"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 4, 2016

Collecting Ambrose Small

The disappearance of Ambrose Small--one of Canada's classic mysteries--is somewhat unique in the annals of crime. Usually, when someone meets a strange, and presumably sinister, end, a chorus of voices emerges to cry, "This is awful! How could something like that happen to _________?!" In Small's case, the general sentiment was "Good riddance." Like Jimmy Hoffa, it is most likely that Small was murdered. Also like the Hoffa case, solving the crime was hampered by dealing with so many possible suspects and motives, not to mention the fact that few, if any, people close to the investigation showed any great inclination to seek justice on his behalf.

Small was born in Ontario in 1863. As a young man, he became an usher in Toronto's Grand Opera House, eventually becoming its assistant treasurer. Before long, however, he quarreled with the theater's manager, O.B. Sheppard--quarreling was one of Small's great gifts--and he left the establishment to work for the rival Toronto Opera House. He became this theater's manager, and his career as a theatrical mogul was well on its way.

Before too many years had passed, the Grand Opera House was put up for sale, and Small bought it. His first act as its new owner was to fire Mr. Sheppard.

Small focused on the smaller show business fields around Canada, buying up a chain of provincial theaters, and thus dominating many of these markets. He became one of the country's leading entertainment impresarios, a sort of early Louis B. Mayer of Canada.

Alas, it cannot be said that his success was due solely to talent and hard work. Small was, to put it bluntly, an unscrupulous opportunist who took genuine pleasure out of cheating people. He had the natural-born con man's gift for finding ingenious methods of getting the better of everyone around him. There is reason to believe he made his initial fortune by running an illegal bookmaking operation. He was also a playboy of the most tawdry sort, using his wealth and power to use and discard women as he pleased. Although he married a wealthy socialite named Theresa Kormann in 1902--apparently largely to get his hands on his new in-laws' money--he openly continued his womanizing ways. The new Mrs. Small was well aware of her husband's affairs, but chose to turn a blind eye to them.

Unsurprisingly, all this made Small one of the most despised men in Canada. A typical story about him was related by a Hector Charlesworth, who had been acquainted with Small for years. Supposedly, an American producer who had been rooked by Small came to Toronto to have it out with him. However, he mistakenly went to a rival theater, managed by none other than Small's early enemy, O.B. Sheppard. The American stormed into Sheppard's office and told "Mr. Ambrose J. Small" that he was "a damned liar and a damned thief."

Sheppard haughtily replied, "Mr. Fisher...I may be a damned liar and a damned thief, but you insult me, sir, when you call me Ambrose J. Small!"

Small was clearly a man just looking for trouble. And he sure found it in 1919. On November 29 of that year, he concluded a deal to sell a Montreal company, Trans-Canada Theatres, all of his theatrical properties for two million dollars. (He had concluded that the future of entertainment lay in that new invention, motion pictures.) On December 2, he received his first payment from the sale, in the form of a check for one million. His wife Theresa deposited the money in the bank that same day. In the afternoon, Small had a meeting at the Grand Opera House with his solicitor, E.F. Flock, which lasted until about 5:30. Small invited Flock to dinner, but the solicitor declined, leaving the office to catch a train for his home instead.

And that was the last time it is certain anyone saw Ambrose Small. His secretary, John Doughty, left Small's theater around 5:30, and Mrs. Small later testified that Doughty told her that his employer left the office around the same time. Flock, however, thought Doughty had already left the theater when the solicitor had his meeting with Small. Weeks after Small vanished, a father and son who ran a nearby newsstand thought they had sold Small a paper at about 7:00 pm, but they later admitted they could not be sure about the date.

The Grand Opera House in 1919

Although Theresa Small had expected her husband to arrive home for dinner, she was curiously unconcerned about his failure to arrive. It was not until several days later that she even bothered to ask around about his whereabouts, and it took two weeks for the police to be informed of this peculiar disappearance. By then, of course, any trail Small may have left had grown very cold indeed. Mrs. Small explained later that she assumed her husband was merely out celebrating his million dollar windfall with some "designing woman."

When Small vanished, he had no luggage, almost no money on his person, and left his bank accounts untouched. He was not even wearing a watch. It seemed virtually impossible that he left for parts unknown voluntarily. Small's unpleasant personality and sharklike business practices made foul play an obvious possibility, but the police were oddly reluctant to explore that theory. Investigators merely muttered their belief that Small had abruptly developed amnesia and wandered off somewhere. They did not even go public with the mystery until a month after Small disappeared.

The startling announcement that this rich and famous man had suddenly dropped off the face of the earth, coupled with a $50,000 reward for information about him, was an instant media sensation. Predictably enough, "Ambrose Small sightings" cropped up all over the world, plaguing the Toronto police for years afterward. Equally predictably, these reports did exactly nothing to solve the mystery.

One possible clue to Small's fate--or was it a red herring?--came when his secretary, John Doughty, also vanished. Was Doughty a victim of the same person--or persons--who were responsible for Small's disappearance? Or was this a sign that he himself was the guilty party? No one could say, until it was found that over $100,000 worth of bonds was missing from Small's safety deposit box. Doughty had been the last person to open this box, which he did on the morning of December 2--the day Small disappeared.

John Doughty

Suddenly, the Small Mystery looked like an open-and-shut case. Doughty stole from his employer, and then murdered him to cover up the theft. A massive manhunt was launched, which finally bore fruit in November 1920, when Doughty was tracked down in Oregon City, Oregon, where he was working in a paper mill under the name of "Charles B. Cooper." When he was taken into custody, Doughty immediately admitted to the theft of the bonds, (which were later found hidden in his Toronto home,) but vehemently denied that he had anything to do with Small's disappearance. He explained that he fled because after his employer vanished, he feared that the theft would make him a suspect in his presumed killing.

There were other reasons to suspect that Doughty was not just a thief, but a liar and murderer as well. Several witnesses claimed that Doughty had talked about plans for kidnapping Small, and had made many threats against his employer. Although Small became the one of the wealthiest men in Canada, he continued paying Doughty only a tiny salary, and the secretary made no secret of his resentment of this parsimony.

Although it was quite obvious that Doughty had stolen the bonds, police were unable to find any solid evidence that he was implicated in Small's disappearance. Certainly, he had hated the theater magnate, but then, who didn't? More definite proof that he was unconnected to the mystery came from the fact that Doughty's movements on the day Small vanished could be fully accounted for between 5:30 pm, when Small parted company from his solicitor, and 9 pm, when Doughty boarded a train for Montreal. Although he certainly had the motive to kill Small, it seemed virtually impossible that he had the opportunity. Doughty was tried and convicted of theft, which earned him several years in prison. He served his sentence, and exited this story.

Small was officially declared dead in 1923. His will left the bulk of his substantial estate to his wife. Theresa lived quietly until her death in 1935, leaving virtually all of her money to the Catholic Church. However, Small's two sisters, Florence and Gertrude, took legal action aimed at preventing this distribution of the estate. They claimed Theresa hired a hit man to kill her husband, and had even signed a confession. The judge in the case dismissed the suit, declaring that the "confession" was a forgery.

Rumors that Theresa had had her husband murdered--it was popularly believed he had been cremated in the furnace of his own theater--remained so intense that the year after she died, the Ontario Attorney General held a special investigation into the mystery. It was, so to speak, a posthumous trial of Theresa Small. This inquiry concluded that Mrs. Small had nothing whatsoever to do with the disappearance, and presumed death, of her husband.

Small's fate remains as baffling today as it was then. Most researchers into the case agree that the theater manager was murdered, but when? And by whom? And where is his body?

The case was officially closed in 1960, but, naturally, the speculation about his end continues. In recent years, researcher Peter Vronsky has presented a not-implausible theory. Citing documents he claimed to have discovered, most notably a report written in 1936 by Peter Hammond, the lead Provincial investigator into the mystery, Vronsky argued that Theresa Small did indeed murder her husband, with John Doughty's connivance, and that the officer in charge of the case had staged a successful cover-up of that fact. It is not clear whether this report Vronsky describes has been authenticated or corroborated in any way, but even if Hammond indeed wrote this report, it still is not definitive evidence of Mrs. Small's guilt.

My favorite solution to the riddle was proposed by Charles Fort. Noting that the famed writer Ambrose Bierce vanished a few years before the Small mystery, Fort cheerfully asked, "Was somebody collecting Ambroses?"

That seems as good an explanation as any.


  1. I've never heard of Small, even though it's a great mystery from my own country. But, as you write, no one seems to have missed the man and his disappearance seems to have done no one any harm. That's sad, but in this case, very true.

  2. I think that either Mrs Small or Doughty hired a hitman to kill small, so that there would be no "smoking gun" linking them directly to the killing.


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