Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson

Sex scandals involving men of the cloth are not new (see Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker, etc.); as far back as 1874 Henry Ward Beecher’s former assistant Theodore Tilton sued the preacher for ‘criminal intimacy’ with his wife Elizabeth Tilton. But a scandal involving a female evangelist was something new entirely. Aimee Semple McPherson was no ordinary female evangelist; she was also a media celebrity, one of the first evangelists to combine religion and popular entertainment in America. In the 1920's, Aimee was more famous than movie stars, such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.  Her radio show sometimes reached as far as Australia. Over more than 30 years, Aimee Semple McPherson touched the lives of millions across the country.
Born in Canada in 1890, Aimee was exposed to religion at an early age. According to biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, Aimee was consecrated to God at her birth, by her mother Mimi, who was a soldier in the Salvation Army. Strong-willed and inquisitive by nature, Aimee suffered a spiritual crisis in her teens; trying to reconcile the theory of evolution she was taught in school with the teaching of Genesis in the Bible. Attending a revival meeting one day, she met her first husband, a charismatic Irishman named Robert Semple who was a guest preacher. Aimee found her calling and a husband at the same time. They soon married, partners in the Pentecostal faith, intent on spreading the word, but their happiness was short-lived. Robert died of dysentery and malaria four months after the couple arrived in China to do missionary work. Aimee was eight months pregnant with their daughter Roberta, penniless and alone. She managed to make her way back to New York, where her mother arranged a job for her working for the Salvation Army. It was there that she met her second husband, a restaurant accountant by the name of Harold McPherson.

Aimee tried to settle down as an ordinary housewife in Rhode Island, giving birth to a second child, a son named Rolf but she began suffering from depression and various ailments. In the hospital, she heard a voice saying “Now will you go? Now will you go?” Aimee decided to return to her ministry, buying 2 white servant uniforms, which became her signature look. With no savings, no church backing, and no guarantees, she set off to make a name for herself as a female preacher. From that point on, she would be known simply as “Sister.”

Over the next seven years, Aimee would criss-cross the country six times. She didn’t just talk of the gospel but of her own experiences as a wife and a mother. She turned the usual gospel of hell-fire and damnation into a gospel of love. But the constant touring took a toll on her marriage, and her husband eventually filed for divorce. After touring around the country for several years, Aimee decided to settle down in Los Angeles. Although she preached a conservative gospel, against evolution and for temperance, Aimee used modern technology, radio, movies and magazines, to get her message across. Her revival meetings were more like stage shows, dramatizing scenes from the Bible, with a full orchestra. In Los Angeles, she founded the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, building the huge Angelus Temple, which seated 5,300 people. Aimee was also one of the first women to preach a radio sermon, and she racially integrated her tent meetings and church services. By 1926, she was one of the most influential and charismatic women of her time.

On April 24, 1926, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson returned from a three month trip to Europe and the Holy Land. She returned home to a life of loneliness, overwork, bickering with her mother, and the pressures of fame. “At the end of each day,” she wrote, “…dear people would go to their homes arm in arm, while I would sit in silence.” Aimee had almost immediately plunged back into her crusade against evolution. If that wasn’t enough on her plate, she’d also stuck her nose into local politics, campaigning to keep Venice Beach’s blue laws on the books, which prohibited things like dancing on Sundays. Her actions just added to her list of enemies which already included fellow evangelist Robert P. Schuler who felt that she was a poacher, raiding other church’s congregations. He also believed that she was more of a personality than a preacher, McPhersonism rather than Christianity.

Almost five weeks later, on May 18, 1926, Aimee went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach for a swim. She often went to the beach to work on her sermons. That day she ate waffles with her secretary, wrote for a little while, and then went for a swim. After an hour, her secretary grew alarmed that she hadn’t returned. McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day; her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, concluding with the words, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Thousands flocked to Venice Beach to watch the hunt for Aimee’s body as parishioners held day and night seaside vigils. Merchants did a big business selling photos of the evangelist. The hunt hurt the bootleggers business since they couldn’t bring in the booze without drawing attention to themselves. One parishioner drowned while searching for the body and a diver died of exposure. McPherson's mother received a ransom note (signed by "The Avengers") which demanded a half million dollars, or else the kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery". She later claimed that she’d tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was already dead.

Aimee’s disappearance was a boon to the local newspapers circulation, The Los Angeles Times and William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner competed to see who could get the latest scoop. Daily updates appeared in newspapers around the country, the story helping to attract new subscribers. The New York Times printed the same number of articles that they had on the Scopes Monkey trial one year earlier. Americans eagerly followed each new tidbit in the story. The Los Angeles Times chartered a plane to scan the ocean for Aimee’s body and even hired a parachutist. Other papers, lacking the resources, printed excerpts from Aimee’s autobiography. More than 50 reporters were assigned to the story. When there was no news, they simply printed rumor and innuendo.

On June 23, just when everyone assumed she was knocking on heaven’s door, Aimee knocked on the door of a cottage in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom in a shack by a man and a woman, "Steve" and "Mexicali Rose". She had managed to escape from her captors,  walking 13 hours through the desert to freedom. She was quickly taken to a hospital. On the surface, the story seemed plausible; the FBI had been investigating a number of kidnapping rings in Southern California, but things didn’t seem to add up. Aimee's shoes showed no signs of a long desert trek, nor did they have grass stains on them. Aimee had also been wearing a bathing suit when she disappeared, but turned up in a dress, wearing a wristwatch that she hadn’t worn to the beach. Although she claimed that had been tortured and drugged, she seemed in surprisingly good health for someone who been through an ordeal nor was there any evidence of sunburn or dehydration.
A crowd of at least 50,000 people gathered to welcome her home after her ordeal, which was the largest crowd that had ever gathered to greet anyone arriving in Los Angeles—including sports figures, presidents, politicians or movie stars. The Los Angeles police department assigned a special guard to protect her and the Fire Department turned up in their parade uniforms.  Aimee stood surrounded by 7 young women dressed in white as rose petals were tossed from planes overhead. Gossip columnist Louella Parsons covered the event for Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner.

Within days, many were calling for a full investigation into Aimee’s “kidnapping.” The Los Angeles Examiner offered $10,000 for information about the kidnappers and $1,000 if anyone could locate the shack where Aimee was allegedly kept. However, the police seemed to have no interest in trying to find the kidnappers. Instead they focused on investigating Aimee’s personal life. They focused in particular on Kenneth Ormiston, the married engineer of the radio station she owned, who mysteriously disappeared around the same time. People quickly put two and two together and came up with the idea that the two were having an affair. Others, however, believed that the story was just one big publicity stunt.
A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed. Witnesses came forward claiming to have seen Aimee at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the cottage rented by Kenneth Ormiston under an assumed name. Ormiston admitted he had rented the cottage but claimed that the woman --known in the press as Mrs. X--was not Aimee but another woman with whom he was having an affair. When the grand jury reconvened on August 3, it heard further testimony along with documents from hotels, all said to be in Aimee's handwriting.

Aimee never wavered from her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, and that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. When she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston, the judge charged Aimee and her mother with obstruction of justice. She showed up in court every day with seven female attendants who were dressed like her in a white uniform with a navy cape. Not content to leave her fate solely in God’s hands, Aimee hired three of the most powerful lawyers in Los Angeles. To combat the bad newspaper publicity, Aimee spoke freely about the court trials on the air from her radio station. She likened herself to Joan of Arc, claiming that the forces of evil were trying to sacrifice a woman preacher. Just like in the 15th century, men were threatened by a powerful woman who challenged the status quo.

The prosecution of Aimee generated support for her among local flappers who attended the trial in support, they regarded her as a modern woman similar to themselves, and whose prosecution they believed was motivated by issues of gender. Newspaperman and cynic H.L. Mencken, previously a vocal critic of McPherson's,  came away from the trial impressed with Aimee and disdainful of the prosecution. He concluded that that if you want to discredit somebody’s political agenda, then you go after their private life (now a fact of life for politicians) but still somewhat new at the time. Aimee had been very vocal about getting the teaching of evolution out of California schools and Bibles into every classroom. The same civic leaders, who had had once embraced her, now saw her as an embarrassment. In the end, the district attorney had no clear evidence that she and her mother had obstructed justice, and the charges were dropped. However, the damage to Aimee’s reputation was done.

To this day no one knows what really happened to Aimee Semple McPherson. Biographer Matthew Avery Sutton concedes that Aimee may have simply wanted to disappear for a break, or for good, not realizing the uproar that would be created by her disappearance. Others believed that Aimee would have risked everything that she had worked so hard for just to throw it away on a sexual affair or a publicity stunt. Theories and innuendo abounded: that she had run off with a lover, she had gone off to have an abortion, she was taking time to heal from plastic surgery, or she had staged a publicity stunt. Nevertheless, her disappearance produced a turmoil that convulsed Los Angeles, and enthralled millions of spectators who watched the unfolding drama in the press and on radio.

Aimee struggled for several years after the kidnapping, trying to re-establish her public image. She lost weight, and bobbed her hair, appeared in a Broadway show about her life, which was less than successful since she refused to talk about the kidnapping. There were dozens of lawsuits, and she even became estranged for a time from her mother and daughter. She eloped with a singer named Dave Hutton, who had appeared in one of her productions, outraging some of her parishioners who believed that divorcees should never remarry (the couple later divorced). As the country entered the Depression, Aimee began preaching to the poor and disenfranchised, particularly the African-American and Mexican communities in Los Angeles. Finally, she returned to her Pentecostal roots, publicly speaking in tongues, preaching that the country needed not just an economic revival but a spiritual one as well. In 1944, she arrived in Oakland to preach. One night before she went to bed, she took some barbiturates to help her sleep. She never woke up. Her son found her unconscious on the floor of her room. Although the official coroner’s report stated that her death was an accident, it was initially reported as a suicide.

More than 50 years later, the story of her disappearance still continues to fascinate novelists such as Sinclair Lewis and Nathaniel West, songwriters, and filmmakers. It is one of the great unsolved mysteries in American history.


Epstein, Daniel Mark. Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1993.
Sutton, Matthew A. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007

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