The Disappearance of Ambrose Small | Toronto

Ambrose Small related Addresses – – Canada | Addresses – Tivoli, Hamilton: 116 James St N // Grand Opera, Toronto: 40 King St W (now Scotia Plaza) // Grand, London: 471 Richmond St

Ambrose Small Disappeared

Ambrose Small disappeared from this earth on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, December 2nd in 1919. 

Ambrose Small, the regal and flawed theatre owner who disappeared from Toronto in 1919
Ambrose Small, the regal and flawed theatre owner who disappeared from Toronto in 1919

1 day before he vanished… Ambrose signed a deal to sell all his 34 theatre houses.  Each one catering to live and vaudeville shows.  This included his main one in Toronto, called the Grand Opera House. 

The terms must have been right, or maybe he was tired of the business.  By the end, Ambrose was $1.7 million dollars richer.  $1 million up front, the rest in installments.

This deal would sell off all of Ambrose Small’s holdings, including…

  • Toronto’s Grand Opera House
  • London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre
  • Hamilton’s Princess Theatre (later called The Tivoli)
  • Many other holdings in several Ontario cities

The 56-year-old millionaire walked out of the meeting a free and retired man.

Theatres once owned by Ambrose Small before selling in 1919 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Theatres once owned by Ambrose Small before selling in 1919 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

His wife, Theresa, would be tasked to take the cheque into the Dominion Bank at King & Yonge Sts. 

Here are the events of that fateful day from Ambrose’s point of view…

  1. Have lunch with wife Theresa and his lawyer at the King Edward Hotel
  2. Go shopping!  Bought a Cadillac for himself, then jewelry and a fur coat for his wife
  3. Meet with his lawyer at the Grand Opera House

His lawyer left to catch a train at 5:30pm.  He was the last person to see Ambrose.

Ambrose is Gone!

Ambrose didn’t come home for dinner at 6pm like planned.  

It’s said his wife was worried.  But she also knew who he was.  Ambrose was known as a playboy.  Starting affairs with many young women acting in plays at the Grand Opera House.

Theresa hated her husband’s cheating, but this was 1919.  Being wealthy was all about reputation in your community.  Scandals were devastating in a predominantly religious society.  So she let it be and said nothing. 

Ambrose was missing for 2 weeks before Theresa finally talked to the police.  Even then telling officers, I quote, “I believe my Amby is in the hands of a designing woman, somewhere, and will come back.”

The Search

The public, media and everyone was now watching the Toronto police. 

The first detective Austin Mitchell gained no answers.  Making many mistakes and using strange methods.  This included analyzing the recent play performed in the Opera House.  Called “Revelations of a Wife”, they went over the script looking for cryptic clues Ambrose might have left.

The police brought on psychics were to speak with the dead and determine what happened.  Sadly, this didn’t work.

They also turned to Sherlock Holmes, well, technically the author.  Sending the case to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while he was visiting Toronto.  Asking if he’d take the case.  Doyle said he didn’t have time to properly investigate.  

The Toronto Police was scrutinized.  One theory why the case was being botched.  Not that the detective was an idiot, instead it said he might have a personal connection to a top suspect.

Either way, evidence was drying up quick.  Answers were being demanded.  So, enter a Detective named Hammond.  Hammond was strait-laced, a professional who could balance Mitchell’s strange ways.  Together they found some interesting clues.

The Case Evidence

Ambrose’s secret life —

Theresa Small was aware of her husband’s adultery.  But maybe she didn’t know the extent.  

Hammond found a secret sex room hidden inside the Grand Opera House.  Décor all matching high-end brothels of the time.  With expert soundproofing, exotic carpet and drapery, plus a bar filled with whisky and wine.  And in the corner, a bed covered in expensive satin.

Some of the mistresses were found and questioned.  None were connected to the disappearance.

Bodies everywhere —

As part of the efforts to find Ambrose, Theresa facilitated a reward.  $50,000 to find him alive, or a smaller $15,000 for just his corpse.  

Magically, bodies started turning up from everywhere.  Finders claiming all to be Ambrose.  Examiners were kept busy looking over all the dead men.  But none were the right corpse.

Examinations were quick thanks to a little trick pulled on the public.  One personal fact held secret about Ambrose Small was, he had hammertoes.  None of the corpses had them.

Did his wife do it? —

You might be thinking, what about the wife?  A common ending to so many police dramas. 

Theresa Small was a socialite who despised her cheating husband.  That’s true.  When confirming her husband was gone, she reacted with a cold gaze and no emotion at all.

Ambrose Small's wife, Theresa Small in Toronto during the media circus of her husband's disappearance
Ambrose Small’s wife, Theresa Small in Toronto during the media circus of her husband’s disappearance

However, she would inherit the $1.7 million dollars from the theatre deal.   That’s motive. 

The police didn’t spend much time on her.  They didn’t believe it.  After many interviews; all concluding, yes, she hated Ambrose.  Followed by, “she’s not capable of murder”.

What about the assistant? —

Now I’ll tell you about John Doughty.  He was Ambrose’s assistant inside the Grand Opera House.

Employees of the theatre, it’s said, were treated like gold.  Even after planning to sell everything, Ambrose made sure everyone kept their jobs. 

It’s possible the police mixed John up with other employees.  Thinking the assistant loved Ambrose too.  But Doughty hated him.

He thought Small was greedy and cheap.  John credited himself as a main reason why Small was successful and rich.  Felt his salary was too small.  And to top it off, Ambrose never got him a Christmas gift.

The police would have stayed in the dark about John.  If only, he didn’t run.  The second disappearance of this story.  Doughty ran.  Later finding he took $105,000 in Ambrose’s bond certificates with him.

Mitchell and Hammond dug into John’s life.  It all made sense.  The anger and jealousy.  Even finding a friend who shared that John had said, “One day I’ll kill Ambrose Small”.

Finding John

The police put out a nationwide notice.  It was passed around until making its way into the United States.

A wanted poster was put up in the Post Office of a small milling town in Oregon.  A man called “Three Fingers” saw it.  Recognized the face and called it in, hoping to collect on the $15,000 reward. 

Said it was his manager, a man named Charlie Cooper.  This was John Doughty using a fake name.

Ambrose Small's assistant and possible murderer, John Doughty - dragged back to Toronto
Ambrose Small’s assistant and possible murderer, John Doughty – dragged back to Toronto

Mitchell personally travelled to Oregon to collect his suspect.  Bringing him back to Toronto to stand trial… on theft only. 

Why not murder?  There was no evidence, murder weapon, and of course, no body. 

Much disappointment was felt around Old City Hall in Toronto (used as a courthouse in 1920) when the verdict came down.

The Disappearance Mystery Remains

Despite all efforts to put closure on the disappearance of Ambrose Small, nothing concrete was ever found.

Many thought John killed him.  Hid the body in a Toronto landfill.

Some believe that John and Ambrose’s wife Theresa were secret lovers. That they conspired to kill Small.  Then burning his body in the furnace of London’s Grand Theatre.

We’ll most likely never know.  As this case remains the most mysterious disappearance in Canadian history.

London’s Grand Theatre —

Many theatres once owned by Small now claim his ghost. 

Sadly, this doesn’t include his personal favourite, the Toronto Grand Opera House.  It’s because of the scandal.  The theatre was then targeted by vandals and arsonists.  Neglect of that damage led to its demolition in 1927.  This was 8 years after the disappearance. 

Toronto’s Grand Opera House

Most notable haunts include Hamilton’s old Tivoli and London’s Grand Theatre.  London believes they have proof. 

Years back during renovations.  Some of the involved work required an excavator.  They set it up inside the auditorium, facing it towards a front wall by the modern stage. 

Fired the machine up.  The driver brought the arm back and was ready to smash through the wall.  But the vehicle stalled.

He was confused.  They don’t usually do that.  He turned the switch and it easily fired back up.  Getting back to work, he again spun the arm towards the wall.  And again, the vehicle stalled. 

The driver gave up.   Workers were brought in with manual tools to chip away at the wall.  Tearing it down to reveal a surprise. 

On the other side was a historic archway that once anchored the original stage.  Colourful designs painted by artists long dead.  This was a priceless artifact dating back to the original theatre.  Forgotten behind the new facade installed back the 1970’s, during the days of yucky architecture.

If the excavator didn’t stall, the archway would have been destroyed.  Many thank the ghost of Ambrose Small.

Read about Ambrose Small inside Hamilton’s Tivoli Theatre

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