Sister Aimee Semple McPherson was a world-renowned evangelist for much of the early 20th century. She founded the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an influential Pentecostal Christian church more commonly called The Foursquare Church.
She was one of the most famous preachers of her day, but parts of her life remains shrouded in mystery—especially an odd disappearance that arrived at the height of her fame.
Bringing Her Faith to Thousands
McPherson’s congregation affectionately dubbed her “Sister Aimee.” She made a name for herself as a tent-revival-style preacher in the years before women were even allowed to vote. The dynamic preacher and missionary packed tents and auditoriums across the United States.
Ultimately, she settled in Los Angeles, where she established her church headquarters—and a lovely, lavish home for herself.
McPherson’s new sanctuary, the Angelus Temple, has been described as “one of the first megachurches.” There, Sister Aimee staged scenes from the Bible, not only for the 5,300 parishioners that the facility could seat, but also to radio audiences across the globe.
“She had the best actors, the best set designers, the best costumes, the best makeup artists and professional lighting,” explains one of the preacher’s biographers, Matthew Sutton, as quoted by the BBC. “She would create these stories, these dramas in which biblical stories would come to life.”
An International Audience and Unwanted Attention
“She was constantly being followed,” a present-day Foursquare preacher told Naomi Grimley of the BBC. “To give people an understanding about how popular she was and how much people followed her, it would be the equivalent of Princess Diana.”
It wasn’t just paparazzi, though; the Foursquare Church’s website states that within her first three years in Los Angeles, “Sister Aimee [was] kidnapped twice and, there had been other threats on her life and other attempts to kidnap her.”
The threats piled up throughout the 1920s, but events came to a head in 1926.
“In early May of 1926, a high volume of letters and notes once again arrived at Angelus Temple threatening kidnapping,” the church website reports, but Sister Aimee didn’t let these threats slow her down.
A Dramatic Day at the Beach
In the years after setting down roots in LA, Sister Aimee grew accustomed to writing sermons and swimming at the nearby Venice Beach. On May 18, 1926, McPherson’s driver dropped her off at the beach. When the driver returned later that day, McPherson was gone.
The next day, LA headlines proclaimed that McPherson had drowned, as had at least one follower who attempted to find the pentecostal preacher in the choppy Pacific waters.
In the days and weeks that followed, McPherson’s family would receive letters demanding a ransom in exchange for the missing minister, but, as the church website explains, “the letters were thrown away because her family thought she was dead!”
While McPherson was missing, not only did her family receive several ransom requests, but there were also dozens of reported sighting of the then-35-year-old woman. Rumors swirled that the pioneering preacher would come back from the dead—and in a way, she would.
The Great Disappearance
Today’s Foursquare Church’s official narrative is that Sister Aimee was kidnapped:
“A couple asked her to accompany them to their car to pray for their dying baby who was in the back seat…Upon leaning into the back seat she was pushed to the floor and sedated as the car drove off,” reports the Foursquare Church website.
“For three weeks Sister Aimee was kept in the Los Angeles area, and then, in mid-June, the kidnappers moved her to a small shack in an isolated canyon in Mexico just south of Douglas, Arizona.
“When the kidnappers left her alone but bound with rope for several hours while they drove off to buy supplies, she escaped and walked through the night to Douglas where she was entered into the hospital.”
Other accounts point out that McPherson was first discovered in the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta—not far from Douglas—32 days after her disappearance.
But there was yet another peculiar coincidence that happened right at the same time as Sister Aimee’s disappearance; one of her radio engineers had also gone missing.
A Prodigal Fling?
Kenneth Ormiston had been an engineer for McPherson’s radio station KFSG. He spent 10 days at a cottage in Northern California during the initial days following Sister Aimee’s mysterious absence.
“I’m 99 percent confident that she had an affair,” McPherson’s biographer, Sutton, told the BBC.
“I suspect she ran away with Ormiston then ultimately after a month reading the newspapers and seeing what was happening she decided to make this dramatic return. The kidnapping story was the best means she came up with for doing it.”
Eventually, as documented on Wikipedia via the The Coshocton Tribune, Ormiston confirmed that he was having an affair, but he “identified Elizabeth Tovey, a nurse from Seattle, Washington, as his female companion and the woman who stayed with him at the seaside cottage.”
While No Ransom Was Paid, It Was Still a Costly Disappearance
The LA district attorney would convene a grand jury, not only to try and track down evidence against any kidnappers, but also to attempt to determine if McPherson had faked the whole thing. However, the grand jury found that there wasn’t enough evidence to indict any suspected kidnappers.
Another of McPherson’s biographers, Daniel Epstein, estimated that LA newspapers spent somewhere around half a million dollars trying to dig up more evidence against the reappearing woman. This biographer, cited in Wikipedia, also reported that McPherson spent around $100,000 in court costs that never completely cleared her name.
A Dubious Ending
McPherson continued to minister to her parishioners for the following 18 years, until she passed away while visiting Oakland in 1944.
Sister Aimee was found unconscious next to an open bottle of sedatives. She took her last breath less than two hours later. Some observers have suggested that the bottle of sedatives was a sign that the Foursquare Church founder ended her life intentionally. Authorities called it an accidental overdose complicated by a kidney illness contracted while proselytizing in Mexico the previous year.
The Foursquare Church still carries on McPherson’s legacy—bringing the Bible to life for thousands of followers across the globe.