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The story behind the mysterious disappearance of Canadian theater tycoon Ambrose Small in Toronto in 1919.

Copyright © Peter Vronsky, 2002-2012

On December 2, 1919, on the same day that Canadian theater tycoon Ambrose Small received a check for one million dollars, he vanished in the streets of downtown Toronto, leaving his money behind safely deposited in a nearby bank.

Small's bizarre disappearance captured the imagination of the press worldwide and was for the longest time dubbed  "Crime of the Century." Headlines in London, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago announced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was to consult the investigation. Frustrated Toronto Police hired clairvoyants in their desperation. A $50,000 reward was offered for information about Small's disappearance, an extraordinary sum in those days. No trace of the vanished millionaire was ever found.

In Canada the mystery continued to capture headlines for years, culminating with an extraordinary Ontario Attorney-General's Special Inquiry in 1936, sixteen years after the disappearance.

Although the case was officially closed in 1960, police were still receiving and investigating letters purporting to disclose Ambrose Small's burial location forty-five years later.  As late 1965, Toronto Police detectives inspected a possible grave site in Rosedale Valley.

By 1970, the story was reaching mythical proportions: the ghost of Ambrose Small was reported haunting one of his former properties, the Grand Theater in London, Ontario and is credited to have saved the theatre's most prominent architectural feature from unintentional demolition. The disappearance was still a big enough story in 1974, for the Toronto Sun tabloid to print a series of six full-page accounts of the case.

More recently the story of Ambrose Small's disappearance has resurfaced several times in literary form, including Michael Ondaatje's novel, In the Skin of the Lion, and in Fred McClement's The Strange Case of Ambrose Small, which forms the basis of Sleeping Dogs Lie - a 1999 Sullivan Productions made-for-TV movie.

The Ambrose Small mystery has remained unsolved--at least until now!

A document recently discovered by the author, offers a compelling inside look into the case never made public before. Written in 1936 by OPP Inspector Edward L. Hammond, the lead Provincial investigator in the case, the document not only summarizes the inside story of the Ambrose Small investigation from start to finish, but also names for the first time publicly, the suspects and motives.  More shockingly, Hammond convincingly accuses the lead Toronto Police detective in the case, Austin Mitchell, of orchestrating a deliberate cover up.

OPP Inspector Edward L. Hammond, posing with a seized gambling apparatus. (circa. 1925.)

Hammond, the lead Provincial investigator in the mysterious vanishing of Ambrose Small, is the author of a recently discovered memorandum about the case. The contents of his startling 1936 report, written sixteen years after the event, have never been made public.

The opening page of Hammond's secret memorandum.


Ambrose Small: Case Closed!  will explore what was arguably the "Crime of the Century" in a definitive account of the Ambrose Small Case--Canada's most enduring crime mystery. The book will focus on the mysterious disappearance of Ambrose Small and the decades of scandal and controversy that followed.

Ostensibly Ambrose and Theresa Small were leading socialites in Toronto with a house in the posh Rosedale neighborhood and memberships in the most exclusive clubs. Theresa was so powerful and well connected that police hesitated to call upon her as late as two weeks after her husband's rumored disappearance. The disappearance itself was kept hushed up from the press for over a month, until it was finally leaked to the Toronto Star in January 1920, sparking a press feeding frenzy of global scale.

Grand Opera House Toronto 

Every aspect of how Ambrose Small made his fortune was raked over by the newspapers, offering a compelling look into a shady world behind the walls of turn-of-the-century respectability in industrial age Canada. Small's fortune was made on what was the equivalent at the time of strip clubs and porno theaters: live theater plays with a very racy, unique and singular theme:   the imagined sexuality of single working girls. Shows with titles like School for Scandal, Nellie the Beautiful Cloak Model and Bertha the Sewing-Machine Girl, addressed an obsession in puritan Toronto with an influx of single girls coming to work in the city and often residing alone away from their families.

After his disappearance, Ambrose Small was revealed to be every Victorian social reformer's worst nightmare. It was discovered he maintained a string of working class mistresses and built a specially designed secret sex room in Toronto's premier theater: the Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street in Toronto--the crown jewel in Small's chain of theatre properties. This was exactly the "girl problem" that reformers moralized and warned about in the face of the massive feminization of Toronto's industrial labour force.

Worse yet, a substantial part of Ambrose Small's initial self-made fortune came from illegal gambling. Ambrose began his rise to wealth by running a bookmaking operation out of a downtown restaurant where he was employed as a dishwasher. His newly found friendship with a customer, Thomas Flynn, Ontario's Racing Commissioner, opened up contacts with high-stake gambling clubs just outside the boundary of Toronto's police jurisdiction on the banks of the Humber River. Despite his hand in vice, Small was an upstanding member of Toronto's elite Yacht Club, the Empire Club and the Canadian Club.

Small's wife, Theresa, whom Ambrose married after making his first fortune, was a Toronto socialite from the wealthy Kormann family. She was well educated, spoke several languages and was a formidable businesswoman in her own right. Described as a "paragon of virtue," she was a devout Roman Catholic passionately involved in raising funds for Catholic charities. Her funeral in 1935 was one of the largest in Ontario's history at the time, attended by Members of Parliament and of the Provincial Legislature, among other dignitaries and high officials of the church. Throughout her life, Theresa was a relentless donor to the church and willed her entire fortune to it. But she was also the silent but significant financial partner in her husband's shady dealings, unabashedly and shrewdly enjoying their profits.

The fact that Theresa was Catholic but Ambrose a Protestant, did not stand in the way of their marriage.  It only became an immense issue--if not the only one--after his disappearance. The fortune that Theresa inherited from her husband, and which she promised to will to the Catholic Church, became a subject of a fifteen year public controversy and legal struggle in sectarian Ontario.

Toronto was essentially a Protestant city, with public office, government posts, awards and contracts dominated by the ultra-Protestant and militant Orange Order. With the Order's backing, numerous attempts were made through the courts and public opinion, to prevent Theresa from inheriting her vanished husband's estate. The issues were often shrill with mobs descending on the courthouse demanding that Theresa be investigated in her husband's disappearance. An underground tabloid newspaper was founded, The Thunderer, which featured hard core pornographic photographs of models resembling Theresa, posed in sexual acts with supposed priests and nuns.

In the end, the courts ruled that Theresa Small's reputation was beyond question and she successfully inherited and willed her estate to the Catholic Church. But even after her death in 1935, the issue of a possible role in her husband's disappearance sixteen years earlier was so intense, that the Ontario Attorney General held an extraordinary Special Inquiry into the fate of Ambrose Small. At its conclusion, the Inquiry publicly declared that Theresa Small was not linked in any manner to the disappearance, and historians since have written that both lead investigators from Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police, were unanimous in their conclusions that Theresa had nothing to do with the crime. The official report made no reference to Inspector Hammond's secret memorandum which so profoundly contradicts the Attorney General's final public pronouncement.

Ambrose Small: Case Closed! will reveal for the first time to the public, a startling inside story of the case left behind by the lead provincial investigator. According to his final report, Hammond had collected a formidable array of information pointing to Theresa Small's role in her husband's disappearance but could do nothing about it. That Theresa Small was behind her husband's death was suspected by many and will not come as a surprise to most crime case aficionados, but that she might have been present at the scene of the murder and the motive proposed by Hammond, had never before been shared with the public.

Bitterly, Inspector Hammond also makes a grave and disturbing accusation: that the senior Toronto Police investigator in the case, Detective Inspector Austin Mitchell, deliberately covered-up the facts of the case by intimidating and threatening witnesses. To underscore the urgency of his accusation, Hammond appended to his report a sworn affidavit from a witness to Mitchell's actions, a document also discovered by the author and investigative historian Peter Vronsky.

Toronto Police Detective
Austin Mitchell

Ambrose Small: Case Closed! is a true crime history and a portrait of a hidden social order during Canada's transition from the Victorian to modern era.  The disappearance of Ambrose Small is a fascinating mystery with twists and turns; a stage for a remarkable look at Canadian society in the years following the Great War. The story of Ambrose Small  is set against a dramatic sweep of people, the press, the police, the occult, private clubs, gambling, high society, wealth, the street mob, sectarian politics, theater, sex, pornography, conspiracy and murder. It is a revealing look at the dark underbelly of Canadian society, a story of greed and vice in a time when Toronto was known as "The Good."

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