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In May of 1926, Aimee Semple McPherson was enjoying celebrity and wealth as one of the most recognized Pentecostal evangelists in the United States. What was about to happen to her, perhaps rather what she said happened in that month was to become an unsolved mystery to this day.
Aimee was born in 1890 to Minnie Pierce Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Her mother was from a Salvation Army background and her father was of the Methodist persuasion. From her early years, she was involved in church and at 17 converted to Pentecostalism after becoming disillusioned with the Methodists. She met evangelist Robert Semple as a teenager and married him at age 18 in 1908. Early in their marriage, the couple traveled to China to become missionaries in 1909. Their daughter, Roberta was born in China in 1910 just after Robert died from malaria. The young widow and her infant daughter then made their way back to Canada. Aimee felt the pull of the pulpit and began traveling to Chicago and then to New York City, where she joined her mother in working for the Salvation Army.
It was in New York City that Aimee met Harold McPherson, an accountant and the two soon fell in love and married in 1912. A year later, their son, Rolf was born. In that same year, Aimee began her preaching career, traveling throughout the U.S. while Harold tagged along. By 1915, she’d purchased a large tent and was scheduling revival meetings along the East Coast and then to other parts of the country. Harold was weary of his attention-seeking wife and their marriage soon crumbled as Aimee pursued her “calling” over family responsibilities. Harold filed for divorce in 1918 on the grounds of abandonment, having been left at a depot while Aimee and the children traveled on. The divorce was granted in 1921 and Aimee, accompanied by her mother and children began traveling the revival circuit in earnest. Her fame had grown with her skill at dramatic preaching and theatrics to attract the curious. Her focus was faith healing, speaking in tongues, and big shows.
The travel got old and she landed in Los Angeles seeking to settle down. She was the consummate fund raiser and before long the Angelus Temple, center of the Four-Square Gospel (Aimee’s newly created denomination) was erected. Thousands of people gathered there to hear her preach. Healing services, radio programs, magazines, and 24-hour services to feed and clothe the poor were all a part of Sister Aimee’s empire. She was known for her luxurious, long reddish-brown hair, expensive clothes, publicity stunts, (riding a motorcycle onto the platform for a service after receiving a speeding ticket was just one), and dramatic pulpit performances with celebrities making guest appearances. By 1923, the mortgage for the Temple was burned in a grand display in front of an adoring crowd. With Aimee’s gift to raise money and her mother’s business acumen, the Temple had rocketed to national fame.
As one can imagine, the constant pressures of celebrity take a toll, and on May 18, 1926, Aimee decided to escape the crowds and go for a swim near Venice Beach. Her secretary, Emma Schaffer accompanied her and the pair was looking forward to a relaxed day. That was not to be. Emma was sent to run a few errands at Aimee’s behest and left her boss for a period of time. Upon her return, there was no sign of Sister Aimee and no one had seen her leave. After an exhaustive search of the beach, Emma had to report to Minnie that her daughter had disappeared—possibly drowned while swimming. Minnie stood in the pulpit that night and declared to a stunned congregation that “Sister is with Jesus.”
The place erupted in grief and the people were frantic to find her body. Lives were lost looking for her in the Pacific adding to the tragedy and Minnie began to plan to raise money for a memorial service. Rumors circulated within days of a murderous attack or of Aimee running off with Kenneth Ormiston, her former radio editor. Many believed the couple was having an affair and Ormiston was trying to divorce his current wife.
On May 24th, Minnie received a ransom note for $500,000 signed “Revengers.” The money was to be paid in the lobby of the Palace Hotel. Two detectives in plainclothes took a bag filled with what looked like cash to the hotel and waited. No one ever came and nothing else was heard. At this point, Asa Keyes, L.A. District Attorney initiated a full investigation.
Attorney, R. A. McKinley notified authorities on May 31st that he’d been asked by two men, who called themselves Miller and Wilson to get a $25,000 ransom from Minnie. McKinley, who was blind, was told since he couldn’t ID the men, he was to be the courier. Minnie turned that request down flat and responded by offering a $25,000 reward for information on her daughter’s whereabouts.
Nothing new came to light until June 19th, when Minnie received another ransom note for $500,000. This was signed “Avengers” and included a lock of reddish-brown hair that could have been her daughter’s. She tossed the note in the trash. At this point, Minnie decided to go ahead with the grand memorial service that was scheduled, since she’d collected over $30,000 for the event. She seemed convinced her daughter was dead.
On June 20th, the service was held in a style befitting Sister Aimee at the temple with thousands attending. Imagine Minnie’s surprise when she received a telephone call on June 22 from the Cochise County Sheriff, telling her that Aimee was alive and well at the Calumet-Arizona Hospital in Douglas, Arizona. She needed to come right away and confirm her identity.
Hallelujah! Aimee’s Back from the Dead
Since there was an official investigation into Aimee’s disappearance, the trip to Douglas wasn’t a simple family reunion. Herbert Cline, Chief Detective of the L.A. Police and Joseph Ryan, L.A. Deputy District Attorney came along, as did reporters. Minnie and her grandchildren had plenty of company on the train to Douglas.
Minnie duly identified the patient as her daughter and crowds formed outside the hospital to sing and pray for Aimee’s recovery. It was reported that 2,000 people gathered to keep vigil. Someone sent a gift of a silk nightgown and robe so that she might be presentable to the flow of reporters that traipsed to her bedside for an interview. In fact, law enforcement was squeezed out from too much conversation with her because of the press. Sister was in her element.
The tale that Aimee told to the papers and to a stenographer hired by deputy D.A. Ryan seemed consistent in content.
The preacher said she was lured to a car by a distraught couple, who begged her to pray for their dying baby. The woman carried a baby-like bundle which turned out to be just a bunch of clothing. It was quickly clapped over her face and she was pushed into a car. The clothing was apparently permeated with chloroform and she was unconscious until sometime around dawn the next day. She believed she was in Mexicali or somewhere near San Diego as she caught bits of conversation. There were three people in the house. A heavyset woman called Rose who had black hair and brown eyes. There was also a man named Steve. He was clean shaven, heavyset with brown hair and wore a brown suit. A nameless, second man was with them as well. She was told by Steve that they wanted a $500,000 ransom for her at which Aimee told them she didn’t have that kind of money. They were not convinced.
After about four days, she was loaded into a car at night and they began driving across what she now believed was Mexico. The new abode was a shack in the desert and she was kept prisoner in a bedroom bound hand and foot on a cot. Rose had another cot in the room. The men slept elsewhere in the house and were respectful to her except for the time one of them burned her finger with a cigar while trying get information from her. Finally, she was left alone one day and made her escape. She discovered a tin can lid on the floor of the bedroom and used it to cut her bonds and flee the house through a window. Aimee insisted she’d walked through the desert to Agua Prieta—a trip of about 14 hours in the June heat without water.
She knocked on the door of a house and when it was answered by a man in his underwear, she was a bit surprised. The man was German and wouldn’t provide help from the police as she asked. He merely asked her to come in and spend the night. When she asked if he had a wife, he told her no and said it was a slaughterhouse. That clinched it. She kept going. Coming to a residence that looked promising to her, since there were children and dogs in the yard, she knocked and it was answered by a husband and wife. The man was Ramon Gonzalez who happened to be the mayor of Agua Prieta. Aimee collapsed and he ran to find help. The Gonzalez’s believed the woman had died. Once Ramon brought help back, Aimee revived much to their relief. After some confusion and the finding of a translator, Aimee was taken over the border to the hospital in Douglas. There she made a case for her identity with the sheriff and hospital staff. Once word was out that the celebrity woman preacher had been found alive, the city of Douglas was like a powder keg. Reporters swarmed in to get the exclusive from her. By 5:00am the next morning she was animatedly talking with a reporter from the Bisbee Daily Review, elaborating on her terrible experience. Eating a hearty breakfast, she continued holding court that day and into the next.
Upon the arrival of her family and authorities from Los Angeles, Ryan closeted himself with other law enforcement folks to quiz McPherson, along with Minnie and the children. After this extensive interview, her mother saw the chaos at the hospital with the reporters, and she moved the conclave of press to the Gadsden Hotel. By the third day, Aimee was well enough to be released and the crowds were thrilled as she addressed them triumphantly. She went back to Agua Prieta to thank the Gonzalez family for assisting her and then tried to direct trackers and law enforcement to the shack where she’d been held. No shack was found. The entire trip back to L.A. was a celebratory parade back to the pulpit at Angelus Temple with stops in Tucson and Yuma.
From the outset of the investigations, law enforcement was skeptical of Aimee’s story for several reasons. Steve and Rose, whom she named as captors were the names of gypsies she knew well and who were converts of the Temple. When located and questioned, they were found to be innocent of any wrong doing. No other suspects were located.
Aimee’s clothes were taken by Cochise County Sheriff McDonald and stored for safekeeping in a bank vault. When they were examined, it appeared that the clothes did not have signs of excessive perspiration to be expected in a desert trek of many miles. She’d kept her corsets on, which defies the imagination in hiking the desert in the June heat.
Her shoes weren’t scuffed by the terrain and only grass stains were on them. She hadn’t asked for water at the Gonzalez’s and seemed to be in quite good physical condition at the hospital, despite her arduous experience in the Sonoran desert.
Sister Aimee’s reputation for publicity stunts plagued the investigation although she was adamant that it wasn’t the case. However, her behavior before the crowds announcing her resurrection was troublesome. She had gained attention again and perhaps that had been on the wane in May. An offer of $10,000 to appear at the Hollywood Bowl had already come in and she was making plans.
She also intimated that perhaps an enemy of another “religious sect” had perpetrated the crime. It was well known that Rev. Robert Schuler of the Trinity Methodist-Episcopal Church in Los Angeles was an ardent critic of her preaching and performances. She would later even call him out as the devil which he really took exception to.
Ramon Gonzalez was quite sure “the lady is lying” and the trackers who attempted to locate her trail through the desert and the mysterious shack were unsuccessful. It was head scratcher to everyone.
The Los Angeles D.A. called for a grand jury to look into the matter since there was a witness in Tucson who swore he’d seen Aimee at the International Club, a saloon in Agua Prieta. The bars in Mexico enjoyed a brisk business during Prohibition and many traveled over the border to drink. There were reports she’d been seen in a car with her purported lover, Ormiston, and the list went on. Despite all of the efforts of the D. A.’s office, Aimee slipped through their fingers and remained triumphant in her innocence. Asa Keyes was defeated and gave up the case. The questions remain and the mystery is unsolved. Did McPherson orchestrate the publicity stunt of all time or was she really kidnapped? What do you think?
Aimee continued to be plagued with litigation for the rest of her life, which ended sadly in a hotel room in 1944. She overdosed on sleeping pills and was discovered by her son, who took over the reins of church leadership. Angelus Temple remains a Pentecostal mega-church, located near Echo Park.
Unsolved Arizona by Jane Eppinga
Tucson Citizen, June 24, 1926
San Francisco Examiner, June 24, 1926
The San Bernardino County Sun, June 26, 1926