An Interview with Katie Daubs, Author of The Missing Millionaire:
The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed with Finding Him
Katie Daubs, a reporter at the Toronto Star, has written her first book about the unsolved disappearance of Ambrose Small. Small was a self-made theatrical magnate who controlled a network of Ontario theatres and vanished the day after he sold the network for $1.75 million in 1919.
The disappearance of Ambrose Small was at one time our greatest cold case but the story is largely forgotten now. How did you first hear of it?
I was living in Toronto’s underground PATH network for two weeks for a story for the Star. The PATH connects the city’s financial district with underground walkways, shops and food courts and I was looking for interesting history connected to the place. That’s when I learned about Ambrose Small. Ambrose was a very ambitious guy, but not very well liked for the way he ran his Ontario theatre empire. He had plenty of enemies, a tumultuous marriage, and a few women on the side. The money from the big sale was never touched, and his body was never found, but there were plenty of twists and turns for the police and newspaper reporters to follow as the mystery deepened. The Grand Opera House, where he was last seen alive, stood approximately where Scotia Plaza is now on Adelaide Street near Yonge Street. For years, I have walked by, never realizing it was the site of one of Toronto’s greatest mysteries. It was too complicated to include in the Star story, but I was hooked on Ambrose and his city.
Did you have a favourite character?
I wouldn’t call him my favourite – because he’s a pretty objectionable guy – but Patrick Sullivan gave me a lot to dig into. He’s a war veteran, an Irish immigrant, an ex-cop who comes to Toronto in 1921 and latches on to the mystery, teaming up with Ambrose Small’s sisters, who have largely been ignored by the police and other officials. He is an agent of chaos, and he drives a lot of the drama with the tabloid newspaper he buys. He doesn’t follow the rules of polite Toronto society. Most of his time is spent criticizing the Catholic Church with a creative array of insults, comparing the Ontario government to maggots, disparaging the intelligence of the Toronto police, or challenging the premier to a public debate on the finer points of the mystery. He even goes to jail for some of the libelous and offensive stories he writes. The interesting thing is that he sometimes makes legitimate criticisms of the investigation, but they are easily ignored because of his rhetoric and track record. I find that tension really interesting.
Although Ambrose is the main character, you keep a strong focus on the women’s lives as well—his wife, his sisters, his mistress. Why was that important to you?
By 1919, more women are entering the workforce, some are given the vote, and many men are terrified. That was some of my favourite research—learning how some men sought to control, curtail, and remind women of their “true” place in society. There is such fear about the changing world, including the rise of women and Toronto’s burgeoning diversity. The women in this book aren’t suffragists, but they are fighting for access to power, and not everyone is treated equally. Ambrose Small’s wife Theresa is wealthy and secure, so she has much more privilege than Ambrose Small’s sisters, or his mistress. She also has much greater access to the police. I found it really interesting to see the way those dynamics played out. Had Theresa been born 100 years later, she probably would have been a C-suite executive who divorced Ambrose Small, and avoided the implosion of her entire life.
Life in Toronto in the early 1920s is a riveting part of the book. Did learning the city’s history make you think differently about the city now?
In the 1920s institutions like the police, the courts, Queen’s Park and city hall weren’t very old. It was fascinating to see how they were shaped by the biases of their day, to see their mistakes, to watch what they said in public versus how they handled problems behind the scenes. Watching Toronto change from a manufacturing boomtown to a centre of finance gave me a better sense of the resentment that is often directed at the city. In 1919, Montreal is still the heart of Canadian commerce, but Toronto is becoming unavoidable. If you’re mining in the north, or farming out west, chances are some of your money is coming back to this city, for lawyers, stocks, insurance, that kind of thing. It was also interesting to see some of the city’s neuroses. After the settlers leave their colonial mark on the swamps and forests that had long been home to Indigenous people, Toronto is routinely disparaged as no better than “second-rate” towns in England. The Grand Opera House, the theatre where Ambrose Small starts his rise and the last place he is seen alive, is essentially built to validate those insecurities in 1874. The theatre puts the city on the international entertainment map, with a stage worthy of the best actors of Europe and New York.
At one time Ambrose ran a huge theatre empire. Are there still remnants of it across the province?
Of the six theatres Ambrose owned before he sold the empire, London and Kingston still exist. London’s Grand Theatre underwent major renovations in the 1970s, but the stage, the proscenium arch, are still the same. It’s pretty neat to see old posters from long ago peeling on the walls backstage. The Toronto Grand was demolished in 1928. Hamilton’s became a movie theatre and was demolished in the early 1960s. The Peterborough theatre was levelled in the late 1940s. The St. Thomas theatre was gone by 1970. There were dozens more theatres connected through leases and booking arrangements—if you’ve got an old opera house in your town, chances are there might be a connection to Ambrose Small.
What do you think happened to him?
Having a theory about Ambrose Small was a requirement of Toronto life in the 20th century. Was his disappearance a betrayal, an act of passion, a mistake, a murder, a vanishing act? The book delves into that morass, including what the police theorized, but never said publicly. There are two basic schools of thought—Ambrose Small escaped to a quiet life or Ambrose Small was murdered. The book is best read with an open mind, so I’ll leave it there.
True crime podcasts are very popular right now. Would you like to see the story come to life in that way? Or a movie?
Many people have been drawn to this mystery. Michael Ondaatje included Ambrose Small as a character in his In the Skin of a Lion. There have been radio plays, theatre productions, and a movie (Sleeping Dogs Lie) based on Fred McClement’s 1974 book about the case. I believe there are two theatrical productions currently in the works, including one at the Grand in London. The Ambrose Small case is rich with characters, deceit, and plot twists so I think it’s a natural fit for a podcast or a movie.
The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed with Finding Him
By Katie Daubs
Published by McClelland & Stewart, available in hardcover, e-book and audio
Interview supplied by the publisher