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

Copyright © Peter Vronsky, 2002-2015

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!





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 a secret memorandum which so profoundly contradicts the Attorney General's final public pronouncement.

The Disappearance of Ambrose Small: Canada's Coldest Case Closed will reveal for the first time to the public, an inside story of the case as left behind in a report by it's lead provincial police investigator.  

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