Ambrose Small

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Ambrose Joseph Small (born January 11, 1863 in Bradford, Ontario, 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.

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.

The disappearance[edit]

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 $1.7 million CAD. 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 alive.

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 buying a paper at his stand; however, this claim was later repudiated by the police, who considered it to be an attempt by Savein to garner 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 fifty-six years old, Small owned theatres in seven Ontario cities and was the controller of sixty-two other buildings, a self-made millionaire at the height of his career.

The investigation[edit]

Original leads[edit]

The police launched an extensive investigation on the disappearance of Ambrose Small. 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" had a "private secret room", with its own entrance. The room is said to have been for assignations and the settling of gambling debts. The room was scoured for leads, albeit unsuccessfully.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[edit]

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 Fort[edit]

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?" [1]

Use of mystics[edit]

Spirit mediums got involved with the case, contacting him or his spirit. They offered a diverse lot of largely improbable reasons for his disappearance. Among their explanations:

  • was a victim of amnesia; this would not explain how he got out of his office, and the lack of any early stage of this malady until then.
  • had started his life over again in a foreign country; why then would he have not taken the money from his theatre sales, and why would he pursue this, when his career showed no visible or financial weaknesses?
  • was abducted by his private secretary; His secretary, John Doughty, did steal $100 000 in bonds from Small after his disappearance but he was caught.
  • he was murdered by gamblers; again, they'd want the money before they killed him, and would have to be quite odd to kill him until he complied.
  • he was murdered by gangsters; again, they'd want the money before they killed him.
  • Was burning or burnt in a house in Montreal; this was according to psychic Max A. Langsner of Vienna, who used "thought waves" to "solve" the case in 1928.
  • He was chased down a set of stairs by a man younger than him, shot in the back, killed, and was buried underneath an oak tree within walking distance of the theatre.

Other contact stories[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

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.


Legend has it that the ghost of Ambrose Small haunts the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, and the Tivoli Theatre in Hamilton, Ontario.[2]


External links[edit]