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Now You See Him, Now You Don't...

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Published July 31, 2021
Now You See Him, Now You Don't...
The Vanishing of Ambrose Small

Out all of the people in history who vanished without a trace for no discernible reason at all, there are few who can compare to Ambrose Small. His disappearance on December 2, 1919 was so sensational and mystifying that it made a permanent mark on North American history. The marvelous and controversial showman would have undoubtedly wanted it no other way.


Ambrose Small was born in 1863 and at the age of thirteen went to work in his father’s modest establishment, Toronto’s Warden Hotel. As he grew older, he began managing the hotel kafe and booking entertainment for the customers. With these minor musical acts, he realized that show business was to be his life’s work. In addition to working for his father, Small also took a part-time job as an usher at the Grand Theater. He slowly worked up the ranks to assistant manager and then booking manager, arranging florid and spicy melodramas for the venue. These programs met with much success and Small began to prosper. He began to buy interests in small theaters in and around Toronto. His ambition was to own the Grand Opera House, but his offers to buy it were frequently refused. This made him all the more anxious to possess it and he began to work harder than ever to amass the necessary wealth.

Small began to make a name for himself as a daring gambler. He was never afraid to bet huge sums on races and while he always paid off when he lost, he was not above being involved in fixed races either. He managed to win $10,000 in one fixed race and began making enemies in racing circles. He also gained a reputation with women. There were a number of rejected sweethearts and angry husbands who would have loved to see something bad happen to him. The short but handsome Small, with his luxuriant walrus mustache and fancy clothes, was often seen squiring young and beautiful women about town, especially the gorgeous showgirls who worked the local theaters. He left many a hopeful starlet feeling both used and disappointed when he moved on to another attractive lady. 

This is why it must have come as a great surprise when the rakish Small, just before his fortieth birthday, suddenly married the wealthy heiress to a brewing fortune. Whether or not Small loved his new wife, Teresa, or whether he simply loved her money is unknown. However, he did use her wealth to purchase scores of small theaters and to book the biggest-named talent that he could find into them.

Small now had his fortune and he finally realized his dream of owning the Grand Opera House. But within a few years, he began to grow tired of his marriage and his secure business life and he began gambling and seeing women again. In order to conduct his affairs discreetly, he ordered that a secret room be constructed to adjoin his office at the opera house. The room was fitted with heavy drapes to muffle sound, a deep Oriental carpet, a well-stocked kafetaria and a gigantic bed with satin sheets and pillows. Many a beautiful young woman was willingly ravished in the clandestine chamber.

As his fortune grew, Small continued to make enemies. He made his prejudices well known to anyone who would listen, even strangers. He disliked children, Catholics and the poor and felt that making donations to charity was foolish. He continued to gamble, growing more and more daring with his wagers, and he began to win huge sums of money. Small was able to keep informed of the races at every track in the United States and he bet on most of them. He became more interested in wagering than in running his theatrical empire, which now included almost every theater in eastern Canada. He spent huge sums of money and treated his employees and business associates with disdain. Small placed much of his business dealings in the hands of his private secretary, John Doughty, who was well aware of his employer’s dark and secret habits. Doughty, though, had secrets of his own. 

By the late 1910s, the high life began to take its toll on Small. His hair had started to turn gray and to recede and his face was reddened by broken blood vessels, the result of too much drinking. While he was still gambling, his wagers were somewhat smaller and his womanizing was mostly confined to his long-time mistress, Clara Smith. He was also beginning to tire of the theater business and wanted out.

In 1919, he and Teresa began negotiating the sale of the Small chain of theaters to a British-owned firm, Trans-Canada Theaters Limited. The deal was concluded on December 2, 1919 and the Smalls received a check for one million dollars, with an additional $700,000 to be paid to them in installments over the next five years. The husband and wife endorsed the check and deposited it in their account at the Dominion Bank the next morning. That afternoon, Small told his lawyer, E.W.M. Flock, that he planned to inform his secretary John Doughty that not only had Doughty been retained by the new firm as a secretary and booking manager, but he would see a substantial increase in salary.

Attorney Flock saw Small again later that evening, around 5:30 p.m., at the Grand Opera House. Small was in a fine mood, laughing and smoking cigars to celebrate the sale of the chain. Flock spent a few minutes with him, but then left to catch a train. As he walked out of the front foyer of the opera house and into a driving snowstorm, he looked back and waved at Small. It was the last time that he would ever see his client.

A short time later, Small also left the opera house. Bundled up against the biting wind, cold and snow, he made with way to the corner of Adelaide and Yonge, ducking into the shelter of a newsstand operated by Ralph Savein. The newsstand owner knew Small well, as he habitually checked the racing results in the paper each day. Small always picked up the paper when it arrived by train, however on this day, the papers had not been delivered because the train had been delayed by a terrible snowstorm in New York. Savein said that Small cursed bitterly over the lack of the paper, which was something that he had never heard him do before. Small then trudged off into the snow and as he made his way down the block, Savein saw his form fade away into the blowing storm. He was the last person to report speaking with Ambrose Small.

Several days passed before anyone realized that Small had disappeared. His wife and friends were so used to his dalliances and gambling trips that they assumed he had simply gone out of town for a few days. They wanted to ignore his shortcomings so badly that they never dreamed he could have met with foul play. Once his disappearance became official, though, the authorities launched the biggest manhunt in Canadian history. Teresa Small offered a staggering $50,000 reward for information on her husband, inspiring every amateur sleuth and crackpot to join the hunt with the legitimate detectives already on the case. 

Meanwhile, the police were also seeking John Doughty, who had, coincidentally it turned out, vanished on the same day as Ambrose Small. The authorities learned that Doughty had not taken kindly to losing his position with Small and before leaving town, he had gone to the Dominion Bank and, using Small’s key to his safety-deposit box, had absconded with $100,000 in negotiable Victory bonds. Doughty was found one year later, working in a Portland, Oregon, paper mill under the name Charles B. Cooper. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of the bonds but was cleared of having anything to do with Small’s disappearance.

As the hunt for Ambrose Small continued, many began to fear that the theater magnate had been murdered. A man named George Soucy, a publishing house employee, reported that he had seen Small being forced into a car on the evening of December 2. Also, on that same night, a caretaker named Albert Elson insisted that he had seen four men burying something in a ravine just a short distance from Small’s home. A cleaning woman, Mary Quigley, swore to police that she had seen a notice pinned to the wall in the Convent of Precious Blood, located on St. Anthony Street, which requested “prayers for the repose of the soul of Ambrose J. Small” several days before the public or the press knew that he had vanished!

These turned out to be some of the best leads that the police had but they were among the hundreds that actually came in. The authorities conducted a painstaking search for the missing man. Every business in Toronto was searched and all six cities where Small had theaters were scoured for clues. Toronto Bay was dredged several times and the basement of the Small mansion on Glen Road was excavated. The search continued for years and even as late as 1944, investigators were still digging up the basement of the Grand Opera House, hoping to find Small’s bones.

Teresa Small was interrogated several times about her husband’s disappearance. She was convinced that he had been done in by one of the countless women he had been involved with over the years. She knew all about his affairs but had ignored them for a long time. Finally, she ran across some obscene letters that Clara Smith had written to Small and Teresa demanded that her husband stop seeing her. She had placed the letters on the dining room table so that he would know that she had seen them. Small came upon the correspondence and destroyed it all, insuring his wife that his cheating days were over. This occurred in 1918 but Teresa did not know that her husband had continued seeing Smith up until the day that he vanished. In fact, he even had dinner with her on December 1. The police concluded that Smith knew nothing of her lover’s fate.

By 1920, the case had become desperate and the police had resorted to following ridiculous stories and what turned out to be frequent hoaxes. That same year, though, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer who created Sherlock Holmes and who was known in England for helping the authorities with a number of seemingly unsolvable crimes, was touring the United States. A reporter asked him what he thought of the Small disappearance and he admitted that he was intrigued and had been following the story in the papers. He was asked if he might help out with it and Doyle agreed that if asked, he would consult on the case. Within days, newspapers in Canada and the United States were running headlines that cried “World’s Greatest Detective to Solve Small Case” and “Sherlock Holmes to Reveal Toronto Mystery.” For some reason, though, Doyle was never asked to consult and his interest in the case turned to other things.

And while the famous author was never asked to look into the case, the authorities were desperate enough in 1926 to contact a Vienna criminologist named Dr. Maximilian Langsner and to hire him to delve into the rapidly cooling affair. Langsner claimed that he was able to use psychic “thought processes” to find the missing man. While he was put up in the finest Toronto hotel, conducting seances and “astral trips”, he sent the police out to follow his divinations, digging up half the countryside and finding nothing. When the detectives complained, he replied that the policemen were clouding his vision and he would have to look more later. Public outcry sent Langsner pengemasan and the police department was left with the huge bills that he had run up on the official tab.

Since 1919, Ambrose Small has been “spotted” in hundreds of places from owning a hotel in South America to living it up in France with a girl on each arm and a champagne bottle gripped in each fist. A psychic envisioned him buried in the Toronto city dump. An old friend claimed to catch a glimpse of him on the street in London. The magician Harry Blackstone swore that he spotted Small gambling in a Mexican cantina. 

Regardless, the courts pronounced him officially dead in 1923, so he has been placed in the “gone, but not forgotten” category from that point on. What really happened to the theater mogul is anybody’s guess and the mystery of Ambrose Small will undoubtedly live on for many years to come.

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