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Slightly spooky stories: No small mystery (4 photos)

The final installment of Slightly Spooky Stories takes a look at the disappearances of members of the Small family

Twenty years after the widely reported disappearance of her millionaire brother, Gertrude Small and her fiancé stopped in Barrie to obtain a marriage license. Twenty-four hours after they married, she and her bridegroom, Warren Bell, were dead.

Ambrose Small was born to Daniel Small and his wife, Ellen Brazill, who had married the year before his 1866 birth. The Brazills were one of the first families to settle in the Bond Head area of West Gwillimbury Township and they operated a hotel there in the early 1800s.

Ambrose’s father moved the family from West Gwillimbury to Newmarket and then Toronto as he progressed in his career as innkeeper. Young Ambrose saw the value in the entertainment of guests and pointed his ambitions in a slightly different direction, that of theatre management.

While at the Grand Opera House in Toronto, Ambrose worked his way up from an usher and bookmaker’s runner. However, he quarreled with Mr. Oliver, the manager, quit his job, moved on to the Toronto Opera House, rose to manager there and eventually made enough money to buy the Grand and fire Mr. Oliver!

After his mother died, Ambrose Small’s father remarried to Josephine Kormann, daughter of a wealthy brewer, and started a new family. Ambrose became concerned that his only two full siblings, his unmarried sisters Gertrude and Florence, might be left out of any future fortunes so he began financing their upkeep in style.

In 1902, Ambrose Small married Theresa Kormann, his stepmother’s youngest sister. This couple were more business partners than anything else. Theresa ignored his gambling and girl chasing as he left her to involve herself in the arts, in Catholic charities and in the business of being a well-dressed and well-travelled society lady.

All of that fell apart on Dec. 2, 1919. Ambrose Small was by then a big wheel in the entertainment industry and owned 34 theatres. That day, he attended a few meetings to finalize his deal of a lifetime. Ambrose had just sold all his holdings to a rival company from Montreal for $1.75 million.

Then he vanished. Ambrose Small was never seen again.

In the days, months and years that followed, extensive searches, private investigators, hefty rewards, psychics and police detectives turned up nothing. The sisters of Ambrose Small turned on his wife, Theresa. They accused her of orchestrating his disappearance which they believed to be a murder. They also took her to court get more of their brother’s estate money and won.

Gertrude and Florence Small had a comfortable house in a nice section of Toronto but, in the mid-1930s, they moved into a home in Barrie. Perhaps they were seeking a quieter community.

By then, the two sisters were in their mid-fifties, unmarried, and possibly just a little bit on the eccentric side. Gertrude’s love was her cats. In fact, she had 15 of them but her feline friends were nearly forgotten when Gertrude Small met a certain Midland electrician, twenty years her junior, who had come to Barrie to do a job at the Queen’s Hotel!

Gertrude rented a little house in Midland so she could be near her beloved Warren Bell. An engagement was quick to come and was followed by that trip to Barrie to see clerk-treasurer A.B. Coutts for a marriage license.

On Oct. 26, 1939, Gertrude and Warren were married at the Wilcox Hotel in Stayner. The newlyweds stopped along the way back to Midland for dinner and a few cocktails. The following afternoon, Gertrude’s body was found floating in the shallow waters at Wasaga Beach.

Immediately, the rumor mill started to churn. The electrician had married Gertrude Small for her money and then done away with her! All of that came to a halt with the discovery of Warren Bell’s body 3 days later. Their car was discovered located in the mouth of the Nottawasaga River where it enters Georgian Bay.

Early reports said that the car containing the couple had been seen being driven at a high rate of speed along the sandy flats of the beach and headed in the direction of Midland. The evening was dark and foggy. No barrier or sign indicated where the road ended or the river began so the tragedy appeared to be the result of an accident.

Florence Small was having none of that. She still believed that this was a deliberate act by persons unknown and she demanded a full inquiry. An inquiry was set for Collingwood for mid November but Florence asked that it be postponed until her personal advisor, Patrick Sullivan, could conduct an investigation of his own.

Sullivan was a strange character indeed. The former police officer, who lived with the Small sisters, published the short-lived tabloid called The Thunderer, acted as a part time private detective and was a promoter of theophysics, a system of belief that attempts to blend physics and religion.

When the final inquiry came about in early 1940, Sullivan had much to say. He told the inquiry that he had found evidence of drug paraphernalia hidden in Gertrude’s rented Midland house along with a collection of pawn tickets. Sullivan professed that Gertrude had been kept drugged as her wealth was embezzled away until she was reduced to pawning her jewelry.

That wasn’t all. Sullivan and Florence Small were adamant that the Roman Catholic Church was behind all of it. A clause in Gertrude’s will said that her $100,000 share of the money left by their missing brother, Ambrose, was to revert to the Catholic Church if she died without heir. They contended that the Church had hired hitmen to dispatch Gertrude and Warren to get at the money.

These theatrics did not sway Chief Coroner Dr. W.A. Lewis, Frank Hammond KC, nor anyone else. The verdict was accidental death by drowning as the result of an automobile accident. Warren Bell was found to have been fairly intoxicated at the time of his death. Very little alcohol, and no drugs, were found in Gertrude’s system.

Of course, Florence Small did not buy any of that. She was forever convinced that whoever was behind the disappearance of her brother was also responsible for her sister’s death.

Warren Bell was laid to rest in Lakeview Cemetery in Midland while his wife of mere hours was buried in Mount Pleasant in Toronto. Where Ambrose J. Small lies, no one knows. However, at what is believed to be have been his favourite theatre, the Grand Theatre of London, Ontario, Ambrose has been seen in ghostly form. So they say.

I am beginning to think that all opera houses or theatres of an older vintage have a resident ghost, or at least stories about one anyway.

Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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