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Aimee Semple McPherson busy preaching to the King of the Jungle, King-Kong …

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Aimee Semple McPherson

Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most glamorous women in the US in the 1920s. The evangelical preacher put on theatrical church services and used ground-breaking radio broadcasts to teach the gospel – but one mysterious episode in her life has never been fully explained.

On May 18, 1926, Aimee went for a swim in the Pacific Ocean and did not?make it home.

The female assistant who’d gone with her had to leave to make a short phone call from a nearby hotel. When she returned she couldn’t see the evangelist anywhere.

As evening fell, McPherson was still missing and her followers rushed to the beach to join the search.

Her mother tactfully made the announcement at the end of a sermon by declaring “Sister is with Jesus.” Aimee’s flock freaked out. One?would-be rescuer drowned, and another died of exposure. For a solid month, the country played detective, looking for her body. Until the day when — praise Jesus! — she stumbled out of the desert with a story of kidnapping, drugging and torture. But at least she was home. Hallelujah!

For all her savvy business sense, Aimee didn’t quite think her story through. For one thing, she claimed she escaped her kidnappers and managed a 13-hour trek through the desert. Yet she looked as fresh as a daisy – she wasn’t dehydrated or sunburned, her clothes didn’t have that I-just- traversed-a-desert look. So that didn’t quite sit right with investigators.

Then there was the matter of Aimee’s so called kidnappers, “Steve” and “Mexicali Rose,” who she said chloroformed her before stealing her away in their car.

She was not Christian famous?and of course in the 1920s there was no ?Christian? subculture?there were simply celebrities. And she was among the most famous. She was profiled in the major magazines of the era from?Harpers?to?Vanity Fair, and she was the subject of hundreds of news stories not just in her hometown Los Angeles papers but in the?New York Times. She also drew a good deal of international attention in places like London. She was one of the first preachers to use radio and?invented?the megachurch.

Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 ? September 27, 1944), also known as Sister Aimee, was a Canadian-American Los Angeles, California evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s. She founded the Foursquare Church. McPherson has been noted as a pioneer in the use of modern media, especially radio, and was the second woman to be granted a broadcast license. She used radio to draw upon through the growing appeal of popular entertainment in North America and incorporated other forms into her weekly sermon performances at Angelus Temple.

In 1926, Sister Aimee disappeared. She left with her secretary to go for a swim at Ocean Park Beach near Venice Beach. The secretary left to run some errands leaving Aimee at the beach swimming and having some fun. When she returned, Aimee couldn’t be found anywhere. After a thorough search without finding a trace of Aimee, people presumed she drowned in the Pacific Ocean. That night, Minnie “Ma” Kennedy took Aimee’s place at the pulpit declaring, at the end of the sermon, that “Sister is with Jesus” sending the congregation into a frenzy of mourning.

People gathered at the beach praying, searching and mourning in a very public way. All of the commotion drew a lot of press coverage and the press coverage drew more mourners. The Los Angeles Examiner, owned by William Randolf Hearst, added fuel to the fire as did Upton Sinclair’s poem about the tragedy, “An Evangelist Drowns”.

Exhaustive searches were conducted by divers who worked themselves to exhaustion with one dying from exposure. A teenage girl drowned when she dove into the water thinking that she saw Sister Aimee in the water.

A month into the tragedy after a memorial service, Minnie received a ransom note signed by the Avengers demanding $500,000 for Sister’s safe return.

Convinced that Aimee was dead, Minnie threw the note away.

A local newspaper even speculated that there had been a sea monster sighted off Venice Beach. They thought maybe this sea monster had swallowed McPherson whole.”

Others thought that the evangelist would be miraculously resurrected. For weeks, national newspapers carried rival theories about what had happened to McPherson. Had she drowned? Had she staged the ultimate theatrical stunt? Had the weight of her own fame just become too much? Then one day in June 32 days after Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared, she was found in the small Mexican town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, just south of Douglas, Arizona and 600 miles from Los Angeles. Ending up at a hospital, she told the staff she had been kidnapped, drugged, and held hostage in a tiny shack. Only after undoing the ropes that restrained her and walking twenty miles in the barren desert, did she escape. Exhausted and disheveled, but otherwise healthy, it was a miracle. Or was it?

After confirming her identity by locating a tiny scar on her finger and Aimee?s ability to name her pet pigeon, leaders of the Temple and Minnie made their way to Arizona. Aimee completed the story for everyone.

Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most glamorous women in the US in the 1920s.

This was a typical service with Aimee officiating.

So? Aimee comes walking out of the Mexican desert. She came out of the desert telling a tale of being drugged and tortured while she was being held for ransom in a filthy shack.

There were two kidnappers, a man and a woman, Steve and Mexicali Rose. Aimee claimed she escaped from the shack and walked 13 hours to safety. She said that while she was swimming she was approached by a couple who wanted her to pray over their sick child. When she went them them to pray, they drugged her and took her to Mexico.

The thought that someone might want to kidnap Sister Aimee was definitely not hard to believe. But her story stretched credibility with her claim of walking 13 hours through the desert in clean clothes and shoes with grass stains when she was kidnapped in her bathing suit and there isn’t much grass in the desert. Her story was very holey and not in a religious way.

Suspiciously, there was another disappearance as the same time – Kenneth Ormiston. Ormiston, a married man, was an engineer at KFSG, the radio station owned by the Foursquare church. Ormiston and Aimee developed a close relation while working together during broadcasts. Rumours started going around that Aimee and Ormiston, an acknowledged agnostic, were shacked up together during the kidnapping incident. There were other rumors including Aimee having an abortion, recovering from plastic surgery or it was just a publicity stunt.

While investigating the alleged kidnapping, several witnesses came forward saying they recognized a couple matching Aimee and Ormiston’s description. It seems the couple was seen visiting hotels and resorts up and down the West Coast.

Before a grand jury could be convened, the District Attorney charged Aimee with obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. When the grand jury was convened they heard more testimony from witnesses who saw the couple in Carmel, California and they reviewed testimony from handwriting experts who testified that the handwriting on registration cards from several hotels was Aimee’s.

In spite of the evidence to the contrary, Aimee stuck to her kidnapping story and stuck to it like glue.

Aimee Semple McPherson was one of the most glamorous women in the US in the 1920s. The evangelical preacher put on theatrical church services and used ground-breaking radio broadcasts to teach the gospel – but one mysterious episode in her life has never been fully explained.

Efforts by District Attorney Asa Keyes to determine?whether there had, in fact, been a kidnapping were on-again, off-again.

They were on starting June 23, the day McPherson reemerged. Keyes issued this statement:

Every effort will be made by this office to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson. If a person as well known as Mrs. McPherson can be kidnapped from a public beach in broad daylight, carried out of the county by force and violence and held prisoner for an extended period of time, extreme measures must be used to make certain that such an outrage can not recur.

No matter what the circumstances of Mrs. McPherson?s disappearance, every phase of the case will be fairly and thoroughly investigated and every movement of Mrs. McPherson retraced until the mystery is completely and finally explained.

I am sending a deputy immediately to Douglas, in company with a representative of the police department, to begin the investigation coincidentally both in that city and in Los Angeles. If Mrs. McPherson was kidnapped and held prisoner, no law enforcement agency in this county will rest until the kidnapers are apprehended and brought to justice.

Efforts were off as of June 28. Here?s how the Oxnard Daily Courier?s report on the development that day begins:

?Investigation of Aimee Semple McPherson?s statement of having been kidnapped and held for ransom and search for her abductors was dropped today by the district attorney?s office. The police search and investigation, however, will continue.

?District Attorney Keyes admitted that his office would make no further investigation of Mrs. McPherson?s story. Asked the reason for dropping the investigation, Keyes stated curtly:

? ?I have nothing to say.? ?

Deputy District Attorney Joseph Ryan, who was in charge of the DA?s investigation, subsequently told the press he was ready to go before the Grand Jury. Keyes slapped him down. This is from an Associated Press report of July 1:

?Newspapermen who were present at a conference to-day between Keyes and Ryan reported that Keyes censured his subordinate for having made the statement.?

The AP dispatch went on to say:

?It was learned to-day that at least three members of the grand jury are prepared to demand that the district attorney?s office lay all of the details of the McPherson case before them.?

In a turnabout, Keyes appeared before the Grand Jury on July 6 urging an investigation, and there was a unanimous vote to launch one. Subpoenas were issued for McPherson and others to appear.

On that same date, in what amounted to a blatant publicity stunt, Keyes personally handed McPherson her subpoena.

In the 1986 book, ?Women of the 20s,? George H. Douglas writes:

?So on the morning of July 8, 1926, Aimee, attended by a phalanx of Temple escorts and attired in a simple white crepe dress and a long blue cape, made her way downtown to the massive Hall of Justice, in answer to a summons from the grand jury. At this hearing, District Attorney Keyes not only probed every inconsistency in Aimee?s story?and there were many?but also raised questions concerning Kenneth Ormiston, for at least one witness had reported seeing McPherson and Ormiston in a car together a day before Aimee reappeared in Douglas, Arizona. Through it all, Aimee cheerfully maintained her story of kidnapping, and later that afternoon she made her own summation to the seventeen men and two women of the jury, defending her ministry and explaining its humble origins in moving detail.?

A report by United News of McPherson?s testimony says:

?Unruffled after six hours of giving testimony and submitting to severe questioning, Aimee Semple McPherson walked out of the grand jury room this evening, apparently the victor in the first round of the probe into her kidnaping story.?

After 12 days of testimony from various witnesses, the Grand Jury concluded it did not have enough evidence to reach any conclusions.

Her life was punctuated by scandal, land swindles, failed movie deals and legal suits? and a cooked up kidnapping charge to cover what many suspected was a several month long tryst with a married man. The court case was dismissed. This is a fingerprint expert examining evidence in the ?kidnapping?.

Aimee Semple McPherson, known as ?Sister Aimee?

Attacked by creditors and skeptics, Aimee’s followers establish the Aimee Semple McPherson Defense Fund.

But evidence continued to be gathered. On July 26, according to news reports, two employees of a real estate office in Carmel identified Ormiston, from a photograph, as the man to whom they had rented a cottage on May 22?and a townsman, shown a photo of McPherson, signed statement on the back of it saying:

?This is the woman I saw in the garage of the Benedict cottage at Carmel, May 24, 1926, when I delivered wood.?

He recalled that she had been there in the company of the man who had placed the order.

The evidence was being gathered in Carmel by Ryan, who told reporters that he had at least nine witnesses who placed Ormiston in that seaside community during the relevant time period.

A set of fingerprints was taken from a spice can left behind when the couple departed on May 29. The grocery list alluded to in Starr?s book was also uncovered at that time.

It looked like the investigation was about to bear fruit. In fact, on July 27, Los Angeles Police Department Chief of Detectives Herman H. Cline proclaimed that the case had been solved and evidence was ?conclusive? that the kidnapping was a ruse. Keyes called for a reopening of the Grand Jury?s inquiry.

But then came a set-back?for the prosecution.

An AP story transmitted from Los Angeles on July 30 says: ?Fingerprint experts of the police department announced today that finger marks obtained in a cottage at Carmel so far examined could not be identified as those of Aimee Semple McPherson, owing to their blurred condition.?

The Oakland Tribune?s issue of Sunday morning, Aug. 1, contains this report from Monterey, dated July 31:

?Thirteen subpenas from the Los Angeles grand jury were served late today upon persons who had identified Mrs. Aimee McPherson and Kenneth Ormiston, her radio operator, as occupants of the ?McIntire cottage? during the days when Mrs. McPherson, Los Angeles evangelist, was supposedly the captive of kidnapers.

?Within an hour after the subpenas had been served by C. H. Conn, Los Angeles process server, he notified the witnesses that the subpenas had been voided by a telegram from Los Angeles notifying him that the grand jury session, set for Tuesday, had been called off.?

The telegram read, according to the report: ?Don?t serve subponeas [sic]; come home.?

(Reference to the ?McIntire Cottage? stemmed from the occupants having registered as ?Mr. and Mrs. George McIntyre,? sometimes using the spelling, ?McIntire.?)

Reporters located Keyes on Aug. 1 on a golf course. As the Times? report the next morning recounts, he announced that he was going to drop any efforts to either ferret out kidnappers or prosecute anyone for having committed perjury before the Grand Jury. He pointed to the lack of fingerprint evidence and the extreme difficulty of proving a case of perjury.

That development was the top story of the day, as reflected by the Times? treatment of it.

The district attorney found no evidence to indict Aimee and the charges were dropped. While her popularity took a hit, it didn’t last long. She was forgiven though she never admitted anything.

Two years later, this particular district attorney was convicted of accepting a bribe from an altogether different entity.

Former California state Librarian Kevin Starr, in his 1996 book ?Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920?s,? says:

?Researchers with a taste for American-style grande guignol have patiently unraveled the entire episode. It is all but certain that Sister Aimee took a month?s vacation in the company of Kenneth Ormiston, spending part of this time in a honeymoon cottage in Carmel. District Attorney Asa Keyes produced a grocery list from the Carmel cottage in what was unmistakably McPherson?s handwriting.?

Another charlatan – ‘Fanatic for Jesus’: the charismatic and discredited Aimee Semple McPherson: Her Impact on the Third Wave Movement / first ‘mega church’ – had an affair, faked her death, daughter estranged, died of barbiturate overdose. Founder of the Four Square Church.

The mysterious disappearance of a celebrity preacher.

Her story to that date had already been extraordinary. She was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890, near Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada, and was the only child of James and Minnie Kennedy. Although she was reared in a Christian home, she began to question the truths of the Bible during her teen years.

When she was 17 years old and still in high school, she attended a revival service conducted by Pentecostal evangelist Robert Semple where she heard the message of repentance and a born-again experience. Although she resisted the message, the Holy Spirit continued to speak to her heart, convicting her of the sin in her life and of her need for a Savior.

After a three-day struggle with doubt and uncertainty, she finally prayed and asked the Lord to save her. As soon as she asked the Lord to forgive her, the weight of sin was gone and she was filled with amazing joy. She immediately began to sing the hymn ?Take My Life and Let It Be,? and the sentiment behind those words governed her life from that point forward (McPherson 1923, 39).

Aimee had heard the evangelist speak also of the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and she began to be consumed with the desire to experience that Pentecostal baptism. After a time of prayer and seeking the Lord, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues. From that time forward, she had a love and compassion for souls and a longing to serve the Lord that remained with her throughout her lifetime.

Before long she’d married Robert Semple and joined his life on the road. But a trip they took to Hong Kong as missionaries ended in disaster. Both she and her husband fell ill with malaria. He died but she survived, pregnant with her first child.

When McPherson returned to America she felt the call to travel and preach. She was a spellbinding speaker.

She knew how to use dramatic tricks to draw audiences, and so she turned out to be enormously popular. What made her most popular was her seeming ability to lay hands on the sick and to heal them.

Soon McPherson, known as Sister Aimee to her followers, had become a preaching sensation touring across the US during the early 1920s.

It was an unusual choice of career for a single mother – and before long she was also a divorcee.

She returned to North America with her young daughter, joined up with her mother Minnie, and worked at the Salvation Army in New York City. In 1912, she met a well-off accountant, Harold McPherson, and they married soon after. A year later, they had a son, Rolf, but Aimee had no intention of settling down as a housewife. She felt she was meant to preach. She began touring the northeast, then all over the US and Canada. With her two kids, a large tent on the top of the car, and ?Jesus is Coming Soon?Get Ready? painted on the side, she quickly became a hit holding tent revivals and preaching in churches to thousands. Always known for her flair for the dramatic, she spoke in tongues and claimed she could faith-heal. Her mother joined her at many of these speaking engagements. Unfortunately, her husband, Harold,did not. He filed for divorce citing ?abandonment? as the reason.

Aimee?s fame grew quickly. As an energetic, dramatic, over-the-top female evangelistic, she was very much a breath of fresh air in the 1920 religious landscape. By 1922, according to Smithsonian magazine, she was breaking attendance records set by her male peers. In San Diego, over 300,000 people came to see her do her thing. There were so many people that the Marines were called in as ?crowd control.? At that same event, it was said that Aimee laid her hands on a ?paralyzed? woman and she walked, supposedly, for the first time. Aimee Semple McPherson was a star.

In 1921, she made her way to the city that would be perfect for her theatrical-based religious ceremonies ? Los Angeles. Using the money she had earned from her appearances, she bought land in Echo Park and began building the Angelus Temple for her Foursquare Gospel (named so for the four tenets of Jesus: Jesus Christ as the Savior, the Holy Spirit, the Healer, and the Soon-Coming King). It opened in 1923 and sat 5300 hundred people, but attracted thousands more. It was, as the national architecture online magazine?Curbed?called it, ?America?s First Megachurch.?

Her sermons were a sight to behold. She employed artists, set designers, and actors to help her construct her ?Illustrated Sermons.? She knew how to hold a person?s attention and that was with a show. Harper?s magazine in 1927 reported that, ?In this show-devouring city, no entertainment compares in popularity with that of Angelus Temple.?

She even took it a step further, utilizing the new technology of the time. On February 26, 1924, she purchased a Los Angeles radio station, KFSG, becoming the second woman ever to be granted a broadcasting license. She used KFSG to broadcast her sermons across the region, so that her followers who couldn?t get to the Angelus Temple could still hear the word of God. By May 1926, McPherson was at the height of her fame, which made her sudden vanishing so shocking.

In the days that followed Aimee?s disappearance, supporters, followers, and searchers flocked to the beach to see what, if anything, they could find. Two particularly devoted individuals drowned while searching for Aimee in the water. Some of her followers even set off dynamite in the water thinking that could potentially raise her body from the depths. Instead, they got a whole bunch of dead fish. Others thought that it was just a matter of time before Aimee came back, rising from the dead like Jesus.

In 1923, she built a permanent base for her religious movement – a white-domed church called Angelus Temple in the Echo Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. She put on elaborate services for the public and bought a radio station to broadcast to listeners at home.

These were no ordinary sermons – they were more like music hall performances. “She had the best actors, the best set designers, the best costumes, the best make-up artists and professional lighting,” says Sutton. “She would create these stories, these dramas in which biblical stories would come to life.”

The crowds were so large, people had to queue around the block to get a seat. At Angelus Temple today you can still see the theatre-like layout – complete with a stage at the centre.

“It was quite simply the best show in town” says the temple’s archivist Steve Zeleny. “She would call the construction crew and say ‘I need you to build me a 20ft Trojan horse that’s hollow on the inside’ or ‘I need you to build me a huge ship, the bow needs to stick out 20ft. It needs to have guns on it with smoke coming out.'”

Often her crew would only have a week to finish these lavish sets. Charlie Chaplin used to advise McPherson on which of her productions worked best. In fact, over the years the Hollywood actor struck up an unlikely friendship with this conservative Pentecostal preacher.

As a retreat from her superstar lifestyle, McPherson built a house, perched on a rock above Lake Elsinore, a 90-minute car ride from Los Angeles. It is a castle influenced by her travels in the Middle East – it looks a bit out of place in the Californian landscape with a white exterior, crenellated roof and mosaic-encrusted dome.

She was constantly being followed. To give people an understanding about how popular she was and how much people followed her, it would be the equivalent of Princess Diana. There’s even a subterranean passage from the garage into the house so that McPherson could avoid reporters.

To this day, there is a great deal of debate about what exactly happened. When McPherson returned to Los Angeles she faced a grand jury investigation into her kidnapping story – but it ended up more preoccupied with her private life.

That’s why McPherson’s story attracts such attention and why she’s been parodied in various plays and books. Cole Porter, for example, turned her into the “sensuous sermonizer” Reno Sweeney in the musical Anything Goes.

Today, her followers say the scandalous accounts of her life overlook all the good work she did on the streets of Los Angeles, especially during the Depression. When government agencies failed to clothe and feed the poor, Angelus Temple stepped in helping 1.5 million people get back on their feet.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was the dynamic and controversial and immensely popular preacher and founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel?a Pentecostal denomination which still exists today with 1,600 churches and a quarter of a million members and adherents in the U.S., and 75,000 churches with 8.7 million members and adherents in 136 countries.

Angelus Temple is a Pentecostal megachurch of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in the Echo Park district of Los Angeles, California. She built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles to hold her theatrical services and was one of the the first women to buy a broadcast license.

McPherson and Kenneth Ormiston, 1925.

In the 1930’s Aimee fell in love and eloped with David Hutton, a singer and actor who played a part in one of Aimee’s illustrated sermons. The marriage was considered scandalous because it broke one of the rules that Aimee herself helped set up. A divorced person was not supposed to marry as long as the former spouse was still alive. Harold McPherson was still alive. Many people saw this marriage as a case of do as I say, not as I do on Aimee’s part. This cost her respect with her congregation.

Hutton, who at 30, was 10 years younger than Aimee (which was scandalous enough), brought his own scandals to the marriage. Two days after the wedding, Hutton was named in a breach of promise suit by a woman named Hazel St. Pierre. Though he swore that he never met the woman, the judge in the lawsuit ordered Hutton to pay $5,000. Upon hearing that news, Aimee fainted and fractured her skull. To add to the humiliation, after the divorce, Hutton billed himself as “Aimee’s Man” in his cabaret act.

Aimee Semple McPherson, despite the specter of a fake kidnapping hanging over her, continued to preach. Her congregation grew. It was said she was more well-known at the time than the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Her constant travels, showmanship, and inability to keep herself healthy paid its toll, though.

On September 26, 1944, McPherson went to Oakland, California, for a series of revivals, planning to preach her popular ?Story of My Life? sermon. When McPherson?s son went to her hotel room at 10:00 the next morning, he found her unconscious with pills and a half-empty bottle of capsules nearby. She was dead by 11:15.

The autopsy did not conclusively determine the cause of McPherson?s death. She had been taking sleeping pills following numerous health problems?including ?tropical fever?. Among the pills found in the hotel room was the drug Seconal, a strong sedative which had not been prescribed for her. It was unknown how she obtained them.

A memorial service was held on her birthday, October 9, at Angelus Temple. Upon her death, her son, Rolf K. McPherson, became president of The Foursquare Church. He served in that position for 44 years, providing stability, strength and growth to the fledgling denomination that his mother left behind.

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