Wednesday, December 1, 2010

# 14 ~ Ambrose Small and Toronto's "Crime of the Century", Then and Now

Ninety-one years ago, on December 2, 1919, what would become one of Canada's greatest mysteries took place, when Ambrose Small disappeared off the streets of Toronto.  The day before, on the first of December, he'd sold his theatre chain for $1.7 million (Canadian).  On the day that he vanished, he met with his lawyer in his office near Yonge and Adelaide streets.  Small's lawyer, F.W.M. Flock left Small at about 5:30 p.m., and was the last person known or proven to have ever seen Ambrose Small, either alive, or dead.

Ambrose Joseph Small had been born on January 11, 1863 in Bradford, Ontario.  He was a self made man.  By the time of his disappearance, just prior to his 57th birthday, he owned several theatres across Ontario, including the Grand Opera House, located at Yonge and Adelaide streets, in Toronto.  Toronto's Grand Opera House was unfortunately demolished years ago, but other theatres included the Grand Theatre, in London, Ontario, which is still a part of Ontario's vibrant stage community, and the Tivoli Theatre, in Hamilton, which is partly intact, with only the lobby demolished. 

Although the early life of Ambrose Small is not thoroughly recorded, some details are known.  Ambrose's grandfather had been an immigrant Irish settler.   About 1875, Ambrose's father Daniel moved the family to Toronto, where he opened a hotel with a saloon.   An unconfirmed part of Ambrose Small's education suggests that he attended both Saint Michael's College and the De La Salle Institute, although whether these historic institutions would have been accessible to the son of a saloon owner is the subject of conjecture.  It's also suggested that Ambrose's father had a strong influence on the boy, drilling into him the importance of hard work.  This certainly seems plausible, as Ambrose would certainly go on to make a great fortune for himself. 

THEN : Looking west from the south side of Adelaide Street West, at Johnson Street, in 1926.  In the forefront of the picture is the Grand Hotel, which was owned by Ambrose Small's father.  To the right of the photograph is the Regent Theatre, which would become one of Ambrose Small's first theatre acquisitions.

By 1880, Ambrose's father was running the Grand Hotel, on Adelaide Street West, which stood next door to the Grand Opera House.  Within four years, in 1884, Ambrose was working at the Grand Opera House, running the bar, working as an usher, and also making money on the side by taking bets on horse races.  In 1889, at the age of twenty-six, Ambrose Small was the treasurer for the Grand Opera House theatre, but a quarrel with the manager saw him move to another theatre just down the street ~ the Toronto Opera House, which specialized in the popular form of entertainment known as vaudeville.  Small soon became manager of the Toronto Opera House, and taught himself all about worldwide business syndicates, the booking of various theatre acts, and, most importantly, learning what the public wanted in order to satisfy their tastes in entertainment.  He gambled without abandon but also had a good head for business.  By 1892, he had the mortgages for both the Toronto Opera House and the Regent Theatre, also located in Toronto.  By the time he turned 30 in 1893, Ambrose Small was building up alliances ~ not to mention a theatre empire.

THEN : Ambrose Small's disappearance in 1919 became one of the most captivating and enduring mysteries of Toronto's history.  He was a mogul of sensationalist theatre, a ruthless businessman, an adulterous rogue and a self made millionaire who hated children and the less fortunate, and who complained that his wife's benevolence towards charity was a "waste of time".  He had all the personality traits that people love to hate, and the fascination with his life and disappearance has endured for nearly a century.

Ambrose Small kept pitching himself towards the forefront of theatre promotion and management throughout Ontario.  In the late 1890s, before the debut of movies, Small took advantage of popular live acts, securing contracts with the great stage stars of England and America who wanted to become celebrities in Canada, too.  Around 1900, though, tastes in entertainment started to change, and Ambrose Small changed with them.  The great touring shows were on their way out, but vaudeville, and later, moving pictures or silent movies, were on their way in.  Ambrose Small changed the emphasis of his business and began offering this type of entertainment, much to the delight of a wide audience.  By 1902, Small was buying up theatres throughout Ontario, in major cities like Toronto, Kingston and Hamilton, but also in smaller cities like Peterborough and St. Thomas.  In 1906, Ambrose Small was elected as president of the Canadian Theatrical Managers' Association, and was able to take over the control of theatre booking that had formerly been centred in New York.  The combination of owning a number of theatres outright and controlling the booking or leasing of others, he built up a chain of 34 theatres, half of which were outside Ontario.  He had built his empire, and had earned a fortune.  

Ambrose Small married Theresa Kormann in 1902.  She was a younger daughter of Ignatius Kormann, a brewer, who had business dealings with the Grand Hotel during the period when it was owned by Ambrose's father Daniel.  Ambrose Small's biological mother died around 1888, and three years later, in 1891, Ambrose's father had married an older daughter of Ignatius Kormann.  So, with Ambrose's marriage to Theresa in 1902, he was in fact marrying his stepmother's younger sister.  The new couple, Ambrose and Theresa,  moved into Toronto's wealthy Rosedale neighbourhood.  The couple seemed to have wildly opposite personalities.  He could be wildly unethical, where she was philanthropic, charitable and devoted to her Roman Catholic faith.  She was interested in the study of languages, and also had an appreciation for art and music. The only interest that Ambrose took in music seemed to be in finding a way to sell it at a profit as entertainment.  Ambrose took Theresa on as a business partner, though, and she helped him advance his fortunes.  In 1903, she used money from an inheritance to help Ambrose buy outright the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street.  This had been a career ambition of his for several years. 

THEN : Ambrose Small's wife, Theresa.  She was also the younger sister of Ambrose's stepmother.  Theresa was a pious and charitable individual.  Ambrose was a cut throat businessman who wasn't above an illicit deal or two.  He also had a fondness for gambling and chorus girls.

The energies of Ambrose Small were not entirely devoted to home and business.  Once he owned the Grand Opera House, he took advantage of his wife's absence, and while she was away in Europe, he had a "private office" constructed in the theatre.  Ambrose Small's intimate chamber contained a bar, a rather opulent bed and a large painting of nude woman.  Here he met with the young women with whom he conducted affairs. Many of them were young chorus girls, whom he reward with favours if he liked them enough.  It seems evident that Theresa knew of his infidelities, but just took it in stride.  They remained happily married, at least on the surface ~ he was often buying her expensive gifts to show his affection ~ and his adulterous lifestyle continued, too.  Ambrose Small was also a gambler, and in addition to his various mistresses, he used the chamber within the Grand Opera House to meet with his contacts in the gambling world, some of whom were less than reputable.

By 1919, the live entertainment industry was changing again.  It cost more to put on a show, live theatrical touring was decreasing in popularity, silent movies were the big new thing and in less than ten years, "talkies" ~ movies with sound ~ would hit Toronto.  Ambrose and his wife Theresa decided that it was time to sell their theatre chain and retire for a while, to rest on their laurels.  There was talk of Ambrose Small eventually getting into another line of business, but for a while, at least, the couple would relax and enjoy life.  Talks to negotiate the sale of Ambrose Small's theatre chains came to fruition at the end of November, 1919.  They were bought up a company called Trans-Canada Theatres Limited, who agreed to pay $1.7-million dollars for what Ambrose Small had to offer.  Ambrose Small received the first payment of $1-million on December 1, 1919.  On the following morning, December 2, Theresa went to the bank to deposit the million dollar cheque, and Ambrose went out shopping for Theresa.  His list of purchases included a new Cadillac, as well as a fur coat and some jewellery for his wife.  Later in the day, Ambrose met with his lawyer at Ambrose's office in the Grand Opera House.  Small's lawyer, a man named Flock, had left Ambrose's office by 5:30 p.m., and sometime later, Ambrose disappeared off the face of the earth.  No one is known to have ever seen him alive or dead after 5:30 p.m. on December 2, 1919.  For ninety-one years, Ambrose Small has provided Toronto ~ and Canada ~ with one of its highest profile missing persons cases, and an intriguing mystery that still captivates us today.

THEN : The southwest corner of Yonge and Adelaide streets in 1922.  The Grand Opera House can be seen in the background.  Perhaps on that December evening in 1919, Ambrose strolled down this street and into oblivion, but the captivating thing is that we'll probably never know.  This photograph was taken less than three years after the 1919 disappearance of Ambrose Small.  The case was a great curiosity to many people then, and it still holds the interest of a few of us today. 

The last place that Ambrose Small was seen was inside his office, and the last person who saw him was his lawyer.  No one who came before the police claimed to have seen him leaving the building or in the neighbourhood of Yonge and Adelaide streets, around the Grand Opera House.  For many years, a legend has persisted that Ralph Savein, who owned a newspaper stand near the theatre, was actually the last to see Small alive.  According to Savein, Small came to his newsstand to buy a copy of the "New York Times".  When Savein told him that the day's edition hadn't arrived, Small walked off in a huff and disappeared.  However, police later disproved Savein's story as a fictional attempt to get notoriety from the disappearance of Ambrose Small.  Although gossip, legend and allegation over the case would eventually come to light, and in some cases persist for years, on the night Ambrose Small disappeared, there was no one who ever saw him leave his office.  There was no motivation for his disappearance.  Despite his adultery, Small seemed relatively happy in his marriage.  With the sale of his theatre chain, he had just secured prosperity for the rest of his life.  There was no attempt made to withdraw money out of Small's bank account.  No ransom demands were ever made.  Police searched Ambrose Small's office, but there was no sign of a struggle, no note to be found, and no evidence of violence, a kidnapping, or a murder.  He was a self made millionaire at the pinnacle of success, and he vanished without a trace.

THEN : An article from the Toronto Daily Star, on January 3, 1920, concerning the disappearance of Ambrose Small.  The case would continue to illicit interest for years.  The case was finally closed without having been solved in 1960.

THEN : This poster was issued in 1928.  The search for Ambrose Small was still on.  They received virtually no solid leads, at all, after Small disappeared, and in fact the case became even more obscured by the number of false claims that were submitted to police in Toronto.  The last person definitively known to have seen Small alive or dead was his lawyer, who left Small in his office at 5:30 p.m. on December 2nd, 1919.

It took a while for the manhunt to get started.  Theresa Small was reluctant to start an investigation.  She knew of her husband's adulterous lifestyle, and feared that reporting him missing would cause a scandal.  She thought that his safe return was only an inevitable matter of time, and apparently did not suspect foul play at all.  She was quoted as having said "I believe my Amby is in the hands of a designing woman, somewhere, and will come back."  There was a preliminary investigation, eventually, and police launched a manhunt that would soon spread around the globe.  Ambrose Small's description was circulated : he stood five feet, nine inches tall, and weighed somewhere between 150 and 160 pounds.  He had blue eyes, brown hair and a moustache streaked with grey.  He was described as being "very quick in his movements".

There were two main investigators in the case of the disappearance of Ambrose Small.  One was a Toronto Detective named Austin Mitchell.  Nicknamed the "great investigator", he was known for unconventional methods and thinking outside the box.  Mitchell was approached by Thomas Flynn, who led the official horse racing commission in Ontario, and who was a personal friend of Ambrose Small.  Some of Detective Austin Mitchell's unorthodox methods led to controversy, as he went so far as to rely on psychics.  Anyone professing clairvoyant ability the time was thought to be suspect, and not particularly credible, to say the least.  Psychics and spiritualists would continue to offer leads to police officials for years after Ambrose Small disappeared, and although they made claims to have information of Small's whereabouts throughout Canada and around the world, none of their leads gave any concrete results.

THEN : Toronto Detective Austin Mitchell was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Ambrose Small.  Nicknamed the "great investigator", he employed unusual methods, including the consultation of psychics and mediums.

After an initial investigation led by Austin Mitchell resulted in nothing, there was pressure from the public to come up with the results.  An Ontario Provincial Police Inspector by the name of Edward L. Hammond was appointed to the case.  Unlike Mitchell, Hammond was a conventional, by-the-book type of investigator.  He was interested in only concrete clues, and followed traditional practices of law enforcement.  Because of their contrasting methods, Detective Austin Mitchell and O.P.P, Inspector Edward Hammond would eventually clash over the case, with Hammond eventually accusing Mitchell of botching the case and covering up or ignoring vital information.

THEN : Ontario Provincial Police Inspector Edward Hammond was brought in on the case when Detective Austin Mitchell failed to make any significant progress in the case.  Mitchell and Hammond would clash bitterly over their vastly different investigation methods.  Hammond is seen here inspecting some illegal gambling equipment.

Although the marital infidelities of Ambrose Small may not have been known to the everyday public, they were no doubt the cause for gossip amongst the wealthy class in Toronto at the start of the twentieth century.  Perhaps, then, it was no surprise that his wife, Theresa Small, fell under suspicion. 

She seemed almost indifferent to his disappearance, and she was aware of his various affairs.  Also, she was his sole heir, and presumably with Ambrose out of the way, his fortunes would be left entirely to her.  However, Theresa had money of her own, and she'd inherited a substantial amount of money from her mother, the same year that Ambrose and her were married.  She'd been the closest thing to a full business partner that Ambrose had, and he had been extremely generous in bestowing gifts on her.  The very morning of the day that he had vanished, he was out buying her gifts.  There is every evidence that she could have enjoyed financial prosperity without murdering her husband.

But what about a crime of passion?  Had she arranged to have Ambrose murdered in a fit of jealousy?  There were at least a few anonymous informants who suggested that she had arranged to have Ambrose murdered, and some even speculated that she was there in person to watch him die.  The Ontario Provincial Police Inspector, Hammond, persisted in his belief that Ambrose was in fact murdered and that Theresa was involved, had arranged it, and was perhaps even present at his murder.  However, Ambrose had been involved with other women for at least 15 years before his disappearance.  Could she have burned with jealousy for so long before carrying out his murder?  Also, there were no signs of violence or a bloody struggle in Ambrose's office, the last place in which he was seen alive.  Certainly, if Theresa had arranged to have him abducted of a busy Toronto street, there would have been witnesses.  Further, she made no immediate attempt to get at his money.  It wouldn't be until 1924, five years after the disappearance of Ambrose Small, that his estate was finally settled, and she got full claim to his wealth.  If she had been capable of orchestrating the disappearance and murder of one of the wealthiest men in Toronto in 1919, certainly she would have been able to find a way to secure his wealth for herself prior to 1924.  The accusations that Theresa had taken a lover of her own, and together the two had murdered Ambrose for both money and revenge for his infidelity, are completely out of keeping with her personality and actions.  She lived a life of public virtue, of charitable disposition, and she was an active and faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church.  Once she did inherit Ambrose's fortunes, she gave most of it away to the church.  These actions seem out of place for a woman who would murder her husband in cold blood.

Many of those who made allegations against Theresa Small held her in suspicion simply because she was a Roman Catholic.  Toronto of the early twentieth century was a militantly Protestant city.  Roman Catholics were still shunned, and there were many biases against having them active in the professional and social life of the city.  There was a definite stigma against Theresa simply because she was a Roman Catholic who had risen to financial and social prominence.

Eventually, the authorities ruled out Theresa Small's culpability in her husband's disappearance.  Her reputation was considered beyond question, she inherited her husband's money, and eventually willed her estate to the Roman Catholic Church in Toronto, when she died in 1935.  After her death, the Attorney General of Ontario held a Special Inquiry into Ambrose's disappearance and presumed death.  When the Inquiry ended, it concluded that Theresa Small was not linked in any way to her husband's disappearance and presumed death.  With the exception of the aforementioned suspicions of Inspector Hammond, the main investigators in both the Toronto Police and the Ontario Provincial Police seemed entirely convinced that Theresa Small had nothing to do with whatever fate had befallen her husband Ambrose.

THEN : Theresa Small in April of 1924, when her husband Ambrose's will was finally settled and she inherited his fortunes.  She finally got his money five years after his disappearance.  If she'd had the cunning to get away with the perfect murder, surely she would have found a way to get his money sooner?  She held on to the family fortunes for more than a decade, before dying in 1935.  In the absence of any offspring, the money was left to the Roman Catholic Church in Toronto.  Theresa's Roman Catholic faith had a lot to do with the suspicions raised against her.

If Ambrose Small's sisters, Mary Florence Maude and Gertrude Mercedes, were never suspects in his murder, they were certainly never reliable witnesses, either.  From the moment that Ambrose disappeared, they were determined to see the downfall of his wife, Theresa.  Mary and Gertrude brought tabloid journalism into the case, and hired a private detective named Patrick Sullivan to validate their allegations of what had happened.  It's thought that the two sisters were behind the theory of Theresa's taking a lover, and conspiring with him to dispose of Ambrose.  A rumour began that Theresa and her unidentified paramour had somehow captured Ambrose, and swept him away from downtown Toronto to London.  There, they had supposedly held him in the furnace room of the Grand Theatre, one of Ambrose's favourite holdings, and incinerated his body.  This theatre was supposedly supported by a caretaker who claimed to have smelled fumes coming from the furnace room of the theatre.  There was enough curiosity behind this legend to warrant police digging up the floor of the furnace room, and exhuming it for evidence.  No evidence was ever found.

The two sisters contested Theresa's inheritance of her husband's fortunes.  This was partly due to her faith in the Roman Catholic Church, but greed may have played a large part as well.  Their contesting of the will was met with failure.  Finally, in 1923, Small was pronounced dead, and his estate was wrapped up in 1924, with everything going to his widow, Theresa.  His estate, valued at $1,087,831.70, went entirely to Theresa.  Upon her death in 1935, it went entirely to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Perhaps the most likely witness to have committed an act of violence against Ambrose Small was his long time assistant, John Doughty.  Doughty went missing the same day that Ambrose Small did, but unlike Small, Doughty would be seen again.  A sighting of John Doughty was reported in Montreal on December 3, 1919, the day after Small vanished. 

The detectives involved in the case began questioning John Doughty's friends and family, and discovered that he had loathed and hated Ambrose Small.  John Doughty felt that he had a direct hand in ensuring Ambrose Small's success, and yet had never been properly rewarded.  He complained that Ambrose Small was cheap and greedy, and had even reportedly told a friend that he had thought of murdering Small.  Combined with Doughty's running off to Montreal at the same time that Ambrose Small disappeared, it seemed that Doughty could be considered a prime suspect.  The manhunt was on, but Doughty managed to elude captivity for quite some time.

It would be almost a year before Doughty was captured and brought to justice.  Near the end of 1920, he was found living under a new identity in Oregon.  He was turned in by an associate who recognized him from a "Wanted" poster that had been circulated across North America by Toronto police, who offered a reward of $15,000 for information leading up to the capture of John Doughty.  Toronto Police Detective Austin Mitchell went down to Oregon to bring Doughty back to Toronto, where he would stand trial. The courtroom proceedings against Doughty were a highly anticipated event.  Thousands gathered in and around what is now the Old City Hall building on Queen Street West to get a glimpse of John Doughty, and to see if the jury would decide whether he was the man who was responsible for whatever had happened to Ambrose Small.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence that John Doughty played a direct hand in the disappearance of Ambrose Small.  It seems that Doughty only took advantage of Small's disappearance to make off with $104,000 in bonds that had belonged to Small.  Doughty openly confessed to hating Small, to feeling little remorse that he was gone, and even to stealing over $100,000, but he claimed innocence in anything connected to Small's actual disappearance.  Try as they might, investigators could find no evidence that he was lying.  No doubt they were under pressure to find an explanation for Small's vanishing act, but they were unable to pin it on John Doughty.  There was simply no evidence to support that Doughty had a hand in making Small go missing.  At the conclusion of the trial in the spring of 1921, John Doughty was sentenced to five years in prison for his theft of the $104,000 in bonds that had belonged to Ambrose Small.

THEN : A newspaper clipping from the Globe newspaper on November 24, 1920, reporting on the return of Ambrose Small's assistant, John Doughty.

The disappearance of Ambrose Small became a sensational case in Toronto, throughout Canada and around the world.  Toronto in 1919 was a city of reserved and nearly frigid morality, and the scent of scandal that attached itself to the case tantalized Torontonians.  There was also the fact that Ambrose Small was wealthy, and the case offered Toronto's more repressed citizens of ninety years ago with everything ~ sex, money, gambling, illicit alcohol and possible murder.  The authorities offered a reward of $50,000 to anyone who could point the police to a living Ambrose Small, and $15,000 if they could turn in his remains.  Since no one could find him alive, just about every cadaver that was found for the next several years was said to be that of Ambrose Small.  One by one, the bodies were proven not to have been that of Ambrose Small. 

Similarly, people came forward claiming to be Ambrose Small himself, in the hopes of either getting the $50,000 reward or perhaps even with the hopes of claiming Small's vast fortune.  Ambrose Small was not a large man.  He stood only 5'9" tall and weighed between 150 and 160 pounds.  Some of the people who claimed to in fact be Ambrose Small held no resemblance to him whatsoever.  They were too tall, or too short, too young or too old, and were clearly not Ambrose Small.  Some made wild claims, saying that they had been in an accident or been abducted and tortured, and thus did not come close to fitting the description of Ambrose Small.

Sightings of Ambrose Small had taken place even as soon as he disappeared.  A report by a man named George Soucy, who worked for a publishing house, indicated that he had seen Ambrose Small being forced into a car on December 2, 1919, the night that he vanished.  A caretaker named Albert Elson reported that he'd seen a group of men burying something that he thought may have been a body, in a ravine near Ambrose Small's house.  These reports, and others like them, were made before the public even knew that Ambrose Small had disappeared.  After the story was released, hundreds of similar reports were made to the authorities.

Reports and sightings regarding Ambrose Small continued to come in for years after his disappearance.  The famous American magician, Harry Blackstone, Sr., signed an affidavit claiming that he'd seen Ambrose Small playing roulette at a casino in Mexico, on April 8, 1920.  Another claim said that Ambrose Small had been seen alive and was being held prisoner in a kiln near Brampton, Ontario.  A man from Wisconsin telephoned the police, claiming to be Ambrose Small, but further investigation revealed that he was actually an escaped psychiatric patient.  A psychic named Max Langsner reported that "thought waves" had told him that Ambrose Small's body was burnt up in a fire, in a house in Montreal.  That report was given to authorities in 1928, a whole nine years after Small vanished.  The list goes on and on, with sightings reported as far away as South America and the resorts of Europe.  At one point, Toronto investigators contacted authorities in other international capitals as far away as Paris, asking them to examine any unidentified remains in their morgues, to determine if they may be Ambrose Small.

Many armchair detectives had their own opinions of what had happened to Ambrose Small.  In addition to the theories that he had been killed by either his wife Theresa, or his assistant, John Doughty, there were numerous other unsubstantiated theories.  Some thought that he'd succumbed to amnesia, or some other physical malady.  However, you don't "catch" amnesia overnight, and Small had been in good health up until the day he died.  While it's at least theoretically possible Ambrose Small could have developed some illness rather quickly, there aren't many illnesses which make a man vanish off the face of the earth.  Others suspected that he was murdered by gangsters, or fell prey to some other plot to get his money.  But again, there was a total lack of any violent confrontation in his office, and no ransom demands were ever made.  Some claimed that Ambrose Small simply decided to vanish, to leave his old life behind and start off somewhere far away from his wife and home here in Toronto.  It would be unusual for a man to disappear without taking any of the great wealth that he had acquired with him, although it's possible that he'd either put aside a secret cache of money, or felt confident enough that he could make a great fortune for himself again, at the age of fifty-six years old.

The truth is that, in the ninety-one years since he vanished, there has been no concrete proof to support any of the conjecture, theory or speculation on whatever happened to Ambrose Small.  Was he the victim of a failed kidnapping attempt?  Was he in fact murdered by his wife or John Doughty, or one of the many other business enemies that he'd made?  Did he inexplicably take his own life somehow?  Or did he simply decide that it was time to go, and walk off the face of the earth?  It doesn't seem likely that we'll ever know.  What is evident is that when Ambrose Small vanished, he left behind a wife, a home, a fortune, an illicit reputation and a compelling mystery that's been captivating people for nearly a century.

Interest in the case lingered on for years.  Ambrose Small was officially pronounced dead in 1923, and his wife went on to inherit his estate.  She died in 1935, leaving their fortunes to the Roman Catholic Church. Sightings of Ambrose Small, and conjecture of what had happened to him would continue for decades.  References to Ambrose Small still find their way into Canadian culture today.  Michael Ondaatje's 1987 work of fiction, "In the Skin of a Lion" includes a fictional piece of guess work which has Ambrose Small fleeing Toronto, in secret, to start a clandestine sort of life from scratch.  In the book, Small is described as the "jackal of Toronto's business world ... he was bare-knuckle capitalism", and Ambrose Small is quoted on remarking about his own, staged disappearance by saying "I'm a thief, all thieves must plan their escape route".

THEN : An article from the Sarnia Observer in 1960, announcing that the search for Ambrose Small was officially over.  Up until that point, more than forty years after his disappearance, hundreds of leads had come in, and Small was reported as having been seen all across North America, South America and Europe.  Despite all of the leads, no trace of what happened to him was ever found.  The search would continue unofficially for several more years.

The truth behind what happened to Ambrose Small has, of course, remained a mystery.  It is perhaps the most tantalizing and out of reach mystery in Toronto's past.  Finally, the case was officially closed in 1960, without ever having been solved.  Even after the case was closed, though, there was a continued interest in solving it.  In 1965, detectives dug up a possible grave site for Ambrose Small in the Rosedale Valley.  In 1974, the case was still of sufficient interest that the Toronto Sun published a series of accounts of the case that ran for six pages.  However, in December of 1960, forty-one years after Ambrose Small disappeared, police in Toronto finally threw out the file on Ambrose Small, which by then included thousands of papers and a set of keys to the demolished Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street, from which Small had vanished.

NOW : Ambrose and Theresa Small's home on Glen Road in Toronto, as it appears today.  As recently as 1965, authorities dug up a suspected shallow grave near the house, even though the case had been officially closed five years earlier.



Ambrose Small owned dozens of theatres across Ontario.  Although all the properties were investigated at the time of his disappearance, a few have continued to have a link to the mystery of Ambrose Small.

The Tivoli Theatre in Hamilton opened in 1924, as a venue for both vaudeville and silent movies.  It had previously held a carriage factory, and then later, in 1907, a storefront nickelodeon.  With the decline of vaudeville and the introduction of talking movies, the Tivoli remained popular as a movie cinema.  It was remodelled in 1954 and continued to draw in audiences until it was closed by Famous Players in 1990.  In 1995, it opened up again as a venue for live stage shows.  Sadly, in 2004, a portion of the front of the building, including the marquee, collapsed.  The lobby of the Tivoli Theatre was completely demolished, though the auditorium and other parts of the theatre remain.

Not all of those who have claimed to see Ambrose Small have claimed that he was alive when they saw him.  He is said to haunt a number of his former properties, including Hamilton's Tivoli Theatre.  Staff have claimed to see someone wandering around the Tivoli Theatre after hours.  Some initially mistake him to be a vagrant or an intruder, but then they realize that he is dressed in a gentleman's clothing from the early 1900s.  They describe him as being of shorter stature, with a big mustache.  The one time manager of the theatre, Loren Lieberman, checked out a book with a photograph of Ambrose Small in it from the Hamilton Public Library.  When those who claimed to have seen Ambrose Small's ghost were shown the picture, they claimed that Small's photograph matched the description of the apparition they had seen.

For more information on the history and legends of Hamilton's Tivoli theatre, and other similar phenomenon around Hamilton, be sure to visit the official "Haunted Hamilton" website.  Not only do they offer frequent walks around Hamilton, the founders, Stephanie Lechniak-Cumerlato and Daniel Cumerlato, are frequent guests on local television and radio, and in other media.  Thanks to Stephanie and Daniel, and all the rest, for over ten years of helping to keep Hamilton's stories alive!

Visit the Haunted Hamilton website here :

Haunted Hamilton Official Website

THEN : The marquee of the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton, in 1947.
THEN : The lobby of the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton, in 1944.

THEN : The auditorium of the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton, in 1944.

THEN : The auditorium of the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton, in 1947.
NOW : The marquee and front of the Tivoli theatre in Hamilton came crashing down in 2004.  The front lobby of the auditorium was demolished, and today, what remains of the old theatre is in a sort of limbo between preservation and demolition.

NOW : Hamilton's Tivoli theatre today.

NOW : Hamilton's Tivoli theatre today.

NOW : Hamilton's Tivoli theatre today.

Acquired by Ambrose Small in the opening years of the twentieth century, it's said that the Grand Theatre in London was his favourite amongst all of his properties.  Several weeks after Ambrose Small disappeared on December 2, 1919, the night watchman at the Grand Theatre swore that he saw Small enter the theatre.  Despite this claim, and the apparent sincerity of the man who made it, the police searched the building to no avail.  Various parts of the building were thoroughly investigated for any gruesome evidence that would suggest that Small had been killed in the building, but nothing was ever found.  The floor of the theatre's furnace room was dug up, but contained no evidence. 

Five years after Small disappeared, the theatre was sold to Famous Players, in 1924.  The building was equipped for sound with the invasion of talking movies, and it carried on as a movie theatre until 1945, when it was sold off to the London Little Theatre Company, and it became an amateur stage venue.  In 1971, it was transformed into a professional theatre.  The transformation process took several years, and a series of restorations that took about $5-million, but the newly restored building opened in 1978.

Ambrose Small is said to haunt the Grand Theatre, in London, as well.  There have been sightings of small in the theatre, and on "opening night", his apparition is said to appear in one of the theatre's boxes.  An unseen force, believed to be the ghost of Ambrose Small, has been known to harass female cast members backstage; Ambrose Small was fond of his chorus girls, and it seems that old habits die hard.

During a period of renovations, a bulldozer was brought in to help with the demolition of one part of the building.  As the demolition crew prepared to rip through one particular wall, the bulldozer kept stalling.  It was an inexplicable phenomenon that only happened in one area of the building.  Their curiosity got the better of them, and when they explored, they discovered one of the theatre's original archways behind the area that had been targeted for demolition.  Plans were changed and a beautiful portion of the old building was saved.  Did the spectre of Ambrose Small stall the bulldozer, and help to save his "favourite" theatre?

NOW : The beautifully restored Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

NOW : The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario is said to have been a favourite of Ambrose Small.

To view an 8-minute clip on the Grand Theatre and its ghost stories, click here :

The Grand Opera House opened in 1874, on Adelaide Street West, just west of Yonge Street.  For several decades, it served as Toronto's premier theatre hall and concert venue.  Some of the world's most popular entertainers of the time played on stage at the Grand Opera House, including Sir Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt, and Maurice Barrymore.  It sat 1,750 people and had what was, at the time, a very advanced lighting system.  The Grand Opera House was the first building in Toronto to have gaslights that could all be turned on or off all together, with the flick of a single switch.  In it's early days, the theatre was managed by Charlotte Morrison, one of the leading ladies of theatre management in early Toronto.  By the 1880s, Ambrose Small was at the Grand Opera House, working at the bar and as an usher, getting a start in his career in theatre.  Years later, in 1903, he was able to buy the Grand Opera House with money that his wife had received in an inheritance.  It was from his office in the Grand Opera House that Ambrose Small disappeared in 1919. 

The Grand Opera House had been plagued by a number of fires.  The most severe one, in 1879, killed one of the theatre's set carpenters, along with his wife and daughter.  By the time of Small's disappearance, the Grand Opera House had earned a seedy reputation, and was physically run down, as well.  Not only was the theatre neglected after some of the fires, the performances staged within it would have been the equivalent of today's strip clubs.  Small was not above putting on racy or suggestive acts to draw in customers, and some of the shows that were performed in the Grand Opera House were scandalous acts with names like "Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model", and "Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl".  It was a time when more and more young women were leaving small towns to come to the big city, to find work but also to explore the allure of Toronto's bright lights.  They were living alone, away from their families, and the kinds of productions staged by Ambrose Small at the Grand Opera House took advantage of their imagined sexuality.

When Ambrose Small went missing, and the Grand Opera House was searched, the public learned of his "secret chamber" for the first time.  Tales of his lurid conduct with a string of chorus girls ~ all of whom were eventually abandoned when Small moved on to his next find ~ shocked the straight laced population of Toronto.  The Grand Opera House never recovered from the physical damage of its previous fires, or from its loss of prestige because of the scandal surrounding Small.  It was demolished without a second thought in 1927.  Today, the sixty-eight floors of the Scotia Plaza tower over what was the Grand Opera House.  The only sign that it was ever there is a street sign; a small lane called "Grand Opera Lane" runs south from Adelaide Street West.

THEN : Toronto's Grand Opera House in 1885.

THEN : The Grand Opera House about 1920.

THEN : The Grand Opera House in 1921.  By that time, Ambrose Small was gone and the theatre had fallen on hard times.  The seedy reputation that Ambrose Small bestowed on the theatre, thanks to the programming that he brought in, combined with the run down nature of the building, had diminished audience sizes.  It was finally torn down in 1927.

THEN : The view of the Grand Opera House from the lane way adjacent to it in 1913. 

THEN : The view of the Grand Opera House from the lane way adjacent to it in 1913.  The lane way is now known as "Grand Opera Lane", and is the only reminder of the former glories of the old Toronto theatre.

NOW : "Grand Opera Lane", the only reminder of the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street West, and the starting point for one of Toronto's greatest mysteries, the disappearance of Ambrose Small.

NOW : The 68-storey Scotia Plaza stands on the site of the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street West.  It was from this location that Ambrose Small vanished forever, on December 2, 1919.  Perhaps one of Toronto's most notorious missing persons cases will always remain a mystery.


I already have a tour that discusses the history of "Crime and Punishment" in nineteenth century Toronto.  You can read about it here :

I am hoping to add another one for spring, 2011, either including more material from the twentieth century, or perhaps, specifically on the mystery of Ambrose Small.  New tours will also include one on Toronto's old theatres and movie cinemas.  Keep an eye on the website for more information, in the spring of 2011.



  1. Excellent post, Richard. This mystery has always fascinated me.

  2. Fascinating! I don't think you've ever told me this story in such detail before, Richard. Wonderful stuff!

  3. Ambrose had no connection to the Tivoli Theatre in Hamilton, It was built five years after he disappeared. However the Grand Opera House next door (102 James N) was under the control of Small from 1902 through to his selling it in 1919...

    1. Actually you are wrong. It was a vaudeville theatre called the Wonderland, then the Colonial, then the Princess Theatre - when Small owned it. In 1924 it was renamed the Trivoli after extensive renovations.

  4. Does anyone have information on his descendants? I'm curious if we could be related. My last name is Small - born in St. Thomas and raised in Sarnia. My email:

  5. Thank you for compiling this great site of information and photos. However, your statement "By 1892, he had the mortgages for both the Toronto Opera House and the Regent Theatre, also located in Toronto" I think might be in need of correction. Ambrose Small was only a lessee and a partner with a guy named Sparrow for the Toronto Opera House, and that happened in 1894/95. But he never owned the building that the Toronto Opera House was in at 25-27 Adelaide St W. The owners were Samuel and Leonard Perrin, who owned that building until 1914. The Toronto Opera House became the Majestic in 1904. Then it later became the Regent - sometime between 1914 and 1924 - I am going to go to the Land Registry Office to try to determine the exact date. Mr. Ambrose disappeared in 1919. Anyways, your date of 1892 I don't think is correct, and the fact that he had mortgages might not be a fact since he didn't own the building, unless he had a mortgage on the lease which might have happened (I am also going to try to determine this at the LRO) and certainly not at the same time since they didn't exist at the same time.

  6. Thank you for compiling this great site of information and photos. However, your statement "By 1892, he had the mortgages for both the Toronto Opera House and the Regent Theatre, also located in Toronto" I think might be in need of correction. Ambrose Small was only a lessee and a partner with a guy named Sparrow for the Toronto Opera House, and that happened in 1894/95. But he never owned the building that the Toronto Opera House was in at 25-27 Adelaide St W. The owners were Samuel and Leonard Perrin, who owned that building until 1914. The Toronto Opera House became the Majestic in 1904. Then it later became the Regent - sometime between 1914 and 1924 - I am going to go to the Land Registry Office to try to determine the exact date. Mr. Ambrose disappeared in 1919. Anyways, your date of 1892 I don't think is correct, and the fact that he had mortgages might not be a fact since he didn't own the building, unless he had a mortgage on the lease which might have happened (I am also going to try to determine this at the LRO) and certainly not at the same time since they didn't exist at the same time.