With crackpots, clairvoyants and a cryptic cipher, how the mystery of Ambrose Small became Toronto’s most captivating cold case


Ambrose Small knew all about drama.

The Toronto theater mogul made his fortune entertaining audiences with low-brow stage productions like “Perils of Pauline,” and “Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl.”

And then he just vanished from his office in Toronto’s old Grand Opera House on the south side of Adelaide Street, between Bay and Yonge streets, on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1919.

For a time, a standing joke in Toronto was to ask if Small’s body was discovered every time a building in the city was demolished, author and Star journalist Katie Daubs notes in her thoroughly-researched bestseller, “The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed with Finding Him.”

Toronto neighbors digging in their gardens could expect to be asked, “Looking for Ambrose Small?”

So could workers digging Toronto’s subway lines.

And a crowd gathered to see if his corpse was unearthed on May 11, 1946, when workers began tearing the Grand down to make way for a new bus terminal.

No bodies — of Small or anyone else — were found at the site, where there’s now a Winners store.

The Grand Opera Theater on Adelaide St. W.

Small was also hard to ignore, even when he was gone. Small and twitchy, he looked like a villain who would tie a heroine to the railroad tracks in one of his melodramas. His mustache from him was so thick that several small men or one large pony could be hidden inside it.

Small was a powerful man in the Ontario entertainment world when he suddenly exited the local stage.

In addition to the Grand, I have owned venues in Hamilton, London, Ont., St. Thomas, Kingston and Peterborough, and I have controlled the bookings for 62 other stages.

Anyone wanting to perform on those stages needed Small’s consent.

Chorus dancers hoping to improve their work prospects could visit the secret chamber he had built in the Grand for his serial trysts.

His disappearing act took place a day after selling his empire for $1.75 million at a time when the average worker made $25 or $30 a week. He got a check for $1 million, with the rest to come in installations.

It made business sense to unload the stages.

The global Spanish flu epidemic had forced the closure of its theatres, much like COVID-19 hit the modern entertainment industry.

Motion pictures were increasingly popular and competing for entertainment dollars.

Small had plenty of other interests, including betting — and allegedly fixing — horse races.

Perhaps he had also grown weary of fending off his enemies and detractors. Certainly, they were legion, like the businessman who told Maclean’s magazine in 1951: “I may be a damned liar and a damned thief, but you insult me, sir, when you call me Ambrose J. Small.”

Small’s real story was more nuanced than such assessments.

In that Macleans’ piece, Robert Thomas Allen notes that he was beloved by some, including his sisters and Bill Wampole, who ran the cloakroom and opera glass and candy concession in the Grand.

“He was one of the best friends I ever had,” Wampole said. “In all the years I worked in the Grand he never charged me a dime for my concession.”

Small certainly wasn’t a model husband but he wasn’t all bad. Just before his disappearance, Small ordered a Cadillac, a sealskin coat trimmed with chinchilla, fox stoles and a $10,000 pearl necklace for his wife.

The last time she saw him, she said, was at the King Edward Hotel on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 1919, just before she went off to do some good work for Catholic orphans.

The Rosedale resident put up a $500 reward — a fraction of the cost of her pearl necklace — for information leading to the discovery of her husband.

Then she increased the amount to $50,000 if he was found alive and $15,000 if discovered dead.

Asylum inmates were among those providing tips and some, Allen notes, even said they were Small himself.

Daubs notes that the attorney general’s office actually had a file for some of the comments from tipsters that was labeled, “Letters from Cranks, etc.”

Some tipsters were crooks, not crackpots. Some were arrested for extortion.

Some informants appealed to exotic tastes of the time. A Viennese criminologist used what was described as a “thought-wave” system to report Small was burned in a furnace in a Montreal rooming house.

Newspaper readers were also invited to ponder a bizarre cryptogram that included the characters, “lp uibu 86n” and which supposedly meant that Small was trapped in a limehouse kiln near Brampton Junction, near death from suffocation.

There were also reports of a kidnapping by a New York gangster that led nowhere.

A magician called Blackstone made the news by reporting that he witnessed Small playing roulette in Juarez, Mexico, on April 8, 1920.

There was always room for a new conspiracy theory. Some inquiring minds wondered who dispatched the maid in the Small household to the Whitby Asylum, and asked there was any truth to her stories of Mrs. Small kneeling in her cellar in the middle of the night in what appeared to be some strange ritual.

The public gobbled up stories based on the musings of spiritualists and clairvoyants, under screaming headlines like: “SMALL’S ASTRAL BODY SEEN BY TORONTO MAN?”; “IS SMALL’S BODY BURIED BENEATH ROSEDALE DUMP?”; and “CLAIMS SPIRIT TOLD HER AJ SMALL WAS POISONED.”

One enterprising local reporter dipped into crime fiction, contacting Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories.

Conan Doyle was on an American tour when he was sent information on the case, which he politely ignored. Still it was enough to support the headline, “SHERLOCK HOLMES TAKES SMALL CASE UNDER WING.”

“Small was seldom reported in normal condition,” Maclean’s reported. “At best he was an amnesia victim, at worst a gibbering idiot, and in between an astral body, an anguished wail issuing from beneath a cement floor, or an honest ghost with a habit of popping up with the information that his mortal remains were at rest in the ashpit of the boiler of the Grand Opera House.”

The most interesting speculation concerns Small’s wife, who had plenty of reasons to be bitter and Small’s long-time secretary, who aired kidnapping plans to others in his circle and who served prison time for stealing $105,000 worth of bonds from Small.

A judge in one of many court actions surrounding the case declared Small’s wife to be “a good and charitable woman.”

There were suggestions that Small simply staged his own disappearing act to live a quieter life, perhaps even slipping away in a theatrical wig.

Daubs dismisses such thoughts.

She notes that Small was a man who tracked down every nickel owing to him.

Was it conceivable that he would just walk away from $1 million he had just deposited in his bank account, as well as the $750,000 he had come to him and his thick stash of war bonds?

“I believe that only death could separate him from his money,” Daubs writes.

While there’s no real ending to the Small drama, it has inspired fine entertainment that’s superior to what he put onstage.

Michael Ondaatje fuses fact and fiction in his 1987 novel, “In the Skin of a Lion,” in which he weaves Small and his mistress Clara Dickens into the fabric of Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s.

“He was bare-knuckle capitalism,” Ondaatje writes of Small. “He was a hawk who hovered over the whole province, swooping down for the kill, buying up every field of wealth, and eating the profit in mid-air.”

The case remains unsolved.

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