“Sister Aimee” was, perhaps, the most famous American religious celebrity of the 20th century. A charismatic pentecostal preacher, she led a large congregation at the impressive Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1920s.
Born in Canada, Aimee felt a spiritual calling to go West to California in 1918. Within five years, she had the support and financial backing to found the Angelus Temple and a new denomination which would become known as the Foursquare Church.
Huge crowds lined up outside the Temple before every service to hear Aimee’s messages and, unlike typical church services, sermons at the Angelus Temple included theatrics rivaling Hollywood’s new film industry. Depending upon the weekly sermon’s theme, elaborate backdrops, giant custom-built props, and special effects helped “set the stage” for her weekly sermons. Aimee also turned to Hollywood stars, including Charlie Chaplin, for advice on delivery and staging.
Ahead of her time, Aimee quickly realized the power of the media. She purchased her own radio station where she broadcast her religious messages across the country.
With all the fame and success that Aimee Semple McPherson had garnered, it is not surprising that she was known for her “star quality” as much as her religious messaging. Like celebrities today, Aimee was stalked by adoring fans and was often the subject of news stories. The public couldn’t seem to get enough of the glamorous pentecostal preacher and faith-healer.
Imagine the headlines when, on May 18, 1926, the famous Aimee Semple McPherson (who reportedly had visited Venice Beach for an ocean swim) walked into the waves of the blue Pacific and disappeared!
Or, at least, that was the story given to the press by Aimee’s personal assistant who claimed the two of them went to the beach together. At some point, the assistant left to make a phone call and when she returned to join the preacher, Sister Aimee had disappeared.
Throngs of fans and members of the Angelus Temple congregation rushed to the beach to join in a fruitless search for Aimee’s body. Some reportedly believed that a sea monster had swallowed the preacher. Rumors of suspected sightings of the preacher came in from all over the country and followers were in deep despair at what appeared, according to newspaper headlines, to be a tragic case of drowning.
Five weeks after her disappearance, Aimee Semple McPherson suddenly reappeared in the small village of Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico, about 120 miles southeast of Tucson. She claimed she had been kidnapped. Her explanation to authorities was that while on the California beach, a young couple had asked her to pray for their sick child. When she walked to the couple’s car, they pushed her into the back seat and incapacitated her with a cloth soaked in chloroform. When she awoke, the preacher claimed she was kept captive in a small shack in the Mexican desert until, weeks later, she was able to escape her captors.
The police investigators found the facts of Aimee’s story highly improbable and, more likely a hoax orchestrated by the famous female preacher as part of a publicity stunt.
A grand jury was convened to consider the facts including statements that Aimee had been seen living in a rented cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea during the weeks she was reportedly missing. A second grand jury considered additional evidence which cast further doubt on the kidnapping scenario. Many witnesses claimed they had seen the famous evangelist in Carmel but some of the witness testimony was discounted and fingerprints taken at the cottage were inconclusive.
On November 3rd, the case went to trial in Los Angeles to try not only Aimee, but her mother and other church employees for committing a fraud by staging a “disappearance” to cover up what seemed to have been an affair between the preacher and a lover.
Judge Samuel Blake advised the jury that, if convicted, the evangelist could face a maximum of 42 years in prison. The jury was presented with scandalous evidence found at the preacher’s Los Angeles residence including the swimsuit that Aimee had supposedly been wearing the day she disappeared at Venice Beach, bottles of liquor and hiding places for narcotics.
Despite the evidence, District Attorney Asa Keyes believed that there were so many inconsistencies by witnesses that the case should be dismissed and all charges against Aimee and her fellow defendants were dropped in January of 1927.
The scandal of the grand jury case was a terrific blow to Aimee’s reputation. While she continued to preach and was supported by most of her congregation, the enormous legal expenses of the trial and the infamous notoriety of her strange disappearance had a negative impact on the remainder of her life.
On September 27, 1944 while in Oakland for a series of spiritual revival services ironically titled, “The Story of My Life”, the lifeless body of Aimee Semple McPherson was found on a hotel bed littered with pill bottles – a forlorn and tragic death of the once famous female preacher.