Was she a prophet, a huckster, a healer, or a performer? Or a combination of them all?
Aimee Semple McPherson, known to her followers as Sister Aimee, was born in 1890 on a farm in Canada. As a teen, she fell under the spell of a Pentecostal preacher named Robert Semple, whom she later married. When Semple died on a missionary trip, Aimee carried on the ministry herself.
Those who heard her called her “spellbinding.”
Along the way she married a man named McPherson, who apparently couldn’t take the secondary role he played to the hugely popular Sister Aimee. They divorced in 1921.
But that didn’t slow down Aimee, whose sermons were often like theatrical spectacles. She would stage elaborate productions, often with her in costume and sets like a Broadway show.
The crowds were overflowing.
Then, in 1926, after going for a swim at Venice Beach, Sister Aimee disappeared.
The newspapers feared drowning. A massive search proved fruitless.
Several weeks went by. Her stunned followers began to pray for her resurrection.
Which happened, in a way.
In the dusty little Mexican town of Agua Prieta, a family was dining when there was a knock on the door. They opened it up to a tired-looking woman who told them she had escaped kidnappers, and could they help her?
It was Aimee Semple McPherson.
Newspapers across the country trumpeted the news. The D.A. wanted to know the details.
Sister Aimee told the authorities that on that day at Venice Beach, three strangers had asked her to pray for a sick child in the back of their car. When she got to the car (she said) they pushed in her and chloroformed her. They took her to an “adobe shack” in Mexico and held her there for ransom. The authorities wanted to know why no one ever received a ransom demand. Sister Aimee said she couldn’t speak for the kidnappers.
Something else the authorities noticed. Around the same time Sister Aimee went missing, so did the sound engineer for the Angelus Temple, Kenneth Ormiston.
Tongues began to wag. Had she and Ormisten run off together? Was the kidnapping story a way to cover up a tryst?
To this day, it’s an open question. The newspapers, as they are wont to do, seized on the potential of scandal. Eventually the District Attorney went to the grand jury to get an indictment against Aimee and her mother, Minnie, for perpetuating a gigantic hoax.
Sister Aimee’s famous tenacity took hold. When reporters kept after her, she would calmly reply, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
She and her mother we’re bound over for trial, on the charge of “criminal conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals and to prevent and obstruct justice.” But the D.A.’s key witness, who had claimed she was hired to help perpetuate the hoax, suddenly changed her story. Why? One theory is that an admirer of Sister Aimee, William Randolph Hearst no less, offered a little financial incentive to the witness.
In any event, without that testimony the case had to be dismissed.
The D.A., Asa Keyes, told the press, “Let her be judged in the court of public opinion.”
That court wasn’t kind at first. But in L.A., time is on the side of charming dissemblers. Sister Aimee immediately went on what she called her “vindication tour.” She came back to L.A. not just a local celebrity, but world famous. She even received an invitation from Mahatma Gandhi to visit him. Which she did.
She continued to preach until 1944, when she was found dead in an Oakland hotel room. The cause of death was officially ruled an accidental overdose of barbiturates.
Or was it suicide?
Either way, Aimee Semple McPherson passed through the portals of death into a permanent place in the annals of scandalous celebrity immortality.
That’s how it happens in my town.
Did your hometown have a local, controversial character? Ever used him or her in a book?
If you’d like to hear Sister Aimee at the height of her popularity, go here.
Some of the material in this post I owe to Daniel Mark Epstein’s biography, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson.