On the one hundredth anniversary of his disappearance, Ambrose Small turns up again in yet another recounting of that event. Or, rather, he doesn’t turn up. That’s the point. One of Canada’s most stubbornly unsolved mysteries — a case that has spawned a veritable cottage industry of speculative takes on what really happened back on December 2, 1919, when a fifty-three-year-old Toronto theatre impresario vanished into thin air — is revisited by Katie Daubs in The Missing Millionaire.
The missing posters depicted a duplicitous-looking fellow with a walrus moustache. This impression of shiftiness conformed with a view many held of Small — as a sharp dealer, a jackal, a man of secrets and ambitions. Those ambitions helped create a network of thirty-four theatres, half of them outside of Ontario, that eventually led a rival Montreal company to buy him out for $1.75 million. Small had just closed on the deal and deposited a million of that princely amount into his bank account when he disappeared.
The question of what happened to the impresario — and more precisely where he, or at least his earthly remains, could be — continued for years to be a subject of fascination. “Where’s Ambrose?” became a social phenomenon, a kind of parlour game, attracting more than its share of fraudsters and crackpots with particular theories of their own. In Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion, the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, joins the ranks of the Ambrose “searchers.” At a time of particular dislocation, following the First World War, the case offered distraction from larger concerns. A reward — $50,000 for the man, $15,000 if a corpse — added incentive to the quest. And it seems we’re still searching. In her sprightly narrative of the case, Daubs, a Toronto Star reporter, invites today’s reader down a twisty path, where, we realize soon enough, loose ends and blind alleys are the norm.
In Ondaatje’s majestic and dreamlike imagining of the beginnings of modern Toronto — the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the building of the Harris Filtration Plant serve as principal motifs — Small plays an important secondary role, as an emblem of a predatory capitalism. And because this is fiction, the novel provides an answer to the burning question “Where’s Ambrose Small?” Small plans his own getaway, one where he and his mistress can enjoy a happy ending, and manages to take off with $1 million. In reality, the money remained in a Toronto bank account. And therein hangs a tale, or perhaps one ought to say a number of tales, each circling back to Small’s wife, Theresa, who, as much as her vaporous spouse, provides the mystery at the heart of Daubs’s story.
Theresa’s father, Ignatius Kormann, was a brewer. Ambrose’s father, Dan Small, was a hotel and tavern proprietor. Both families were Catholic. It would be Josephine, Ignatius’s eldest daughter and twenty years Dan Small’s junior, whom the hotel man would marry after his first wife’s death. Several years later, Ignatius’s younger daughter Theresa — Dan’s sister-in-law — married Ambrose. Theresa possessed a presence that made her stand out. Noted for her philanthropy to Catholic charities, she became a pillar of the community, a model of piety, a regent of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. Photos of her bring to mind Margaret Dumont, Groucho Marx’s old foil, forever affronted by her swain’s egregious antics. In some ways, Ambrose did seem a kind of Groucho to Theresa’s Margaret, taking leaves of absence to canoodle with one of his lady friends or to hang out at the racetrack.
On the other hand, calculation, not fluttery foolishness, seemed more Theresa’s métier. She was not only Ambrose’s wife but also his partner in business. And they had an understanding. She knew about the girlfriends (especially one of them, Small’s much younger mistress Clara Smith) and the betting at the track. This understanding helped provide for her gracious manner of living: the mansion on Glen Road, in the exclusive Rosedale neighbourhood, the chauffeur and the servants, not to mention the chance to play Lady Bountiful.
And being the community pillar that she was, Theresa Small got the kid glove treatment from investigators when they began looking into her husband’s disappearance. Only in the mid-1930s did another investigator note the discrepancies and possible conflicts of interest in how the police had handled the case, specifically in regard to two people who had been with Ambrose Small on that fateful evening of December 2: Theresa and Jack Doughty, Small’s assistant for eighteen years.
Doughty resented his employer and had been heard to make threats against him. He purloined $105,000 in Victory Bonds from Small’s bank account and soon thereafter fled to Oregon, where he assumed a new identity. A detective named Austin Mitchell went in pursuit. Once apprehended, Doughty confessed to the theft — though he never made use of his ill-gotten gains, which had remained under a floorboard in his sister’s Toronto house — and obligingly accompanied the detective back to Ontario. He was charged with stealing the bonds and plotting to kidnap his boss. But because no physical evidence existed, the latter charge was dropped. Doughty spent several years in the Kingston Penitentiary before returning to Toronto to live out his remaining years.
Meanwhile, Theresa had acquired control over Ambrose’s estate, though not without opposition from Ambrose’s sisters, Florence and Gertrude, who enlisted a knight errant in the person of Patrick Sullivan, a tabloid publisher. Sullivan and the sisters produced what they claimed was Theresa’s confession to her own complicity in the alleged murder of her husband. A judge deemed it dubious and threw it out. The resulting scandal, however, encouraged Theresa to assume a lower community profile.
It seems clear that Theresa Small knew more than she ever acknowledged and that the same Austin Mitchell who retrieved Jack Doughty from Oregon was more than deferential in his questioning of her. Theresa died in 1935. In time, her estate would be largely eaten up by back taxes and by its concentration in illiquid stocks and real estate. Moreover, theatregoing tastes had changed: by the 1930s people were going to the movies instead of to plays. As Daubs notes, it seemed somehow symbolic of Toronto’s changing face that the Small theatre flagship, the Grand Opera House on Adelaide West, should shortly become a parking lot (nowadays it’s part of the Scotia Plaza site).
The degree of innocence or guilt of Theresa Small and Jack Doughty in the disappearance remains a question mark. Yes, murder does appear a likely explanation for Small’s vanishing act — but who, how, and why? Daubs has dug deep into the archival materials and, for good measure, interviewed a few Small and Doughty descendants along the way. It’s a bit of a paradox, then, that such industry serves only to highlight how much of the mystery is still unresolved.
If the lack of answers is at times frustrating, the author’s enthusiasm for the search is entirely winning. In offering up this entertaining addition to Toronto lore, she reminds us again how Toronto the Good can make for even better reading when it’s bad.