by Edith Cody-Rice
Hot on the heels of Charlotte Gray’s Murdered Midas comes this tale of a second Canadian magnate, a contemporary of Harry Oakes of the Gray story, who suddenly went missing.. Although Ambrose Small is presumed to have been murdered his body was never found so theories abound on what might have happened to him.
Ambrose Small was a theatre manager of modest family at the beginning of his career but during the early years of the 20th century, he built a Canadian live theatre empire which stretched across Ontario including the Grand Opera House in Toronto and theatres in smaller communities like London, North Bay, Sudbury, Blind River and Sault Ste Marie. He bought, built or leased ornate temples of entertainment and through his New York connections attracted stars to fill them. It was the heyday of live theatre, before the cinema, and small communities had theatres as today they would have movie houses.
Small made a fortune, married the sister of his stepmother and lived well in Rosedale. It is said that he made his money by squeezing every dime and short changing his business partners and he lived an extravagant lifestyle, gambling and womanizing. The couple were childless
On December 2, 1919, Ambrose Small left the Grand Opera House in Toronto and disappeared completely.
The first third of the book deals with Small’s rise, his life and his empire building, the rest with the fall out of his disappearance. His loyal secretary Jack Doughty pinched over $100,000 of Victory Bonds from Small’s vault, entrusted to them to his sister, then boarded a train to Oregon, changed his name and effectively disappeared until recognized from a wanted poster. He was brought back to Toronto and tried and convicted of theft but never tried for the murder of Small.
Suspicion also fell on his wife Theresa, a devout Catholic and benefactress of many charities in Toronto, as well as an accomplished speaker, but she appeared to be untouchable.
The investigation involved Doughty, Theresa, Small’s sisters as well as Doughty’s sisters, Small’s mistress Clara Smith and a muck raking Irish drifter cum journalist Patrick Sullivan, not to mention the detective who batted away theories that involved Theresa. The investigation and battle over the very substantial estate continued into the 1950’s.
The tale is known, at least to writers, as Michael Ondaatje refers to the incident in his novel In the Skin of a Lion about the immigrant experience in the building of Toronto in the 1930’s That book was published in 1987,
But to the general public, I venture that this story is not well known. This is a first novel for Katie Daubs, a Toronto Star reporter. She is an accomplished writer and makes the Toronto of the early to mid 20th century come alive. The book is an unwitting and worthy companion to Charlotte Gray’s tale although Daub’s book is not quite as tightly and expertly constructed. The title is unfortunate as it is a bit tame, given the story. It is not a ‘grabber’ as they say in the trade and would not motivate a reader to pick it up at a bookstore. I did, however, and am glad of it.
The MIssing MIllionaire is published by McClelland and Stewart