Theatre impresario Ambrose J. Small wasn't a very popular man in his community. Despite his extremely successful career, he managed to repulse several people in his pursuit of debauchery. He had several mistresses, and would often spend most of his time gambling away large sums of money.
When he disappeared in a howling snowstorm on December 2, 1919, the public was more befuddled than concerned. Many claimed to have spotted him in various locations all over the globe, but he was never found. Some say that his ghost still haunts the Grand Theatre in Ontario, one of the many venues Small owned during his life.
Theatre Tycoon on the Rise
Small was born on January 11, 1863 in Bradford, Ontario. At the age of 13, he went to work as a dishwasher in Toronto’s Warden Hotel. Before long, his ability to manage the hotel’s bar and keep the books straight earned him a positive reputation.
To supplement his income, Small took a side job as an usher at the Grand Theater where he was eventually promoted to assistant manager. Small always had a passion for theatre, and when he took the job at the Grand Theatre he routinely booked shows like “Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl” and “In Convict Stripes”.
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After a few years, Small was starting to reap the financial rewards of his success. He planned to buy shares in small theaters around Toronto—but his ultimate goal was to own the Grand Opera House in Toronto. Small made quite a few offers for the venue in the past, but they were always rejected.
A Lavish Life without Consequences
During his thirties, Small’s reputation took a dark turn. He became a gambling addict, betting on risky ventures and horse races. He once won $10,000, though it was speculated that he had somehow fixed the race. As a result, he began to look unethical to many people in the area.
His romantic life also became the subject of societal gossip. While it was well-known that Small kept several mistresses in different locations, he managed to shock everyone by marrying a woman named Theresa Kormann in either 1902 or 1904. As it happened, Theresa was the heiress to a brewery fortune, and Small used her money to buy several theaters in rapid succession. His fortune grew to ridiculous proportions, and he finally became the owner of the Grand Opera House.
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Not long into their marriage, Small grew tired of his domestic lifestyle and began to fool around with other women. He went so far as to construct a hidden room between his offices in the Grand Opera House, complete with heavy drapes, a thick Oriental carpet, a stocked bar, and an expansive bed. Its purpose was to be a revolving door for his many women.
By this time, Small was a notoriously hated man in the community. He was a millionaire who claimed to dislike children, Catholics, and the idea of helping the less fortunate. His gambling addiction also grew dramatically, with Small avidly reading the New York Times to study the developments of every racetrack in the United States. Small eventually hired a devious private secretary named John Doughty to help him cover up his various misdeeds.
Small also began to discuss the sale of his theater chain with a company named Trans-Canada Theaters Limited. On December 2, 1919, the deal went through, and Small and his wife Theresa were paid one million dollars up front, with another $700,000 to be paid to them within the next years.
That afternoon, while Theresa was depositing the check in Dominion Bank, Small told his attorney, E.W.M. Flock, that he not only planned to retain John Doughty as a private secretary, but would also give him a raise. Flock saw a jubilant Small later that evening about 5:30 P.M. It would be the last time he saw his employer.
Moments later, Small walked outside into a blistering snowstorm. He was on his way to the corner of Adelaide and Yonge to grab the New York Times at a newsstand operated by a man named Ralph Savein. The papers were delivered each day by train, and Small was always the first person to obtain a copy. However, the bad weather delayed the train and the bundles did not arrive on time. Small became infuriated; Savein later told investigators that he had never heard Small swear so much in his life. With that, Ambrose Small raged into the winter evening and was never seen again.
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Days passed before anyone had noticed Small missing. His wife and associates had simply thought that he was holed up with another mistress, or had gone on a bender. When word finally broke, one of the largest manhunts in Canadian history began. Theresa Small offered a $50,000 reward for information on her husband’s whereabouts. The potential for such a large financial windfall prompted every small-time hustler and amateur sleuth to crawl out of the woodwork and search for the missing tycoon.
Ironically, and somewhat suspiciously, Small’s secretary John Doughty had also vanished on the same day. Investigators determined that Doughty had left his office on the afternoon of December 2, visited Dominion Bank with Small’s safety deposit box key, withdrew $100,000 in negotiable Victory bonds, and then disappeared. Doughty would be found a year later in Portland, Oregon, working in a paper mill under the alias Charles B. Cooper. Doughty was charged with the bond theft and sentenced to five years in prison. He was not suspected in Small’s disappearance.
Investigation and Sightings
Rumors about Small’s fate ranged from practical to ludicrous. George Soucy, a publishing employee, claimed to have seen Small being forced into a car by several men on December 2. Another man, caretaker Albert Elson, insisted that he had seen four men burying something in the frozen ground just blocks from Small’s mansion. A cleaning woman named Mary Quigley swore to police that a notice requesting “prayers for the repose of the soul of Ambrose J. Small” was posted in the Covenant of the Precious Blood on St. Anthony Street. This was apparently several days before news of the disappearance was made public.
Police combed the city. Every business in Toronto was checked, and Toronto Bay was dredged several times to no avail. The basement of Small’s Glen Road mansion was dug up, as was the basement of the Grand Opera House, in a frenzied search for bones. Police even turned their attention to Theresa Small, who believed that a femme fatale was responsible for her husband’s demise.
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By 1920, there were still no answers. While visiting the United States that same year, famed Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was approached by a reporter for the New York World-Telegram. Doyle told the reporter that the Small case was fascinating, and that he might lend his talents to solving the mystery if he was asked to do so. He was never asked.
Over the next three years, sightings of Ambrose Small peppered the headlines of every newspaper. He was said to have been spotted in France with a mistress and a bottle of champagne in each hand. He was also “seen” by a mind reader, who claimed Small was buried in a Toronto city dump. Renowned magician Harry Blackstone also swore that Small was gambling in Mexico.
Despite the alleged sightings, a Toronto court officially declared Small dead in 1923. His will, which left most of his remaining estate to Theresa, was upheld. She died some 12 years later.
A No Rest for Ambrose in the Afterlife
The spirit of Ambrose Small may still linger in this world. Small’s ghost has reportedly been seen in the Grand Theatre (formerly the Grand Opera House) by a number of people.
Comedian Beatrice Lillie claimed that Small’s apparition beckoned to her during a performance in May 1927. Legend has it that Lillie moved towards the ghost, only for a prop chandelier to come crashing down to the stage, narrowly missing her. By the 1940s, Small’s restless spirit was said to walk the stage after each opening night.
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In July 1956, actress Charmion King claimed to see a man standing at the foot of the stairway to her dressing room. After seeing a photograph of Small, King identified him as the man she had seen. She later denied the story.
Several other stories about moving chairs in the audience and spectral noises in the Grand Theatre have circulated for decades. Perhaps it's the angry soul of Ambrose Small, trying to rouse the same attention in death as he had in life.
Featured photo: Alchetron