Sister Aimee was a popular evangelistic minister in the early 20th century. She had risen from obscurity to build a large following across the United States through both her hypnotic preaching and her use of cutting edge communications of the day. Her radio station KFSG sent her message farther than her tent revivals ever could. Sister Aimee’s sermons were heard via radio from Australia to the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of Africa. All of this was in an era when women were not allowed to vote and were expected to marry and leave other pursuits to men.
Born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy in 1890 in Ontario, Canada, religion had always been an important part of her life. Before she was 18, she married Robert Semple, a missionary assigned to Asia. The two left for their world tour to spread the gospel even though Aimee was pregnant with their first child. Tragically, the young couple contracted malaria and Robert died in August 1910. Aimee gave birth to their daughter, Roberta, a month later and returned to the United States. Two years later, Aimee married again to Harold Steward McPherson, but could not settle into the life of a housewife. Heeding the call to preach the gospel, she left her husband and began touring churches and tent revivals. Described as a spellbinding speaker, she drew record crowds and knew exactly how to play them. By 1922, she was a sensation and was preaching to crowds of more than 30,000. By this time, her marriage to Harold McPherson had ended in divorce despite the birth of their son. However, constant travel was taking its toll, and in 1923 Aimee built the Angelus Temple, Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles, California where services were held seven days a week for the faithful. Services at the Angelus Temple were shows in themselves. There were lines around the block every day of people trying to get a seat. Aimee was famous for having elaborate sets and productions. Some examples of the sets used were a 20 foot Trojan horse or a huge ship with smoking guns on the side. Actor Charlie Chaplin used to advise Aimee on what would play the best on stage and the unlikely pair became friends. When not preaching, Aimee lived in a beautiful home above Lake Elsinore complete with a mosaic dome, Art Deco rooms and an underground passage between the house and the garage. This was all to avoid reporters, who were ready to feed the hungry public any bits of information about the young evangelist.
On May 18, 1926, Aimee did not show up for the daily sermon at the Angelus Temple. Her mother stood in, but the search was on for the missing woman. A female assistant had gone with Aimee to Venice Beach where Aimee went to take a swim and write her sermon. The assistant left for a few minutes to make a phone call at a nearby hotel. When she returned, Aimee was gone. Search parties combed the beach looking for her, and many feared she had been drowned. The waters of Santa Monica bay were dynamited, hoping her body would be raised but all they found was dead fish.
As time past, newspapers began floating rival theories as to what happened to the young woman. Rumors of affairs, drugs and abortion were floated. Some thought it was an elaborate publicity stunt. There was even a report of a local sea monster, which had eaten the young woman like Jonah and the whale. She was sighted all over California- at a San Francisco railway station for one. Other believers thought God would resurrect her. “God wouldn’t let her die,” one of her believers told a reporter. “She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can’t be dead.” A ransom letter was delivered to Aimee’s mother, Minnie Kennedy, demanding $50,000. Another newspaper came up with another ransom letter threatening to sell Aimee into “white slavery”. Her mother was convinced her daughter was dead and these letters were a hoax and threw them away.
When everyone but the extreme faithful had lost hope, Aimee stumbled into the small town of Agua Prieta on the Mexico-Arizona border claiming she had been kidnapped. She said that at the beach that day in May a family had come to her asking her to pray over a sick child in the backseat. When she bent over to see the child, Aimee said she had been chloroformed and taken to a small hut and held by three people. Not everyone bought the kidnapping story though. Her biographer, Matthew Sutton, believes she ran away with a married man, but when things did not work out decided to make this dramatic reappearance. Ultimately, Aimee faced a grand jury investigation into the kidnapping story. No charges were filed, but no truth was found either.
The mystery did nothing to diminish her popularity though. When Aimee came home, a crowd of 50,000 showed up at the train station. A parade featuring airplanes dropping roses heralded her return to Angelus Temple. Aimee continued to build up her church up to her death in 1944 of an accidental overdose. To this day, no one knows exactly happened in May 1926.
Sources available on request