Sister Aimee: A Famous Evangelist Suddenly Disappears

Last week, we met cold-blooded family annihilator John List, who came close to getting away with murdering five family members in 1971. This week, we look back at the disappearance of prominent Pentecostal minister Aimee Semple McPherson. After going for a dip at Ocean Park Beach, California on May 18, 1926, “Sister Aimee” vanished into the proverbial thin air.

Autographed photo of Sister Aimee signed "Yours In The King's Service, Aimee Semple McPherson
Autographed photo of Sister Aimee signed “Yours In The King’s Service, Aimee Semple McPherson

Sister Aimee Semple McPherson

Sister Aimee was a Canadian, born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in what is now South-West Oxford, Ontario in 1890. Apparently, ministry was in her blood because she played “Salvation Army” with her friends and preached sermons to her dolls. In 1907, she met and married Robert Semple, an Irish Pentecostal missionary and converted to Pentecostalism. On a 1910 trip to China, Semple contracted dysentery and died in Hong Kong. Sister Aimee also became ill but recovered.

Sister Aimee in her heyday
Sister Aimee in her heyday

In 1912, Sister Aimee met and married Harold McPherson. Two years later, she felt a call to go out and preach. She did, taking her children and leaving McPherson behind. He followed, ostensibly to bring her back. But after hearing her preach, he decided to join her in her evangelistic work. This didn’t last, though. He divorced her in 1918 citing abandonment.

Famous Evangelist and Minister

Building a ministry was hard work. At first, Sister Aimee toured the country using a megaphone to deliver sermons from the back seat of a convertible. She founded a magazine, Bridal Call, in 1917. In 1919, newspapers “discovered” her preaching in Baltimore’s Lyric Opera House. She also conducted faith healing demonstrations and began preaching on radio.

By 1918 Los Angeles became Sister Aimee’s permanent home and base of operations. She established a church, which eventually became its own denomination, the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The Foursquare Church retained many elements of Pentecostalism, however.

Angelus Temple in the 1920s
Angelus Temple in the 1920s

Perhaps the apex of her career came in 1923. On New Year’s Day, she dedicated domed Angelus Temple in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles. Professing to have faith healing abilities and with no small talent for showmanship, she had no trouble drawing worshipers her new temple. She also had a considerable radio following.

Angelus Temple today
Angelus Temple today

The Lady Vanishes

On May 18, 1926, Sister Aimee went to Ocean Park Beach, north of Venice Beach, with her secretary. Shortly afterward, the secretary was unable to find her. By then, she was a very prominent minister with an immense following. Consequently, her disappearance was big news. The assumption was that she had drowned, and parishioners held vigils on the beach. One of them drowned while looking for her body and a diver succumbed to exposure.

Despite a series of questionable ransom notes sent to the Temple and sporadic sightings in a variety of cities, McPherson’s whereabouts remained a mystery—for a while.

McPherson's mother, Mildred Kennedy doing a radio interview diver R.C. Crawford during the search for Sister Aimee
McPherson’s mother, Mildred Kennedy doing a radio interview diver R.C. Crawford during the search for Sister Aimee

Sister Aimee Reappears

A little more than a month after disappearing, McPherson stumbled into the Mexican desert town of Agua Prieta, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held for ransom. However, some people contended that she was in exceptionally good condition for someone who had survived such an ordeal and hiked thirteen miles through the desert. Skeptics also pointed to Kenneth Ormiston. Ormiston was married, an engineer for radio station KFSG and formerly employed by the Temple. He had disappeared at about the same time as Sister Aimee. Investigation revealed that the married Ormiston had been in a cottage near Carmel-by-the-Sea with a woman. But he steadfastly maintained that the unnamed woman was not McPherson.

Sister Aimee convalescing in a Douglas, Arizona hospital after emerging from the desert
Sister Aimee convalescing in a Douglas, Arizona hospital after emerging from the desert

An extensive grand jury investigation was inconclusive. Despite much innuendo in the press, no definite evidence emerged to prove either that the kidnapping was genuine or faked. Much of the evidence supporting the hoax theory was eventually discredited. But the investigation and suspicions took their toll on Sister Aimee’s popularity. She continued to draw large audiences at the Temple but never regained her former influence.


Sister Aimee died of an apparent barbiturate overdose on September 27, 1944 at the age of 53. She had been taking strong sedatives for some time for various health problems. Despite speculation about suicide, most sources agree the overdose was accidental.

One footnote to Sister Aimee’s career: she baptized Marilyn Monroe (as Norma Jeane Baker) in 1926.

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John List — A Killer’s Secret Life Exposed by Art

The bombings I featured last week shock us because the random act of a stranger can cause such widespread damage. This week’s case is even more chilling. It’s the story of John List, a seemingly normal guy who murdered his entire family, then disappeared. He successfully eluded law enforcement for 18 years before television and an artist led to his arrest.

John List – Outwardly Normal

John Emil List was a native of Bay City, Michigan born in 1925. He joined the army in 1943 during World War II. After the war, he earned a degree in business administration and a master’s degree in accounting. In 1950, the Army recalled List to active duty in Korea (he was a reserve second lieutenant). While in the military, he met and married Helen Taylor, the widow of an officer killed in Korea.

After his discharge from the Army in 1952, John List took a job with an accounting firm in Detroit. Next, he worked as an audit supervisor for a Kalamazoo paper company. He and Helen had a daughter and two sons in Kalamazoo. After working at Xerox in Rochester, New York, he assumed a position as vice president and comptroller at a bank in Jersey City, New Jersey. He moved his family, including his mother into a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey.

The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)
The John List family in 1971. (L. to R.) John (46), Patricia (16), Helen (46), John Jr. (15), and Frederick (13)

To his friends and neighbors, John List was a successful professional with a typical American family.

Signs of Trouble

Despite their normal outward appearance, all was not well in the List household. For one thing, John List was a devout Lutheran and a Sunday school teacher. One might even call him a religious zealot. He convinced himself that his family members were leading unholy lives. Another problem was that Helen List was an alcoholic and was becoming increasingly unstable.

Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty and burned down nine months after the murders.  Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.
Breeze Knoll, the List home in Westfield, NJ. The house remained empty after the murders and burned down nine months later. Although authorities ruled the fire arson, it remained unsolved. A new house was built on the site in 1974.

Then List lost his job and bills started to pile up. With debts mounting, List’s world was crashing in on him. He began to dissociate from reality. He pretended to commute to work each day. Instead, he sat in the Westfield train station and reading the paper. He also siphoned money out of his mother’s bank account to pay the mortgage on the mansion.

In this state of mind, List feared his family was straying from the paths of righteousness. He decided to “ensure their place in heaven” by killing them all. He expected to join them there later. At least that’s the story he told authorities after his arrest.

A Family Murdered

On November 9, 1971, John List put his plan into action. When the children left for school, he shot his wife and his mother to death. When his daughter and youngest son came home, he shot them in the back of the head. That left his oldest son. He watched John Jr. play soccer at school, then drove him home and killed him, too.

List left his mother’s body in her upstairs apartment. He laid out the bodies of his wife and children on sleeping bags in the mansion’s ballroom. He then turned on all the lights, tuned a radio to a station that played classical music and walked out.

John List planned his exit carefully. He closed his and his mother’s bank accounts. Next, he stopped the mail, milk, and newspaper deliveries. List even sent notes to the children’s schools and part-time jobs saying the family was taking an extended vacation. Consequently, no one knew anything was amiss for almost a month.

Neighbors noticed that the lights in the List house burned day and night, although they saw no activity. When the lights began to burn out one by one, they called police, who found nothing wrong and left. A few days later, police were again called to the mansion. They found daughter Patricia’s drama coach calling to her from the front of the house. He convinced officers to enter the home through an unlocked basement window. Once inside, they found the bodies.

John List had left behind a five-page letter to his pastor that was essentially a confession. But there was no sign of the man himself.

John List on the Lam

John List was in the wind. Police later learned that he had traveled to Michigan and then on the Denver, Colorado. He settled there as Robert “Bob” Clark (he “borrowed” the name from someone he knew in college). Like List, “Bob Clark” was a CPA. Also like List, he joined a Lutheran church, where he ran a carpool for shut-in church members. In 1985, he married an Army PX clerk named Delores Miller.

In May 1989, the television program America’s Most Wanted featured the List murders. By now it had been seventeen and a half years since John List disappeared and old photos would have been of little use. Instead of photos, the program commissioned forensic artist Frank Bender to create an age-progressed clay bust of List. The bust featured prominently in the broadcast.

Frank Bender's age-progressed bust of John List
Frank Bender’s age-progressed bust of John List

By this time, “Bob Clark” had moved with his new wife to Midlothian, Virginia. However, one of his former neighbors in Denver recognized the bust and notified authorities. They arrested List on June 1, 1989. Bender’s bust had been almost a dead ringer. Strangely, List continued to insist he was Robert Peter Clark. That is, until faced with a fingerprint match to John List’s military records.

Photos of Bender's bust of List (left) and of List  (right) taken after his arrest show the  uncanny resemblance between the two
Photos of Bender’s bust (left) and of List (right) taken after his arrest show the uncanny resemblance between the two

Trial and Conviction

At trial, John List claimed that financial stress and concern for his family’s spiritual well-being led to the murders. He was convicted anyway. The judge sentenced him to five consecutive life terms. During his appeals, List contended that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service. He also tried to claim that the letter left behind was a confidential communication to his pastor and therefore inadmissible. Not surprisingly, these arguments failed.

John List prison mugshot ca. 2005
John List prison mugshot ca. 2005

John List died in prison on March 21, 2008.

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Daring and Horrific: Ten Bombings That Actually Happened

Last week, featured the Snyder-Gray case, a story of conspiracy and murder. This week, I present ten bombings on American soil that might shock you. Some will be familiar, others you may not have heard of.

Haymarket Riot – Chicago

Rapid industrialization after the American Civil War made fortunes for some but also led to labor unrest. Labor activists held a mass meeting on May 4, 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. About 10:30 p.m., a large contingent of Chicago police arrived and ordered the speaker to desist and the crowd to leave. Someone threw a bomb in front of the police line, killing one officer immediately and mortally wounding seven others. Sixty other officers had non-fatal injuries. Eight men were convicted and seven of them hanged.

Ten Bombings - Engravings of the Haymarket bombing
Engraving of the Haymarket bombing

Assassination of Frank Steunenberg – Caldwell, Idaho

Frank Steunenberg served as the fourth governor of Idaho from 1897 to 1901. Labor problems plagued Idaho, too, especially in the mining industry. In one violent flare-up in 1899, members of the Western Federation of Miners destroyed a mill belonging to the to the Bunker Hill Mining Company. Although elected with labor support, Steunenberg declared martial law in response. Nearly five years after he left office, a former miner named Harry Orchard (born Albert Horsley) fastened a bomb to the governor’s front gate. On December 30, 1905, the bomb detonated, Killing Steunenberg. Orchard served 46 years in prison and died in 1954.

Frank Steunenberg, fourth Governor of the State of Idaho
Frank Steunenberg, fourth Governor of the State of Idaho

Wall Street Bombing – New York City

On Thursday, September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon plodded through lunchtime crowds in Manhattan. It stopped in front of 23 Wall Street, headquarters of the J.P. Morgan Bank. At 12:02 p.m., the wagon exploded with a furious roar. The cart was laden with 100 pounds of dynamite. Five hundred pounds of cast-iron sashweights acted as deadly shrapnel. Forty people died in the blast and 143 received serious injuries. Investigators believed Italian anarchists were responsible, but police were never able to charge anyone with the crime. Damage to the building is still visible today.

Ten bombings - The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing
The aftermath of the Wall Street Bombing

Bath School Disaster – Bath Township, Michigan

Andrew Kehoe was a difficult man and a dedicated accumulator of grudges. Formerly the school board treasurer in Bath Township, he lost a reelection bid on April 5, 1926. Thereafter, he began collecting dynamite and pyrotol, an incendiary explosive. On May 18,1927, Kehoe murdered his wife, then set timed explosives at his farm and the Bath Consolidated School. The blast at the school killed 43 people, most of them elementary school children. Kehoe then drove his truck to the school and detonated explosives he had packed in it, killing himself. Authorities presumed his motive was revenge for his 1926 election defeat and personal financial stress.

North wing of the Bath Consolidated School after Kehoe's bomb exploded
The north wing of the Bath Consolidated School after Kehoe’s bomb exploded. Unexploded dynamite and pyrotol in the south wing indicated Kehoe had intended to destroy the entire school.

Mad Bomber – New York City

We met George Metesky, New York City’s “Mad Bomber” in a previous blog entry. Metesky was a former Consolidated Edison worker that felt the company had improperly denied a disability claim. Between 1940 and 1956, he planted 33 bombs around the city, with a patriotic time out during World War II. The bombs didn’t kill anybody, but they did injure fifteen people. Metesky went to a mental institution instead of prison.

Police arresting "Mad Bomber" George Metesky at his sister's home.
Police arresting “Mad Bomber” George Metesky at his sister’s home.

United Airlines Flight 629 – Longmont, Colorado

Jack Gilbert Graham had a grudge against his mother, Daisie Eldora King. On November 1, 1955, Jack put her on United Airlines Flight 629 from Denver to Seattle. He also packed one of her suitcases with dynamite and bought flight insurance. The plane, a Douglas DC-6B named Mainliner Denver, left Denver’s Stapleton airport at 6:52. p.m. At 7:03, it was over Longmont, Colorado when Stapleton air traffic controllers noticed two bright lights in the sky. After 30-45 seconds, the lights fell to the ground and a very bright flash came from the point of impact. They quickly determined that Flight 629 was missing. All 44 people aboard died. Convicted of murdering his mother, Graham died in the Colorado gas chamber on January 11, 1957.

Pieces of United Flight 629 recovered after it exploded and crashed
Pieces of United Flight 629 recovered after it exploded and crashed

The Unabomber – Various Locations

Ted Kaczynski joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 as an assistant professor of mathematics. But he was an indifferent teacher, uncomfortable in the classroom and disliked by his students. He resigned suddenly in 1969 and, in 1971, moved to a remote cabin near Lincoln, Montana to live primitively. He developed a neo-Luddite philosophy that disdained modern technology. Between 1978 and 1995, Kaczynski mailed or hand-delivered 16 bombs that three people and injured 22 others. In 1995, Kaczynski mailed a 35,000 word “manifesto,” Industrial Society and Its Future, to the FBI, insisting on its publication. When The Washington Post published it on September 19, 1995. Ted’s brother, David, recognized the writing style and eventually contacted the FBI. The FBI arrested Kaczynski at his cabin on April 3, 1996. He pled guilty to avoid the death penalty and received eight life sentences without parole.

Ten bombings - Unabomber Ted Kaczynski at U.C. Berkeley in 1967.
Unabomber Ted Kaczynski at U.C. Berkeley in 1967.

Speedway Bombings – Speedway Indiana

Speedway, Indiana is west of downtown Indianapolis and home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Over the five days between September 1 and September 6, 1978, eight bombs exploded in random locations around town. The break in the case came when federal agents arrested Brett Kimberlin for attempting to illegally obtain U.S. Government credentials. A search of Kimberlin’s home turned up bomb-making materials that matched evidence from the bomb sites. Kimberlin was sentenced to over 51 years in federal prison but served only twenty.

Mugshot of Speedway bomber Brett Kimberlin
Mugshot of Speedway bomber Brett Kimberlin

Centennial Olympic Park – Atlanta, Georgia

On July 27, 1996, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia while the city was hosting the Summer Olympics. Security guard Richard Jewell discovered the bomb before it detonated and started clearing spectators out of the area. Initially hailed as a hero, Jewell came under suspicion of setting the bomb himself. Police eventually cleared him but not before a media frenzy descended on him and his home. Not until May 31, 2003 did police in North Carolina arrest the real bomber, Eric Rudolph, a member of the Christian terrorist group Army of God. Rudolph is serving life without parole in a federal prison. Richard Jewell died in 2007 from complications of diabetes.

Ten bombings -Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph being led to court and in prison orange
Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph being led to court and in prison orange

Murrah Federal Building – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

A bomb blast destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19, 1995 and kills 168 people. The collapse of the building rather than the blast itself caused most of the deaths. The bombing was the work of two Army veterans, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The pair were self-proclaimed “survivalists,” angry at the federal government over the FBI’s handling of standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco. They built their bomb using Torvex, nitromethane, and ammonium nitrate, secreting it in a rented Ryder truck. Nichols is serving 161 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.

Ten bombings - The bombed remains of automobiles with the bombed Federal Building in the background.  The military is providing around the clock support since a car bomb exploded inside the building on Wednesday, April 19, 1995.
The bombed remains of automobiles with the bombed Federal Building in the background. The military is providing around the clock support since a car bomb exploded inside the building on Wednesday, April 19, 1995.
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Ruth Snyder — Forbidden Love Leads to a Daring Murder

Last week’s post had its funny side but there is nothing funny about the story of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray. The case became famous as the sash weight murder because the murder weapon was the weight from a window sash. Writer Damon Runyon dubbed it the “Dumbbell Murder,” because it was so dumb.

Warning: one of the pictures near the end of this blog may be disturbing to some people.

Ruth Snyder

Ruth Snyder (born Ruth Brown) was a housewife living in Queens Village in the borough of Queens, New York City. She married a man named Albert Snyder, art director for Motor Boating magazine. It’s unclear just why Snyder married her as his heart still belonged to his long-dead fiancée, Jessie Guischard. He even hung a picture of Jessie in their house. He told Ruth that Jessie was “the finest woman he ever met” and planned to name his boat after her. Who wouldn’t find that off-putting? Ruth certainly did. She tore down the picture and raised enough of a stink about the boat that Snyder named it “Ruth.”

Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.
Ruth Snyder at about the time of the murder.

Despite the unusual circumstances, the Snyders remained married and even had a daughter, Lorraine, in 1918. But Ruth decided to look for satisfaction outside her marriage. In 1925, she met traveling corset salesman Henry Judd Gray (he went by Judd) and the two began an affair. Gray was also married but that didn’t keep them from spending a lot of time together. They frequently met in the Waldorf Astoria. Ruth would leave Lorraine to entertain herself by riding the elevators while she and Gray carried on in private.

Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 - 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Corset salesman and murderer Henry Judd Gray (1892 – 1928), circa 1927. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A Sinister Plot

Ruth Snyder wanted to be rid of her husband Albert. She and Gray conspired to kill Snyder after first taking out three life insurance policies on him. Ruth forged Snyder’s name to three policies worth a combined $100,000 (about $1.2 million today). She and Gray then set about killing Albert.

Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder's husband.
Albert E. Snyder, Ruth Snyder’s husband.

It turns out, the pair weren’t particularly good at murder. At least seven times they tried, and every time Albert survived. The third attempt on Sunday, March 20, 1927, finally succeeded. Ruth and Gray hit Albert with the weight from a window sash. They then garroted him with picture frame wire, and stuffed rags soaked in chloroform up his nose. Albert died from suffocation.

The next part of the plot was to stage the scene to look like a burglary gone wrong. But here, too, Ruth and Judd were inept. Detectives were immediately skeptical of Ruth’s story and noted that there was little evidence of a break-in. More suspicious, police found that items that Ruth said the burglars had stolen were still in the house.

Mugshot of Ruth Snyder prior to her transfer to Sing Sing prison

The final breakthrough came when detectives discovered a small pin with the initials “J.G.” on it. It was a memento of Jessie Guischard that Albert Snyder had kept. Police matched the initials to the entry for Judd Gray in Ruth’s address book. When detectives asked her about Gray, a flustered Ruth asked, “Has he confessed?” Police ran a bluff, saying he had, and Ruth’s story quickly unraveled from there.

Trial and Conviction

Police found Judd Gray in Syracuse, New York. He folded quickly under questioning and confessed. The state tried the two jointly, a point that Gray raised on appeal (he lost). During the trial, both Ruth and Judd admitting to conspiring together. But each claimed the other had committed the actual murder.

Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
Ruth Snyder on the witness stand as her confession is read to the court (NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Press coverage of the trial was intense. The New York tabloid press were vying with each other for readership and went all out in their coverage. The primary papers involved were the Daily Graphic, the Daily News, and William Randolph Hurst’s Daily Mirror. Newspapers reported every salacious detail of the Snyder-Gray affair. It was an age when reporters weren’t above fabricating details to spice up their stories. And Ruth was especially demonized, with papers frequently calling her “Ruthless Ruth.”

In the end, Ruth’s and Judd’s competing claims didn’t matter. The jury convicted both of first-degree murder. In New York in 1927, the punishment for murder was death.


Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray both died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York on January 12, 1928. Ruth went first, with Judd following about ten minutes later. In a macabre twist, photographer Tom Howard of the Chicago Tribune sneaked a homemade camera into the death house by strapping it to his ankle. As the “state electrician,” Robert G. Elliot sent the current through Ruth’s body, Howard clicked the shutter. The next day, fuzzy picture of Ruth Snyder appeared on front pages around the country.

Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.
Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard took this photo of Ruth Snyder during her execution using a homemade camera strapped to his ankle.

Writer James Cain used the Snyder-Gray case as inspiration for a 1943 crime novella. The following year, Paramount Pictures released Double Indemnity starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. It was almost instantly a film noir classic.

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