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The Kidnapping of Aimee

On May 18, 1926, one of the most prominent religious figures in America disappeared without a trace. The pioneering 35-year-old evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson vanished while swimming off the beach in Venice, California. Out of the ensuing medley of scandal, religion, and ballyhoo was born a mystery that endures to this day. McPherson’s presumed drowning set off paroxysms of grief in her followers. Thousands waited by the surf. Newspapers issued extra editions. Her already considerable fame mushroomed. Her body was not found.

Gossip flew. She had been murdered by the underworld for converting petty criminals. She had snuck off to a love nest with a married man. The whole thing was a publicity hoax. None of the rumors could match the “truth,” which would emerge 36 days later.

Her disappearance created a national sensation. After five anxious weeks, her mother held an elaborate memorial ceremony at the temple. Three days later, on June 23, Aimee walked out of the desert into a Mexican hamlet near Douglas, Arizona.

She had been kidnapped off the beach, she said, by two men and a woman who had chloroformed her and held her for half a million dollars in ransom (Minnie had indeed received a letter demanding this amount, signed by the “Avengers,” but had ignored it amidst a deluge of crank mail). The desperados had transported her to an adobe hut in Mexico and held her prisoner until she saw a chance to cut her bindings on the jagged lid of a can, climb through a window, and trudge for 17 hours across the sands until she reached a town.

The press played the story to the hilt. Obvious contradictions made it even juicier. Her shoes were not scuffed, she was not dehydrated or sunburned, and she was sporting a watch that she had not worn to the beach. An exhaustive hunt for the shack where she had been held proved fruitless. The iron-willed McPherson simply ignored the skeptics and said, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Asa Keyes

And she did, in the face of relentless vilification by envious preachers like “Fighting Bob” Shuler, who led the Los Angeles Church Federation, and members of the local chamber of commerce, who viewed her antics as blemishes on civic decorum. When a grand jury met to investigate the kidnapping, District Attorney Asa Keyes put Aimee herself on trial. He tried to prove that she had spent the time in Carmel, California, living with a former Temple radio engineer with whom she was known to be friendly. The jury indicted no one. Keyes then filed morals and obstruction of justice charges against Aimee and her mother. When a key witness changed her story, he was forced to dismiss the case, leaving it to “the court of public opinion.”

The verdict in that tribunal was equally ambiguous, and the truth remains elusive. Epstein, in his book Sister Aimee, holds out the possibility that if the kidnapping really happened—no one proved that it didn’t—McPherson might have fabricated her story not to cover for an assignation but as a reaction to an unthinkable trauma, presumably meaning rape. The tall tale was “her psyche’s defense against a reality that was worse.”

McPherson emerged from the incident more famous than ever. In an age besotted by celebrity she stood shoulder to shoulder in name recognition with Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh.. But with her characteristic energy, she continued to preach and heal, and during the Depression she organized the largest relief effort in Los Angeles. She died in 1944 from a barbiturate overdose that was ruled accidental. Her funeral was the biggest ever seen in Southern California. 8