HAVING FAITH Chapter One - Drowning
I believe the watch made the lady a liar. She vanished into the surf of a California beach attired only in a modest one piece green bathing suit and cap. She miraculously reappeared five hundred miles away, dry as a bone. She said she had been kidnapped. But in the intervening five weeks the lady had somehow acquired shoes, a dress and a corset...and her wrist watch. Now, why would a kidnapper provide their hostage with her own wrist watch? The miraculous time piece is proof to me that the popular evangelical radio minister Aimee Semple McPherson (above) had not been kidnapped. But that remains just my personal opinion, because the Los Angeles County Prosecutor in 1926 was a major league sleaze ball.
“Through green-white breakers swift I leap,
Sun-sparkled seas by body keep;
Bearer of Gospel-Glory I
With singing angels in my sky...”
At just about 3:30 in the afternoon of Tuesday, 18 May, 1926, a rather plainly dressed middle aged woman, wearing no makeup walked up to the front desk of the Ocean View Hotel, in Santa Monica, California. She gave her name as Miss Emma Shaffer (above), and explained to the deskman that she was the private secretary to the popular evangelical preacher Sister Aimee Semple Mcpherson. Sister Aimee had earlier rented a room, where she changed into her modest bathing suits. Unknown to Miss Shaffer, Aimee also left her wrist watch on the dresser before they had exited the hotel.
After crossing the Venice Boardwalk, the two women had settled on a large towel under a rented umbrella. Sister Aimee had immediately gone into the ocean for a swim, while Miss Shaffer remained onshore. When Aimee returned, she dried herself, sat on the sand and begun to dictate to Emma notes for her next sermon Then, just before three, she sent Miss Shaffer into the Ocean View to phone Sister Aimee's famous Church of the Four Square Gosphel for any urgent matters.
There were none, but when the Emma returned to their umbrella on the crowded beach, Sister Aimee was gone. Assuming her employer was taking another swim, Emma waited perhaps twenty minutes, before running into hotel and asking for help.
“The cripples to my temple crowd,
I heal them, and they shout aloud.
A thousand miles my raptures go
Upon my magic radio.”
Hotel staff searched the beach and the surf, but there was no sign of Sister Aimee. The police were called. A police dog had no trouble finding the missing evangelist’s towel, but only Aimee's scent remained on the sand. One of the most famous women in Los Angeles was missing.
It was too late to make the evening editions of the battling daily newspapers. But overnight The Los Angeles Times, and William Randolph Hearst's Herald American assigned dozens of reporters to the story. Adding in the national press, within 24 hours 500 reporters would be pushing this story. This was big news. Ran the morning headlines back east, “Evangelist Feared Drown.”
“What's this? A terror-spasm grips
My heart-strings, and my reason slips.
Oh, God, it cannot be that I,
The bearer of Thy Word, should die!...”
It is hard to overstate Aimee Semple's influence in 1926. One in ten of Los Angeles' one million citizens claimed to be a member of her evangelical Pentecostal Church of the Four Square Gospel (above), with perhaps three quarters of a million adherents nationwide, thanks to her radio broadcasts.
That Tuesday evening Aimee's mother, Mrs Mildred Kennedy (known as Sister Minnie), preached in Aimee's stead at the Temple on Glendale Avenue (above), delivering the same muscular vibrant faith healing fundamentalist theology, but without the theatrical flair the faithful had come to expect from Aimee. And the first public acknowledgment of Sister Aimee's absence came at the end of the service, when Sister Minnie told the congregation that “'Sister went swimming this afternoon at 20 minutes to three, and she has not come back. Sister is gone. We know she is with Jesus.”
“My daughter's voice, my mother's kiss!
My pulpit-notes on Genesis!
Oh, count the souls I saved for Thee,
My Savior-wilt Thou not save me?”
The next morning, two air planes crisscrossed the stretch of sand (above), a half dozen life boats scoured the waters. A Coast Guard Cutter even sent down divers. By noon the crowd was reported at fifty thousand. The Los Angeles Times reported in its Wednesday evening edition, “To the hundreds of men and women who wait in a huddled and silent mass beneath the open sky...Through the fog-bound, chilling night and then through the weary scorching hours of the day, the followers of the evangelist have kept their places on the sand..."She can't be dead. She can't be dead....God wouldn't let her die. She was too noble. Her work was too great. Her mission was not ended. She can't be dead."...
“Ten thousand to my aid would run,
Bring me my magic microphone!
Send me an angel, or a boat…
The senseless waters fill her throat.”
“In some manner word was spread about,” reported the Times, “that promptly at 2:30 p.m. Mrs. McPherson (above) would arise from the sea and speak to her followers. The appointed time came and many arose to look further out to sea. But it passed without the miracle... At noon, search of the sea was halted as hopeless. The long seine nets stretched from boat to boat which had dragged the ocean floor since Tuesday night were taken in.
A boat containing life guards continued the search alone for a little while longer and then also gave up. The tide was left to do its own work....Only an occasional swimmer ventured into the water near the spot where Mrs. McPherson is supposed to have been drowned during the day. The place seemed to be shunned by bathers...”
“Ten million tons of waters hide
A woman's form, her Faith deride;
While thousands weep upon the shore,
And searchlights seek…and breakers roar…”
That Wednesday, a teenage girl saw Sister Aimee struggling in the waves, and raced into the surf to her rescue. But there was no Aimee, and the girl drown. After that the desperate amateurs were replaced by professional hard hat divers, who walked the sea bed from the Santa Monica Pier to the north, to Ballona Creek, three miles to the south. One of the hard hats, a diver named Ed Harrison, succumbed to exhaustion and died, but still the search continued and no body was found.
By the first of June, the desperate Minnie (above, left) had calculated the exact location of her daughter's remains, and defyance of the California Fish and Game Commission, set off four dynamite charges, hoping to free Sister Aimee's body from the bottom sands. But nothing floated to the surface except a few sacrificial fish. The faithful lined the bay for weeks, spaced a hundred yards apart, walking back and forth, waiting for the sea to give up her dead.
And then, 33 days later, Aimee's body reappeared five hundred miles away, in the middle of the Sonora desert. And almost as miraculously, she was alive.
“Oh, gallant souls that grope for light
Through matter's blind and lonely night!
Oh, pity our minds that seek to know
That which is so—
And piteously have forgot
That which is not! “
Upton Sinclair, “An Evangelist Drowns”
The New Republic, June 30, 1926
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