The Lady Vanishes Part III: Aimee Semple McPherson

Before there was Jim Bakker, before there was Jerry Fartwell, before there was Jimmy Swaggart, there was Sister Aimee.

Born to an Ontario farming family in 1890, Aimee Kennedy was born again at age 17, and married a Pentacostal preacher named Robert Semple a short time later. After Semple died on a missionary trip to China, leaving Aimee with a year-old daughter, she relocated to the U.S.
Like Tony Alamo, she slipped into her late spouse’s shoes by becoming a traveling preacher, and married a wholesale grocer named McPherson.

Aimee was a red-haired dynamo who enthralled everyone, even Christians who thought women should obey St. Paul: sit down and shut up. No one could shut up Aimee McPherson. She pitched her revival tent throughout Canada and New England for two years, with two children in tow, and she drew crowds everywhere she preached.
In 1921, three years after the family settled in Los Angeles, the McPhersons divorced. Incredibly, this didn’t put much of a dent in Aimee’s popular image. By 1923 she and her mother, Minnie, had built a religious empire around Aimee’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel – the PTL of its day. Its Angelus Temple in Echo Park was the nation’s first true megachurch – an airy, modern masterpiece with seating for 5300 parishioners. As if that audience wasn’t big enough, “Sister Aimee” (as her flock called her) also became the first American woman to be granted an FCC license for her own radio station. She preached every day of the week and up to six times on Sundays, advocating a humble and squeaky-clean lifestyle without adding too much fire and brimstone. In the deeply corrupt L.A. of the Roaring Twenties, such homilies were warmly welcomed. As I wrote in my post about the real stories behind the film The Changeling, the LAPD at this time was rife with corruption. A “gun squad” practiced its own strange brand of urban Western justice, mowing down suspected criminals and inconvenient persons alike under the force’s shoot to kill policy; bodies were routinely found in alleys, warehouses, and other dark corners of the city. The LAPD also had its fingers in an array of criminal enterprises: bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, bribery. In another L.A. church, a social crusader and beloved Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb would rail against this lawlessness for years.

A return to wholesomeness wasn’t the only alluring thing about the Foursquare Church. Each worship service was like a Vegas floor show with faith healings; a full orchestra, the Foursquare choir, costume changes, elaborate sets.

It all worked. By 1926, at the age of 35, Sister Aimee was a millionaire with an estimated 40,000 followers.

Aimee on the Beach

In the early evening hours of May 18, 1926, Aimee was one of a dozen or so swimmers at L.A.’s Ocean Park Beach. A strong swimmer, she cut purposefully through the waves in her knee-length bathing suit and diving cap while her personal secretary waited on the beach, looking over some notes.
But when the secretary looked up, Sister Aimee was gone. She had apparently drowned before she could call out for help.

For days, thousands of mourners gathered on the sand to mourn Sister Aimee. Though no trace of her had washed ashore, she was certainly dead.
But then strange rumours began to surface: Sister Aimee had been sighted at various California hotels in the company of her radio station’s married engineer, Kenneth Ormiston. Not everyone believed the rumours, of course, but Mrs. Ormiston seemed certain that her husband had run off with Sister Aimee. He had vanished around the same time the preacher supposedly drowned.

Minnie Kennedy, on the other hand, insisted her daughter must have been abducted for ransom and offered a $25,000 reward for her safe return. A Los Angeles lawyer soon announced he was in contact with the kidnappers, and they had accurately described a scar on one of Sister Aimee’s fingers. They were demanding $500,000, or else they would “sell her to old Felipe of Mexico City. We are sick and tired and of her infernal preaching.” Aside from the reference to Mexico, the ransom demand contained no clues to Aimee’s location. Her followers could only sit tight and pray.
No further demands or instructions were conveyed by the captors. A month after Aimee disappeared, Minnie appeared to give up hope of recovering her daughter. She held a memorial service for her at Angelus Temple.

Three days after the service, a dazed Sister Aimee staggered out of the desert near Agua Prieta, Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She told local authorities she had been abducted from Ocean Park Beach, lured to a car by a couple who claimed to have a sick child in need of her healing powers. She was driven into the desert and imprisoned in a shack by two men and a woman they called Mexicali Rose. Miraculously, she somehow escaped her captors and ran across miles of scorching sand without being pursued, without getting her shoes overly dirty, and without becoming dehydrated or sunburned. Aside from a few blisters and some exhaustion, she was in fine condition.

Sister Aimee tried in vain to lead authorities back to the shack in middle of the desert. It was never found.
But it didn’t take long for the investigators to find out where Aimee had really been for the previous month: In Carmel, having a faux honeymoon with Kenneth Ormiston. Minnie and the attorney had helped Aimee prop up the absurd abduction story. And Aimee stuck to it, while Ormiston insisted he had been out of town with another woman.
In July a grand jury convened to hear evidence on the case. Sister Aimee was represented by Sammy Hahn, the prominent attorney who would take on Christine Collins’ lawsuit against the LAPD three years later. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough solid evidence to show that Sister Aimee may have fabricated her kidnapping. No charges were filed.

You’d think this would be the last straw for Sister Aimee’s flock, wouldn’t you? They could overlook the divorce and the circus-style pageantry, but a faked drowning followed by a faked kidnapping? Pretending you’re preaching to evil kidnappers while you’re actually canoodling with your married employee? That’s just too much. I mean, this stuff makes Orel Roberts look sane. To make matters worse, Aimee married a third time and died from a barbituate overdose in 1944.

But the Foursquare Church has never wavered from Sister Aimee’s account of her abduction. Sister Aimee’s followers staunchly defended her against all accusations of hoaxery. They even accused the investigators of trying to smear her reputation (on behalf of Satan, naturally).
Her son, Rolf, declared years later that his mother was targeted for kidnapping because she knew too much about the L.A. underworld of organized crime and political corruption, thanks to her work with drug addicts and prostitutes.

Church officials contend that Sister Aimee’s fatal overdose was accidental.

Mexicali Rose and her godless thugs have never been found.

Sources:
1. Landsburg, Alan. In Search of Missing Persons. Bantam, 1978.
2. Wikipedia entry on Aimee Semple McPherson. Retrieved Aug. 25/09.
3. Wikipedia entry on the Foursquare Church. Retrieved Aug. 25/09.

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36 thoughts on “The Lady Vanishes Part III: Aimee Semple McPherson

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