The “Disappearance” of Sister Aimee
Trouble in L.A.’s Jesus Racket
During the early days of Hollywood, when most American preachers were shouting from their pulpits about the sin and depravity to be found in Tinseltown, another evangelist was presenting a kinder, gentler message. She did so with flamboyant presentations that were right out of a Hollywood musical and, in fact, the regular appearance of movie stars at her services was one of her claims to fame. The evangelist’s name was Aimee Semple McPherson and the Pentecostal church that she founded, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, still exists today.
“Sister Aimee” as she was known to her legion of followers attracted scores of people to her flock with her extravagant services, radio show and personal appearances. But then on May 18, 1926, Aimee mysteriously vanished while visiting a beach in Santa Monica. The press and the public were shocked by her disappearance, which lasted more than a month. When she reappeared, she claimed that she had been kidnapped and held for ransom – but had she really?
Sister Aimee was born Aimee Kennedy and was raised on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Growing up, she was introduced to an inclusive, positive theology, which as practiced by her grandfather, a Salvation Army captain. After a crisis of faith, she was converted to Pentecostalism by evangelist Robert Semple, whom she joined in preaching revivals and married in 1908. Two years later, while they were awaiting their papers to travel into China as missionaries, Semple died in Hong Kong. Aimee, now with an infant daughter, returned to the U.S. and began working for the Salvation Army in New York. She married a second time, in 1912, to a grocery salesman named Harold McPherson, and gave birth to a son. Aimee tried to settle down to the quiet life of a housewife, but she was unable to do it. She felt that she was destined for bigger things and was in her heart, an evangelist.
Sister Aimee Semple McPherson at the height of her popularity.
She divorced McPherson in 1918 and she, her children, and her mother, Minnie, with nothing more than $100 and a tambourine, drove to Los Angeles. It was a trip that Aimee later referred to as a spiritual quest that ended in a revelation. She believed that the “City of Angels” was the doorway to heaven and, for a time, it certainly seemed to be.
She began spreading her message in every way possible, even throwing tracts from an airplane as it flew over neighborhoods populated by recent arrivals to the area. She was soon packing standing-room-only crowds into the Philharmonic Auditorium, the largest venue in L.A. By 1923, she had her own Angelus Temple, which seated 5,300 people and cost more than $1.5 million to build. At her services, she entertained the curious and the faithful alike with bizarre stage sketches that featured a USC football player making a touchdown for Jesus and a LAPD motorcycle cop riding in to arrest sin. Everyone loved the show and soon her popularity would rival that accorded to some movie stars. To thousands, she was “God’s Little Child.”
Besides entertaining and preaching, Aimee was also an avid organizer. She added some 250 affiliated churches, a rescue mission, a publications division, an orchestra, and a radio station, creating a massive organization that is only rivaled by today’s mega-churches. She also composed 180 hymns and several musical pageants, all of which were very upbeat and offered redemption. In keeping with her Salvation Army background, she also designed uniforms for herself and her female bodyguards.
Not surprisingly, Aimee had a talent for raising money, which supported the church, her mansion near MGM Studios in Culver City, her expensive clothes, and fine automobile. At collection time, she would often tell her supporters from the stage, “Sister has a headache tonight. Only quiet money, please.”
As the money rolled in, stories of miraculous cures began to spread. A “miracle room” in the Angelus Temple was filled with discarded crutches, wheelchairs, and even the leg braces of a 10-year-old polio victim. He was so confident when he came to visit Sister Aimee that he brought another pair of shoes with him to wear home. The stories claimed that he walked out of the Temple.
Then, in 1926, Aimee’s glory days came to an end. A scandal captured the imagination of readers across America and titillated them for weeks afterward.
On the afternoon of May 18, 1926, Aimee was spotted swimming off Ocean Park Beach in Santa Monica – and then vanished without a trace. She was presumed to have drowned, but after a massive search effort (during which a church member and a professional diver drowned), no body was recovered. Then, on June 23, three days after an all-day memorial service attended by thousands of weeping, hysterical mourners, she turned up in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta, claiming that she had been kidnapped and held in a shack in the Sonoran desert. On her return to Los Angeles, a carpet of roses was spread when she disembarked from the train and more than 100,000 of her followers lined the streets and cheered as she drove by.
But all was not what it seemed to be. It was soon discovered that, despite Aimee’s angry denials, she had actually spent the month at a cottage in Carmel, shacked up with Kenneth Ormiston, a married engineer on the staff of her radio station. For nearly six months, L.A. District Attorney Asa Keyes gathered evidence (which included a Carmel grocery store shopping list in her handwriting), planning to charge her with conspiracy to produce false testimony. “Fighting Bob” Shuler, a rival evangelist, took the opportunity to enter the fray, denouncing Aimee, her Temple, and her ministry. Since he and Aimee alternated their broadcasts on the same radio wavelength, he had no trouble reaching her followers. Somehow, he tracked down Harold McPherson and had him on the air for four straight broadcasts, airing all of Aimee’s dirty laundry. For her part, Aimee claimed the entire scandal was the “work of the Devil.”
Aimee’s fame saved her from prosecution. Inexplicably, the District Attorney decided that the case that he had built against her was too weak to bring against a person of her tremendous popularity. On the evening that D.A. Keyes made the announcement, the faithful mobbed Aimee and the newspapers spread the news in glaring headlines. But the damage was already done, for most of America, Aimee had become a dirty joke.
Aimee Semple McPherson carried on for 20 more years, preaching and defending herself against the old scandal. It never seemed to go away and in 1930, she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was prescribed Seconal to deal with her anxieties and on September 27, 1944, she died in San Francisco from an accidental overdose. Some of her closest friends attributed the accident to a combination of a broken heart and exhaustion from her endless struggle to restore her name, popularity, and influence. At her funeral, held at the Angelus Temple, more than 40,000 mourners passed by her casket and bid their farewell to “God’s Little Angel.”
Strangely, a weird rumor followed Aimee to the grave. When she was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in a huge tomb with an iron gate, guarded by two kneeling marble angels, it was said that a direct telephone line to the Angelus Temple was buried with her. That way, when she returned (as her followers believed she would), she would be able to alert someone to come to the cemetery and let her out of the tomb.
As author David Wallace said, if the story isn’t true, it should be.