The Mysterious Disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson
Oral Roberts told his television audience that God would call him home if he didn’t raise $8 million in donations. Roberts didn't raise it and God let him hang around another 22 years. Long before Oral, Aimee Semple McPherson was a media evangelist before the term was invented.
Of her followers McPherson said, “I have the passionate devotion of thousands. If the papers tomorrow morning proved that I had committed eleven murders, those thousands would still believe in me.” Evangelists who came later, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, and others could have learned lessons from her. Aimee was a national sensation, speaking on radio, featured in the news.
The founder of the Four Square Church, she seemed to hover angel-like above the Los Angeles firmament during the 1920s and 1930s. When not glowing in the adoration of her followers, she lived life her way.
Florence Lowe, better known as Pancho Barnes, also lived life her way. Born to great wealth, going slowly broke, and an expert horsewoman, Pancho was also an aviatrix, or female aviator, of the era. Pancho visited Aimee's Four Square Church, and felt something in common with her.
In her unpublished biography, Pancho wrote, “Aimee was quite a girl. She would come to the [Ambassador Horse Shows] dressed in side saddle attire.” She would ride her horse and “parade around and talk to people.”
She rode her horse Radiant into a kind of tunnel, which fed into the ring. Inside the tunnel, she and Pancho changed places, both of them identically dressed. Then Pancho rode fast around the ring, her head hunched, riding so fast that the crowd took her for Aimee. Back in the tunnel, Pancho jumped off and Aimee remounted to cool Radiant by letting the horse walk slowly around the ring. The crowd clapped, and the limelight was Aimee’s, though she paid Pancho well for the ruse.
Pancho recalled that when the offering was passed in Aimee’s Temple, McPherson asked the congregation “not to desecrate the Temple with the vulgar clinking of change." By quietly placing folded bills onto the plates, people could show greater respect for God as they passed the offering on to the next person. Metal was vulgar; paper, holy.
McPherson led a double life. "She drank and smoked with the best of them," according to Pancho.
On May 18, 1926, she went for a swim north of Venice Beach, California, and did not reappear.
Newspaper headlines shouted the mysterious disappearance of Sister McPherson, and the public bought copy after copy as day after day the police found no sign of her anywhere. Had she been murdered? Kidnapped? At a service in the Temple, her mother gave a sermon and announced that “Sister is with Jesus.” Some thought she had been lifted away, the rapture coming for her alone. Parishioners cried. The devoted had vigils at Venice Beach. A man swam out to sea to look for her and drowned.
Thirty five days later, on June 23, the press announced that she had been found in the Sonoran desert town of Agua Prieta, Mexico, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona.
It had been horrible, Sister Aimee claimed. She had been kidnapped, drugged, and tortured. She had been imprisoned in a shack in Mexico, but she outfoxed her captors. She escaped and walked thirteen hours across the desert to Agua Prieta.
Desert?, asked the press. Her shows were not dusty, not worn. They had grass stains. Green grass. She disappeared wearing a bathing suit. She re-emerged fully and nicely dressed.
A grand jury was convened to investigate, but without evidence or credible witnesses, all charges against McPherson were eventually dropped.
Her parishioners never doubted her. Those not her parishioners had other opinions. Folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a song about her and it pointed to a bed. Seeger wrote that at a hotel with her lover, "the dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose."
Pancho saw horseman Joe Flores as the lover, saying “It was a pretty well understood thing around Flores' barn that when Aimee made her disappearance act, Joe went with her."