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Disappearance of Ambrose Small

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Ambrose J. Small (January 11, 1866 – vanished December 2, 1919) was a Canadian theatre magnate, who owned theatres in several Ontario cities including the Grand Opera House in Toronto, the Grand Opera House in Kingston, and the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

Ambrose Small
Photo of Ambrose Small, Canadian Theater Mogul.jpg
Peter Ambrose Joseph Small

January 11, 1866
DisappearedDecember 2, 1919(1919-12-02) (aged 56)
Grand Opera House, Toronto, Ontario
StatusDeceased (Date and manner unknown)
OccupationTheatre magnate
Spouse(s)Theresa Kormann

On 2 December 1919, Small disappeared and his body was never recovered. He was 56 years old. It was alleged at the time that Small's wife and her lover killed Small and cremated his body in the London Ontario Grand Opera theater furnace (one of Small's holdings). It was further alleged that a police inspector was involved in a "cover-up" of Small's disappearance.


Early LifeEdit

Peter Ambrose Joseph Small was born on January 11th, 1866 in Newmarket, Ontario to Daniel Small, an Innkeeper and Helen (Ellen) Brazell. They were both 20 years old.

He was Baptized Roman-Catholic on January 21st, 1866.

The 1871 Canadian Census places his address in Albion, Cardwell, Ontario. Age 6.

The 1881 Canadian Census places his address in St. Andrew's Ward, Toronto City, Ontario. Age 15.

The 1891 Canadian Census places his address in St. Thomas's Ward, Toronto City, Ontario. Age 25.

Ambrose married his spouse, Theresa Kormann, on November 6th, 1904 in York (Toronto), Ontario, Canada.[1]


The Grand Opera House in Toronto, where Small was last seen

On December 1, 1919, Ambrose Small sold all his theatrical holdings, at a profit of CA$1.7 million. On December 2, Small met with lawyer F. W. M. Flock in Small's office at the Grand Opera House. Flock left at 5:30 p.m. and was the last person to see Small.

That night, Small disappeared from his office. No one who testified for the police claims to have seen him leave his office, or in the Adelaide and Yonge Street area, outside the building. A newsstand operator, Ralph Savein claimed to have seen Small and had an altercation with him regarding the late shipment of that day's newspapers. At the time, however, this claim was repudiated by the police, who considered it to be an attempt by Savein to gain fame from the case.

Small had no motive to disappear: the millionaire did not take money with him, nor was there any ransom note, let alone evidence of kidnapping. At 56, Small owned theatres in seven Ontario cities and was the controller of 62 other buildings, a self-made millionaire at the height of his career. Because Ambrose Small was known to "disappear" occasionally to womanize and carouse, his disappearance was not reported nor was it really noticed for several weeks. In January 1920, Small's attorney, F. W. M. Flock, along with Teresa Small, now alarmed by Small's lengthy absence, notified the local police. Teresa Small offered a $50,000.00 reward for any information about her husband's disappearance and current whereabouts. The reward went unclaimed.

The investigationEdit

Original leadsEdit

The police launched an extensive investigation in the disappearance of Ambrose Small. Small was officially declared dead in 1924. The case remained unsolved, until being officially closed in 1960.

The week of his disappearance, Small's Opera House was playing Revelations of a Wife, a show that reportedly attracted full houses. Police analyzed the plot and its themes, but found no leads; Small had not chosen this play to provide cryptic hints.

Theresa Small, his wife, suggested that Small had fallen into the hands of a "designing woman"; police found no candidates.

Along with his office, "Amby", as he was known locally, had a "private secret room", with its own entrance. The room is said to have had a dual purpose: first, and foremost for the settling of gambling debts and secondly, for Ambrose Small's many private liaisons with actresses and chorus girls employees at his Ontario theaters. The room was scoured for leads, albeit unsuccessfully.

Ambrose Small was not the only notable disappearance in December 1919. His former secretary, John (Jack) Doughty had not been seen since December 2, 1919. The last sighting of Doughty in Canada was at a bank where he was observed cashing in $100,000.00 in bonds. He was eventually located in the United States and extradited back to Canada to stand trial. He was convicted only of the theft of the bonds. No evidence was ever found he was responsible or had any knowledge of the disappearance of his boss, Ambrose Small.

Photo of Jack Doughty, Ambrose's Assistant

The 1921 Des Moines Mystery Man[2]Edit

Reported in several newspapers in 1921, a man was purportedly discovered in Iowa bearing unmistakable resemblance to the missing man. Private Detective John J. Brothy stated that the man who he claimed was Small was, quote "A half-crazed cripple." He stated that he had been dropped off in Des Moines, Iowa by an unidentified motorist who claimed he'd accidentally struck Small with his car, badly wounding him and that he hoped he'd receive the best medical care available.

Brothy claimed that upon further examination of the man, he discovered the man had a gunshot wound in his neck, a serious concussion and both his legs had been severed from the knee down. He further stated that the man didn't speak for three weeks, before finally breaking his silence, stating, quote "I am John Doughty. I came here from Omaha. That is all I remember."

At this time however John "Jack" Doughty was incarcerated in Canada and had been for several months, meaning the crippled man could not have been him.

Brothy further claimed that he showed a photo of Ambrose Small to the man to which he responded by pointing at the photo and stating, quote "Yes, that is me." Brothy stated the man's facial characteristics were identical to the missing magnate's, however the mystery man weighed a significant amount more than Small had at his disappearance, having weighed only around 100 pounds.

Further reports state that the man was taken into custody by the P.I.(s), however the Des Moines Police Department were quoted as being unaware of any of these actions and had not been contacted by the Investigator(s).

It can be assumed that this lead turned out to be a dead end as the case continued on long after this event.

1936 Ontario Provincial Police Re-InvestigationEdit

In 1936 the case was re-investigated by the O.P.P. at the behest of the Attorney General. O.P.P. Inspector Edward L. Hammond, consulted with the original investigators from the Toronto police, obtained typed copies of their report and various other source documents, and re-interviewed some witnesses himself.

Hammond's conclusion, that Small was murdered in a plot of which his wife was the "prime mover", is in marked contrast to the Ontario government's public position that Mrs. Small (and hence also her large monetary bequest to the Catholic church) was beyond reproach. Hammond also strongly implies that the original chief investigator, Austin Mitchell of the Toronto Police, ignored or repressed evidence which would lead to Mrs. Small as a suspect.[3]

The Reuter Confession LetterEdit

Theresa Small, having passed away on October 14th, 1935, had bequeathed the majority of her holdings to the Roman Catholic Church, valued at over 500,000 Pounds. In June of 1936, her remaining holdings were to be auctioned off. Ambrose Small's sister Florence Small presented a letter of confession from someone known only as "Reuter" who claimed to have been the one to kill Small.[4]

"Poor Ambrose was killed on December 2, 1919, and I know that part of his body, the trunk, was buried in the Rosedale Ravine dump and other parts of the body were burned in the Grand Opera House furnace.

You will be surprised, my dear Florence and Gertrude, to learn that I am more responsible for your brother's death. God forgive me. - Reuter."

The sale however continued and the letter was published in several news publications worldwide, including the Daily News From New York and the Portsmouth Evening News.

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleEdit

Toronto reporters contacted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the case, when the author was on a New York visit. Doyle showed interest in the case, bringing the headline "World's Greatest Detective to Solve Small Case". In the end, Doyle decided not to pursue the case.

Charles FortEdit

American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena Charles Fort wrote about the unexplained disappearances of Ambrose Small and Ambrose Bierce, and asked "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?"[5]

In popular cultureEdit

Small appears as a major character in the Michael Ondaatje novel In the Skin of a Lion. The events concerning him in the novel after his disappearance are fictitious. Small appears as a real life disappearance story in the "True Story Novel" "The Convict Lover" by Canadian author Merilyn Simonds, ECW Press, 1996, 2018 particularly pages 149-150

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Ancestry - Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1826-1936". Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  2. ^ "Is It Ambrose Small?". The New York Herald. August 15, 1921.
  3. ^ "Archives of Ontario : Files of the Department of the Attorney General relating to Ambrose Small". Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  4. ^ "Portsmouth Evening News - Thursday June 18th, 1936".
  5. ^ Wild Talents, p. 847

External linksEdit