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.

Epilogue

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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