15 July 2009

Greatest Hits: Aimee Semple McPherson

By Delia DeLeest

Back before Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker brought their scandals to the religious world, there was Aimee Semple McPherson.

After spending years as an itinerant Pentecostal minister in the early 1920s, Aimee pulled into Los Angeles with her mother and two small children in tow. Her husband, Harold McPherson, had filed for a separation in 1918 and was granted a divorce in 1921 on the grounds of abandonment. She was a woman called on a mission and she couldn't let something like a reluctant husband slow her down.

Within five years, her ministry had grown from going from town to town in her "Gospel Car"--a 1912 Packard decorated with religious sayings painted on the sides--to a multi-million dollar business. Starting off by giving sermons wherever she could find crowds, including boxing rings before and after matches, she raised enough money to fund the Angelus Temple for her church, The International Institute of Four Square Evangelism. The temple cost $1.5 million and included a $75,000 radio studio, seats for over 5,000 people, a nursery, a lonely hearts club, and a miracle room for the discarded wheelchairs and crutches of those followers who were healed of their earthly afflictions. Aimee had a good thing going.

In 1926, the world was shocked by the disappearance of Mrs. McPherson. Aimee had gone for a dip in the ocean. The last her secretary had seen of her before heading out on an errand, Aimee had been joyfully frolicking in the waves. When the secretary returned, Aimee Semple McPherson had disappeared. The faithful gathered to pray for her deliverance while others, spurred on either by evangelical zeal or the $25,000 reward for her recovery, diligently searched the area for their missing leader. In the resulting clamor, one man drowned, one died of exposure, and a young girl killed herself, distraught at the loss of her idol.

Finally admitting to the loss, a memorial service was held. Shortly after the service, Aimee's mother received a ransom note, asking for half a million dollars for the release of the evangelist. Believing her daughter to be dead and the note a fraud, she threw it away.

On June 23, 1926, thirty-five days after her disappearance, Aimee Semple McPherson stumbled out of the desert and into a small Mexican town just south of the Arizona border. She'd been held hostage, she claimed, trapped, drugged and tortured in a small desert shack. She'd only escaped after making her way thirteen hours through the desert to civilization. The world rejoiced.

But...(you just knew there was going to be a 'but,' didn't you?) Aimee's story had more loopholes than an afghan made by your far-sighted great-aunt Millie. Though she supposedly made her way thirteen hours across the desert, her shoes weren't worn and had grass stains on the sides. Grass stains in the desert? The shack she described could never be found, and even though she had disappeared while swimming, she returned fully dressed and wearing a watch given to her by her mother, which she'd not had with her when she'd gone to the beach. Aimee's house of cards was beginning to topple, but it wasn't over yet.

Coinciding with Aimee's disappearance was another missing person. Kenneth Ormiston, a married radio operator for the Four Square Church with whom Aimee had developed a close friendship, had also gone missing. After tracing his whereabouts, the District Attorney found that Ormiston, along with a female companion matching Sister Aimee's description, had been visiting various hotels and beach resorts all along the West Coast. Handwriting analysis matched some of the entries in the hotel registers with Mrs. McPherson's own penmanship.


An investigation ensued and though the prosecution could find no clear-cut proof that Sister Aimee had committed fraud or obstruction of justice, there was also no proof she'd been kidnapped, either. The DA produced an array of witnesses, hotel chambermaids, bellhops, etc., who could identify the amorous couple, but then he mysteriously moved for an acquittal without any explanation. So, Sister Aimee got off scott free...or did she?

After the scandal, she went back to proselytizing, but things just weren't the same. She was no longer a media darling and people no longer blindly followed her lead. Her subsequent marriage in 1931 to a musician and actor further riled up her congregation, as it was, against one of the tenants of The Four Square church which stated that a person could not remarry while a previous spouse was still alive--Harold McPherson was still around and kicking, though he'd had no part in Aimee's life for years. She and her latest husband were eventually divorced in 1934. Aimee and Harold's son, Rolf, took over the running of the church, though Aimee was still around to give her standby sermon, "Story of my Life".

In September of 1944, Rolf went to Aimee's hotel room to pick her up for a scheduled preaching session and he found her dead in her room, an open bottle of pills next to her. Aimee's death was not believed to be a suicide, despite how it looked. The barbiturate that was found in her room was commonly found to cause a hypnotic effect that could easily lead up to accidental overdose.

So now you know the story of Sister Aimee. Isn't it interesting to know that in a decade known for its wild abandonment, even the religious leaders of the 1920's weren't immune to its lure?