The Mysterious Disappearance of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson
On May 18, 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson went for a swim in the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach. An avid swimmer, Aimee loved to escape from her temple in Echo Park for a quick dip in the ocean. She was dropped off by her secretary, who then left to do errands. When the secretary returned, McPherson wasn’t on the beach or in the water or anywhere. In a panic, the secretary called for the leaders of the Angelus Temple. After searching, they concluded the only logical thing: The leader of the Foursquare Gospel and the popular, revolutionary evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson had drowned in the Pacific Ocean. As Aimee’s mother put it to a teary-eyed congregation at the Angelus Temple later that evening, “Sister Aimee is with Jesus.” But that wasn’t the end of the tale of the mysterious disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson. It was just the beginning.
McPherson, who would grow up to be “more famous than the President [of the United States],” came from relatively humble origins. She was born October 9, 1890 as Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in Ontario, Canada to a religious family. Her father, James, was a farmer. Her mother, known as “Minnie,” worked for the Salvation Army. She was a good student and naturally inquisitive, especially when it came to theories of evolution. In high school, a teacher of hers told the students that the world was a “product of centuries of evolutionary development.” She immediately questioned this, to the end that she wrote a Canadian national newspaper asking why public schools would employ teachers that would undermine Christianity. That letter ended up circulating across the country, giving her an early brush with fame and public exposure. Her parents were proud of her deeply religious behavior, but wondered about her flair for the dramatic. She began attending pentecostal revivalist services and fell in love with its fiery Irish preacher, Robert Semple. They married in 1908.
As a revivalist, Robert Semple’s job was to travel the world and spread the word of God. When he married Aimee, he began taking her with him. They first moved to Chicago and, then, in 1910, to China. Tragedy struck quickly after they arrived when Robert contracted malaria and died. A month later, Aimee had her and Robert’s only child, Roberta Star, named in part after her beloved, deceased husband.
She returned to North America with her young daughter, joined up with her mother Minnie, and worked at the Salvation Army in New York City. In 1912, she met a well-off accountant, Harold McPherson, and they married soon after. A year later, they had a son, Rolf, but Aimee had no intention of settling down as a housewife. She felt she was meant to preach. She began touring the northeast, then all over the US and Canada. With her two kids, a large tent on the top of the car, and “Jesus is Coming Soon—Get Ready” painted on the side, she quickly became a hit holding tent revivals and preaching in churches to thousands. Always known for her flair for the dramatic, she spoke in tongues and claimed she could faith-heal. Her mother joined her at many of these speaking engagements. Unfortunately, her husband, Harold,did not. He filed for divorce citing “abandonment” as the reason.
Aimee’s fame grew quickly. As an energetic, dramatic, over-the-top female evangelistic, she was very much a breath of fresh air in the 1920 religious landscape. By 1922, according to Smithsonian magazine, she was breaking attendance records set by her male peers. In San Diego, over 300,000 people came to see her do her thing. There were so many people that the Marines were called in as “crowd control.” At that same event, it was said that Aimee laid her hands on a “paralyzed” woman and she walked, supposedly, for the first time. Aimee Semple McPherson was a star.
In 1921, she made her way to the city that would be perfect for her theatrical-based religious ceremonies – Los Angeles. Using the money she had earned from her appearances, she bought land in Echo Park and began building the Angelus Temple for her Foursquare Gospel (named so for the four tenets of Jesus: Jesus Christ as the Savior, the Holy Spirit, the Healer, and the Soon-Coming King). It opened in 1923 and sat 5300 hundred people, but attracted thousands more. It was, as the national architecture online magazine Curbed called it, “America’s First Megachurch.”
Her sermons were a sight to behold. She employed artists, set designers, and actors to help her construct her “Illustrated Sermons.” She knew how to hold a person’s attention and that was with a show. Harper’s magazine in 1927 reported that, “In this show-devouring city, no entertainment compares in popularity with that of Angelus Temple.”
She even took it a step further, utilizing the new technology of the time. On February 26, 1924, she purchased a Los Angeles radio station, KFSG, becoming the second woman ever to be granted a broadcasting license. She used KFSG to broadcast her sermons across the region, so that her followers who couldn’t get to the Angelus Temple could still hear the word of God. By May 1926, McPherson was at the height of her fame, which made her sudden vanishing so shocking.
In the days that followed Aimee’s disappearance, supporters, followers, and searchers flocked to the beach to see what, if anything, they could find. Two particularly devoted individuals drowned while searching for Aimee in the water. Some of her followers even set off dynamite in the water thinking that could potentially raise her body from the depths. Instead, they got a whole bunch of dead fish. Others thought that it was just a matter of time before Aimee came back, rising from the dead like Jesus.
As time dragged on and no body was found, the press began to speculate that she wasn’t dead at all, but simply gone. Her boisterous personality and lifestyle led to stories that she was hiding due to plastic surgery, or having an abortion, or an affair. In fact, the recent departure of Kenneth G. Ormiston, an engineer at KFSG, and interviews done by his ex-wife fueled the rumors that McPherson had, in fact, left with Ormiston.
“Sister Aimee” sightings came from across the country, from San Francisco to Virginia. One private detective swore he saw her getting on a train near San Fran, ““I know her well by sight and I know that I am not mistaken.” Minnie, Aimee’s mother, received ransom notes from several different groups saying that they had McPherson and wanted money. One, signed by a group called the “Avengers,” demanded an outrageous sum of $500,000 (about $6.7 million today). Minnie, thinking they were all fake, threw the notes out.
32 days after Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared, she was found in the small Mexican town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, just south of Douglas, Arizona and 600 miles from Los Angeles. Ending up at a hospital, she told the staff she had been kidnapped, drugged, and held hostage in a tiny shack. Only after undoing the ropes that restrained her and walking twenty miles in the barren desert, did she escape. Exhausted and disheveled, but otherwise healthy, it was a miracle. Or was it?
After confirming her identity by locating a tiny scar on her finger and Aimee’s ability to name her pet pigeon, leaders of the Temple and Minnie made their way to Arizona. Aimee completed the story for everyone. She had been on the beach when she was approached by a man and woman, supposedly named Steve and Mexicali Rose, who said their daughter was very ill and they needed Aimee to pray for her. She agreed and went in their car with them. She was quickly drugged and taken to a shack in the Mexican desert. They weren’t going to let her go until they got the $500,000 they had demanded in the note they had sent to Minnie.
She returned home to Los Angeles with a throng of over 50,000 waiting for her at the Angelus Temple. While everyone was thrilled to have her back, not everyone believed her story, including Los Angeles District Attorney Asa Keyes. Several clues and pieces of evidence just didn’t add up. She was in too good of health for being held for 32 days and walking twenty miles. Her clothes were too clean and her shoes showed nothing but grass stains. In addition, there was the whole business of Ormiston, whose ex-wife kept insisting he was having an affair with McPherson.
Within two weeks, McPherson appeared voluntarily in front of a grand jury. She reiterated her story. Still not convinced, Keyes sent police officers to Ormiston’s cottage in Northern California to check for fingerprints of McPherson. While Ormiston did admit that he was having affairs in the cable, none were with McPherson. Despite all of this, the grand jury determined there was enough evidence to charge Aimee Semple McPherson with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The case was scheduled for January 1927. In November of 1926, Keyes dropped the charges. The unreliability of witnesses made the chances of winning unlikely. No one was ever charged or arrested for her kidnapping. To this day, no one knows for sure if she actually ever was.
Aimee Semple McPherson, despite the specter of a fake kidnapping hanging over her, continued to preach. Her congregation grew. It was said she was more well-known at the time than the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Her constant travels, showmanship, and inability to keep herself healthy paid its toll, though.
On September 23, 1944, Aimee Semple McPherson was found dead in Oakland, California, hours before she was supposed to speak in front of thousands. The official cause of death, according to the coroner, was a likely accidental overdose of sleeping medication compounded by kidney failure.
The Angelus Temple is still in Echo Park today and the Foursquare Gospel is thriving. If you care to pay them a visit, there is a museum dedicated to Sister Aimee and they are happy to answer any questions one may have, including any about the alleged kidnapping.
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- The Kidnapping – AimeeSempleMcPherson.com
- The Incredible Disappearing Evangelist – Smithsonian.com
- Aimee Semple McPherson – Wikipedia
- Popular evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappears – History.com
- How America’s First Megachurch Changed LA’s Echo Park- CurbedLA
- Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America By Matthew Avery Sutton
- Our Story. The History and Future of The Foursquare Church – FourSquare.org
- Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister By Edith Waldvogel Blumhofer
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