What Really Happened to Ambrose Small?

an can't vanish into thin air. Yet 30 years ago a Canadian theatre magnate seemed to do just at. He left behind $2 millions, a legal tangle, and a weird mystery that time has only deepened


What Really Happened to Ambrose Small?

an can't vanish into thin air. Yet 30 years ago a Canadian theatre magnate seemed to do just at. He left behind $2 millions, a legal tangle, and a weird mystery that time has only deepened


TWENTY-FOUR hours after making the biggest deal of his life Ambrose Joseph Small, 53-year-old theatrical magnate and part-time gambler, vanished from his office in Toronto’s old Grand Opera House, leaving a childless wife, a few puzzled cronies, a wildly conjecturing staff and a $2 million fortune.

Small was an expert at peddling melodrama to theatre-goers. During his early years with the Opera House he had helped stage such productions as “In Convict Stripes,” “Perils of Pauline,” “East Lynn” and “Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl.” With his own disappearance on Dec. 2, 1919, he rang up the curtain on one of the juiciest melodramas and most baffling whodunits in the records of the Canadian police.

For more than 25 years scene after scene unfolded, hammed up by one of the biggest known casts of clairvoyants, spiritualists, mind readers, crooks, cranks, crackpots, cryptographers and journalists, hooking the audience with such lurid material as a woman kneeling in her cellar at 2 o’clock in the morning telling her rosary by candelight, a mentally deranged maid, a theft of $105,000, lawsuits, family quarrels, violent death, a forged confession and a letter to the Pope. It was a gold mine for the Press and a free ringside seat for hundreds of thousands of mystery lovers. In the library of one Toronto newspaper there are eight fat volumes of clippings on the case. The story was told and retold and the announcement that Small’s bones may have been found appeared with such tireless regularity for 30 years that, in Toronto, the name Ambrose Small became a mild household joke.

Whenever someone dug an extra-deep hole in his garden a waggish neighbor was almost sure to lean on the fence and say: “Looking for Ambrose Small?” When work was begun on Toronto’s subway the gag was used so often that a few people began to wonder if maybe they would find him there.

But to the few witnesses still alive it is no joke. Most of them have been interviewed and cross-examined into a state of neurosis and just want to be left alone. Their attitude was aptly represented by the newsboy who went on counting change for a solid minute after I’d mentioned Ambrose Small, then told me: “Look, forget it. I don’t even want to hear that name again”; and a silent drinker who first played dumb, then said, “If you mention my name I’ll murder you.”

Ambrose Small was a fast operator who had parlayed a penniless start amid the sawdust and cigar smoke of his father’s bar to the top spot in the theatrical world in Canada. He owned theatres in Toronto, Hamilton, London, St. Thomas, Kingston and Peterborough, and controlled the bookings for 62 more, chiefly in Ontario, although he had extended some interests as far as the Pacific coast. He was a slight, high-complexioned, hollow-cheeked man with a walrus mustache, a quick nervous manner, a temperament that was noisy and bluff when things were going well, bleak and watchful when he was crossed, and a fondness for traveling, making big bets and minding his own business

There probably never was a character more difficult to appraise at a distance of 30 years. I found people who could describe him for hours on end as a cold-blooded slanderer, blackmailer, welcher and swindler who made his dough fixing races, needling jokers into contracts and blaming his employees if he was caught. It is told by a man whose dislike of Small was equalled only by Small’s dislike of him that one business acquaintance corrected an error in identity with: “I may be a damned liar and a damned thief, but you insult me, sir, when you call me Ambrose J. Small”; and another, when he heard there was a chance Small had been killed and buried in the Rosedale dump, rubbed his hands with delight and implied that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

On the other hand I talked with people who had nothing but good to say for him. Bill Wampole, who had the opera glass, cloakroom and candy concession in Small’s Grand Theatre, told me: “He was one of the best friends I ever had. In all the years I worked in the Grand he never charged me a dime for my concession.” On the eve of selling out his holdings Small spoke of buying another theatre just to provide jobs for his staff at the Grand. His two sisters regarded him as a hero. His wife spoke of his generosity (on order for her at the time of his disappearance: a $10,000 limousine, a $3,500 sealskin coat trimmed with chinchilla, a $3,000 set of silver fox and a $10,000 pearl necklace) and throughout her testimony referred to him the way any wife would speak of a devoted husband who made an occasional slip.

The day before Small’s disappearance he had sold all his theatrical holdings to Trans-Canada Theatres Ltd. for $1,700,000. The deal had been closed in the law offices of Osler and Harcourt in the presence of Small’s friend and attorney, E. W. M. Flock; Mrs. Small; and W. J. Shaughnessy, representing TransCanada Theatres. Shaughnessy had brought from Montreal a certified cheque for the down payment of $1 million (Trans-Canada folded before any of the $700,000 balance had been paid).

On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 2, the day of Small’s disappearance, he and his wife left their home in Toronto’s stately old Rosedale at different times, having arranged to meet at the Grand Opera House on the south side of Adelaide Street, between Bay and Yonge, in downtown Toronto. They were then to clear up a few remaining details with Flock and deposit the cheque.

When Mrs. Small arrived at the Grand, Flock was already there and the two waited in the lobby until Small arrived sometime around 2 o’clock whistling “Mickey, pretty Mickey, with your hair of raven hue.” Mr. and Mrs. Small left Flock, went to the Dominion Bank at King and Yonge Streets, came back to the Grand and joined Flock for lunch in a tearoom adjoining the theatre.

After lunch Small dropped his wife off at a Catholic orphanage on Bond Street, where she had been doing charity work, saying that he would be home for dinner at 6. At 5 Small had another last-minute conference with Flock in the Grand. Flock left him at 5.30. As far as it is positively known  was the last person to see Small. 

Mrs. Small returned home about 5 p.m. When her husband didn’t show up for supper she began to check with the people he worked with, ending with a betting commissioner named Flynn who said her: “Don’t be so fussy about it. Give the man some liberty.” Nobody was particularly alarmed as Small was often away on business and otherwise absent from hearth and home; and, although Small didn’t know where her husband was, she began to feel sure she knew what he was doing. She later testified that her husband for a long time had been “in the hands of a designing woman.” It proved to be an unfortunate circumstance in the Small case as his disappearance was hushed up for two weeks, a period long enough to obscure many clues.

On Dec. 16, 1919, the police were notified by James Cowan, manager of the Grand. Whether Cowan phoned the police at the request of Mrs. Small or on his own initiative was never definitely established.

A reward was offered, which was eventually boosted to $50,000 if Small were found alive, $15,000 if dead, and an avalanche of clues and information began to pour over the desk of detective Austin Mitchell, who had been assigned to the case, and who, oddly, looked a lot like Small himself.

Early in the investigations two newsboys, Nat and Louis Savein, testified that they had seen Small walking east on Adelaide Street sometime after 5.30. Fred Lamb, owner of a hotel next to the Grand, said Small had dropped into his hotel Tuesday night and stayed until 7.

There was no doubt about the sincerity of this testimony, but considerable doubt that the witnesses could be sure they had seen Small on Tuesday, the day of his disappearance, and not the day before.

Alfred Elson, a caretaker in a building on Bloor Street, stated that on the night of Dec. 2 he had seen four men bury something heavy in a dump in Rosedale ravine. George J. Soucy, an engineer with the MacLean Publishing Company, claimed that on Dec. 2 he saw Small held in a car speeding North on Yonge Street. Blackstone, the magician, later swore an affidavit that he had seen Small playing roulette in Juarez, Mexico, on April 8, 1920.

The Sisters Swing into Action

A couple of leads sounded really hot. The police intercepted a wire to a store owner in New York from someone in Niagara Falls, Ont., who signed himself “S. H.,” saying: “Hold Small until tomorrow morning. Don’t let him go under any circumstances.” Detective Mitchell rushed off to spend five and a half fruitless days in New York.

A New York lawyer who had defended the notorious Frank and Jesse James received a series of letters from a writer signing “B. B. Friend” stating that Small was being held by gangsters and offering to carry on negotiations. But the correspondence stopped abruptly before anything was accomplished.

In the meantime the newspapers, which had struck paydirt at a time between wars when it was needed, really began to shovel. Headline writers had never been happier. They came up with banners like: SMALL’S ASTRAL BODY SEEN BY TORONTO MAN? IS SMALL’S BODY BURIED BENEATH ROSEDALE DUMP? CLAIMS SPIRIT TOLD HER A. J. SMALL WAS POISONED. One enterprising paper found that Conan Doyle, creator of fiction’s Sherlock Holmes, was visiting New York, presented him with a brief of the Small case (which Doyle evidently accepted politely and then forgot) and ran the headline: SHERLOCK HOLMES TAKES SMALL CASE UNDER WING.

The situation was whooped up to even greater heights by another circumstance which was eventually to turn loose more fireworks than all the other events put together. Ambrose Small had two maiden sisters, Gertrude and Florence, whom Small, to prevent trouble in his father’s home after his father remarried, had set up and supported in a place of their own. These two sisters now found themselves left to their own resources while Mrs. Small had a fortune. The sisters, captained by Pat Sullivan, publisher of the Thunderer, a sensational Toronto tabloid weekly, who roomed with them, began to ask questions. What was being done about finding their brother? Why was there only one detective on the case? Why hadn’t the police dug deeper in Rosedale dump? How much money was left of Small’s estate, and who was paying off who?

They got special hearings, dug up further clues, stirred things up generally.

The big reward and a hysterical Press encouraged people to see more hobgoblins in a minute than they’d ordinarily see after a week’s diet of bingo. By far the biggest portion of blues were of a weird, supernatural breed oddly associated with the Small case from the beginning. Small was seldom reported in normal condition. At best he was an amnesia victim, at worst a gibbering idiot, and in between an astral body, an anguished wail issuing from beneath a cement floor, or an honest ghost with a habit of popping up with the information that his mortal remains were at rest in the ashpit of the boiler of the Grand Opera House.

Several people contacted Mrs. Small with clues so phoney that they were arrested for extortion.

The search turned up a car thief, a wife deserter and a couple of detectives whose credentials were as hard to find as Ambrose Small. One sleuth, after weeks of dramatic buildup, put the finger on an honest worker who had been in the heart of Brazil at the time of Small’s disappearance. Mrs. Small received a cryptogram that started: “lp uibu 86n” (there were 11 lines of this) which a Toronto woman construed: “Small is imprisoned in the limehouse kilns near Brampton Junction, dying for lack of air.”

Clues were mailed in by inmates of asylums who said they knew where Small was, and who sometimes said they were Ambrose Small.

The case attracted an unusual number of investigators with methods so mysterious that they completely baffled police detection. As late as 1928, Maxmilian A. Langsner, a Viennese criminologist who had worked with the police in the Vernon Booher cases in Alberta (see “The Mind Reader and the Murdeier,” Maclean’s March 15, 1950), announced that he was going to break the Small case wide open with his “thought-wave” system, got plenty of columns of publicity, then disappeared from public notice. According to a well-known Canadian insurance executive who knew him, Langsner claimed that he had solved the Small murder, told the police who did it, and where Small’s body had been taken (to a rooming house in Montreal, where it was burned in a furnace).

The police say that’s as good a theory as any, but they are handicapped by having to back up their theories with a body. They probably would say the same thing about a theory that Small was whisked away on the very first of the flying saucers.

A month after Small disappeared, something happened that had nothing to do with ghosts. John Doughty, Small’s secretary for 18 years, who had been transferred to Trans-Canada theatres in Montreal with the big deal, suddenly disappeared, and when Small’s safety deposit vault was finally opened to the police $105,000 worth of bonds were found to be missing along with him. The search for Small shifted to a search for Doughty. He was picked up 11 months later in a lumber camp in Oregon. Back in Toronto he promptly led the police to the bonds, which were stuck between the walls of an attic room in a married sister’s home. He was arraigned on charges of theft and conspiracy to kidnap.

The Millionaire Paid $45

Although the latter charge was never pressed, due chiefly to the lack of a victim, Doughty’s trial for theft brought to light a lot of sensational evidence. His story was that he had been handling the bonds officially for Small, that Small’s disappearance had left him holding the bonds, so he turned them over to his sister, Jean Doughty, just before he caught the train for Montreal, telling her to put them in a safety deposit box until further notice. Jean claimed that she did not know what the package was and she had put it in a chiffonier and forgot about it.

Doughty had made a trip back to Toronto on Dec. 21 and again over the week end of Dec. 27-28. He said he had then told Jean what was in the package and she had tossed the bonds under some hoards in the attic floor, to be hidden again in the attic later by another brother. In the meantime Doughty said he had got the wind up because of the announcement of Small’s disappearance and lammed it.

The prosecution drew out the fact that Doughty had worked for millionaire Small for $45 a week and had practically made a lifetime hobby of beefing about it. Several employees of the Grand, including Fred Daville, in charge of printing programs, and Ernest Reid, in charge of a chocolate vending machine, said Doughty had come to them with kidnapping plans.

The defense rested on the argument that Doughty had power of attorney over Small’s safety deposit vault and could legally take anything from it at any time; the bonds had been restored; no coupons had been clipped; nothing had been stolen; therefore there had been no theft.

A jury brought in a verdict of guilty, however, and Doughty was sentenced to six years in Portsmouth Penitentiary.

About the time of Doughty’s trial orders were made by Official Referee J. A. C. Cameron that Mrs. Small was to receive about $800,000 of her husband’s estate, which she claimed as her own, plus a $30,000 allowance and the use of her Rosedale home. The Small sisters then became more active than ever and about a year and a half later they filed a claim against the estate for $200 a month and $7,000 arrears.

On Armistice Day, 1922, the first guns were fired in a legal battle that really hasn’t ended yet. Before a month had passed Chief Justice R. M. Meredith set aside Cameron’s orders and Mrs. Small had to pay back into the estate the $800,000 with interest until she proved her right to it through proper legal channels.

The two big trials which followed within a year arose from (1) Mrs. Small’s application to swear an affidavit that her husband was dead; (2) her entering for probate a will dated Sept. 6, 1903, which read: “I devise and bequeath all my real and personal property whatsoever and wheresoever to my wife, Theresa Small, and I appoint her my sole administratrix and executrix.” Technically, both hearings were civil litigations; in effect, they were a complete airing of the Small case and a grueling of Mrs. Small.

Mrs. Small, a clever, traveled and well-educated woman who could read eight languages, was grilled and cross-examined hour upon hour without losing her poise.

On April 29, 1924, a settlement, was reached under which the Small sisters were each to receive the interest on $100,000, which Mrs. Small said she would have given them in the first place with the principal thrown in. Justice Logie’s final words were: “The plaintiff (Mrs. Small) leaves this court without any stain whatever upon her character.”

The money was Mrs. Small’s. But she had inherited, along with about $2 millions, a notoriety that sent her into semi-retirement for the rest of her life. She died at noon, Oct. 14, 1935, leaving a will that took care of a long list of beneficiaries and left the residue of her estate to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Small estate had been subject to vast expenses. The legal fee for representing Mrs. Small at the litigations had been $100,000; she had handed money out generously to friends and relatives and had disputed succession duties. By the time the government claimed succession duties on both estates (it claimed more than $900,000 but finally adjusted the claim to $308,000) there wasn’t enough cash left to pay the bills. The estate was declared unworkable and placed in the hands of the courts. To this day it is still in the process of liquidation.

When it was first announced that the residue was to be left to the Roman Catholic Church, Pat Sullivan and the Small sisters rode forth again, banners flying. Sullivan claimed that a notice had appeared on the door of St. Joseph’s Convent, before Small was reported missing, which read, “Your prayers are requested for the recovery of Ambrose J. Small, who is now dangerously ill,” and demanded to know who had posted it there. Receiving no answer, Sullivan contacted Msgr. Cassalo and put the question to him. Getting nowhere there  he wrote to the Pope, and when his Holiness neglected to contact Pat, the Thunderer came out with a blast against the Catholic Church.

Sullivan also wanted to know on whose authority Mrs. Small’s maid had been committed to Whitby Asylum and told a gaudy story about Mrs. Small having been seen kneeling over a certain spot on her cellar floor at 2 o’clock in the morning, telling her beads by candlelight. Sullivan finally produced what he stated was Mrs. Small’s confession to the murder of her husband, which had fallen into his hands by strange and devious means. On May 7. 1936, Attorney-General Arthur Roebuck ordered another probe of Small’s disappearance.

The case came to court again on Nov. 27, 1936. After five minutes’ deliberation Justice Jeffrey ruled the confession a forgery, tossed the case out of the court, and said he believed Mrs. Small to be “a good and charitable woman.”

It appeared that the Small case was finally closed and the ghost of Ambrose Small finally laid to rest. But the echoes of the mystery died hard.

On Oct. 26, 1940, Gertrude Small married a man much younger than herself and was drowned along with her husband in a freak automobile accident at Wasaga Beach on her wedding night. Immediately her sister Florence snapped: “I don’t care who likes it. My sister was doped and murdered.” An inquest was held and a coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of death by accidental drowning.

On May 11, 1946, excavation was begun on the site of the old Grand Theatre for the modern bus terminal which stands there now, and some people gathered to see if any bodies would turn up. None did.

Jack Doughty, released after serving four years of his sentence, had gone into business in a small way in East Toronto. He died on Aug. 12, 1949, without uttering a word that shed any light on the Small case.

Buried beneath the mountain of speculation, rumor and pure fiction that surrounds the Small case there still remains a simple, very real fact: something happened to a wealthy prominent man, something which seems likely to remain a mystery. Somewhere in the melodrama that opened on a cold night in Dec. 1919 a scene is missing.

If someone were to make up odds on the probabilities, the kind of carefully calculated odds that gambler Small would have worked out, it would go something like this:

Amnesia would be a 100-to-l shot. Small was too well known.

Suicide would be at long odds. Small had just made a successful deal that gave him a new fortune.

Deliberately walking out to find a new life would be a poor bet. It’s almost impossible to believe that he’d have left so many things undone.

The really short odds would be on murder. Small could have been taken for a ride by someone he knew; he could have gone home; he could have been tricked into coming down into the basement of the Grand, murdered and thrown into the boiler. A lot of things could have happened.

Everyone had a chance to tell what he knew to the courts but, after turning over every known scrap of evidence, the law decided that there wasn’t enough to warrant a charge of murder against anyone.

Ambrose Small is still missing. ★