined.

Police described the woman as being in her 20s, “rather flat-chested,” “not in the habit of shaving,” about 5’9”, weighing around 130lbs, with dark auburn hair. Her blood type was later determined to be A-positive, which is uncommon. The torso was shipped to Springfield to be examined by pathologist Dr. Grant Johnson, but nothing conclusive was uncovered because of the advanced state of decomposition.

After an extensive investigation, no killer was located (although Henry Lee Lucas became a prime suspect) and the identity of the woman remained a mystery for years. She was buried in Charleston’s largest cemetery under the name Jane Doe.

Twelve years later, on November 20, 1992, the sheriff’s department announced that the identity of the woman had been ascertained. Genetic tests determined that the victim was a 26-year-old woman from Bradley, Illinois named Diana Small. Her husband never reported her missing because, according to the Mattoon Journal Gazette, she had “left home on occasions before.”

Her biological family was separated across the country and did not learn that she was gone until years later. According to Detective Steven Coy, she did not have a driver’s license, so it was unlikely that she left Bradley on her own.

In October 2008, the anonymous headstone that had marked the grave of Diana Small was replaced with one bearing her name. In early spring 2017, 36 years after her murder, police arrested her husband, Thomas A. Small, for the crime after he reportedly confessed.

Because of this gruesome story, its remote location, and its precarious condition, Airtight Bridge continues to capture the local imagination. There is little doubt that the bridge will continue to be a part of local folklore for generations to come.

Further Reading

  • Times-Courier (Charleston) 21 October 1980.
  • Daily Eastern News (Charleston) 27 October 2005.
  • “Police make arrest in 1980 Airtight Bridge murder in Coles County,” Herald & Review (Decatur) 3 March 2017.

2 comments

  1. Easy to see how such a chilling discovery would live on in the local lore. But … “not in the habit of shaving”?! I’m never leaving the house again with day-old stubble, just in case. Another wonderful post, Michael!

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