Aimee Semple McPherson (October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), also called Sister Aimee, was a 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, which she drew upon through the growing appeal of popular entertainment in North America.
On May 18, 1926, McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach north of Venice Beach to swim. Soon after arriving, McPherson was nowhere to be found. It was thought she had drowned.
McPherson was scheduled to hold a service that day and her mother Minnie Kennedy preached the sermon instead, saying at the end, "Sister is with Jesus," sending parishioners into a tearful frenzy. Mourners crowded Venice Beach and the commotion sparked days-long media coverage fueled in part by William Randolph Hearst's Los Angeles Examiner and a stirring poem by Upton Sinclair to commemorate the tragedy. Daily updates appeared in newspapers across the country and parishioners held day-and-night seaside vigils. One parishioner drowned whilst searching for the body and a diver died from exposure.
Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for KFSG, had also disappeared. Some believed McPherson and Ormiston, who was married, had developed a close friendship and run off together. After about a month her mother received a ransom note (signed by "The Avengers") which demanded a half million dollars, or else kidnappers would sell McPherson into "white slavery." Kennedy later said she tossed the letter away, believing her daughter was dead.
Shortly thereafter, on June 23, McPherson stumbled out of the desert in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She claimed she had been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by two people, Steve and Mexicali Rose. Her story also alleged that she had escaped from her captors and walked through the desert for about 13 hours to freedom.
However, her shoes showed no hint of a 13-hour walk in the desert but rather, carried grass stains. The shack was not found. McPherson had vanished wearing a bathing suit. She returned fully dressed, wearing a wristwatch (a gift from her mother) which she had not taken on the swimming trip. A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but adjourned 12 days later citing lack of evidence to proceed.
Five witnesses claimed to have seen McPherson at a seaside cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea. One claimed to have seen Mrs. McPherson at the cottage on May 5 (he later went to see her preach at Angelus Temple on August 8, to confirm she was the woman he had seen at Carmel). His story was confirmed by a neighbor who lived next door to the Carmel cottage, by a woman who rented the cottage to Ormiston (under the name "McIntyre"), by a grocery clerk and a Carmel fuel dealer who delivered wood to the cottage.
The grand jury reconvened on August 3 and took further testimony along with documents from hotels, said to be in McPherson's handwriting. McPherson steadfastly stuck to her story, that she was approached by a young couple at the beach who had asked her to come over and pray for their sick child, that she was then shoved into a car and drugged with chloroform. However, when she was not forthcoming with answers regarding her relationship with Ormiston (now estranged from his wife), the judge charged McPherson and her mother with obstruction of justice. To combat the bad newspaper publicity, McPherson spoke freely about the court trials on her private radio station.
Theories and innuendo abounded, that she had run off with a lover, that she had gone off to have an abortion, taken time to heal from plastic surgery or had staged a publicity stunt. The Examiner newspaper then reported that Los Angeles district attorney Asa Keyes had dropped all charges, which he did on January 10, 1927.
The tale was later lampooned by Pete Seeger in a song called "The Ballad of Aimee McPherson," with lyrics claiming the kidnapping had been unlikely because a hotel love nest revealed "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose."