by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted elsewhere in this blog, the meteoric rise of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and her Foursquare Gospel Church in Los Angeles is one of the most remarkable aspects of regional history during the 1920s. Charismatic, media savvy and innovative in her approaches to her ministry and its outreach, Sister Aimee attracted legions of followers, including large numbers of parishioners at the Angelus Temple in Echo Park, while also attracting critics for her work, her personal life, and her business dealings.
Her most notorious phase came in 1926 when she suddenly vanished and then emerged with a story of how she had been kidnapped. An investigation was launched and she emerged unscathed in the legal sense, if not so in terms of her broader reputation. That incident followed her subsequently and she never had the same reach and pull as prior to the incident. Still, she pressed on and continued to make news regularly.
Today’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is an example of McPherson’s uncanny ability to attract publicity and attention, including regular howlings from her many critics. The Newspaper Enterprise Association press photo, date stamped 19 September 1928, here is of the evangelist kneeling with her son in front of an open suitcase as the pair hold some of her clothing. They were in New York as Sister Aimee prepared to depart on an ocean liner for Europe “to lecture on her gospel in the countries of Europe” as well as to enjoy a vacation.
There was a delay, however, in her departure because of yet another controversy involving a land speculation deal at Lake Tahoe, in which McPherson worked some realtors to sell property, including to adherents of the Foursquare Gospel, and which led to some unhappy parishioners filing civil suits. F.F. Mason, a party claiming to have been a partner in the project sought $70,000 in damages against her and the other partners. It was alleged in these filings that, as a consequence of the evangelist securing some buyers, she would receive a 10% commission, as well as 65 lots, including several for a religious facility and an outdoor amphitheater for the teaching of the gospel.
At the first of September and as Sister Aimee was readying to leave in a couple of days for her long trip abroad, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office stated that developer H.L. Henry “made an offer to make good the amount of money put into the Tahoe project” and that Henry “maintained that no fraud was intended in the transactions. The grand jury investigation, however, was to continue until there was a definite conclusion.
On the 6th, it was announced that a settlement was reached in the Tahoe incident. As reported in the Los Angeles Express, McPherson, the “dynamic pastor” and “stormy petrel,” left Los Angeles late the prior evening by train for her extensive travels while an unstated amount of money, though said to be dollar-for dollar on the original investments, was to be handed over to the investors who sued her and her associates. The paper reported there were “four days of spirited conferences, in which rumors flew thick and fast” about amounts and whether the deal would founder. Mason, it was stated, received just over $50,000 as his settlement amount.
While the evangelist’s counsel Arthur Veitch asserted that she had nothing to do with the settlement, he also represented a Los Angeles civil service commissioner, C.E. Kenyon, Henry, and Ralph Jordan, who was the business manager for publications issued by the Angelus Temple. Moreover, McPherson was due to give a deposition two days later, which, of course, would have delayed her excursion that much more and been juicy fodder for the media. District Attorney Asa Keyes, who later went to San Quentin for a bribery conviction involving the notorious Julian Petroleum scandal covered here previously, ordered the grand jury probe to be halted. The state realty commission, however, was said to be conducting its own investigation, though this appears to have ended quietly.
Meanwhile, there was another morsel of controversy bandied about in the press during this period. During her travails two years prior involving Sister Aimee’s vanishing act, she and her mother, Minnie Kennedy, secured the legal advice of Superior Court Judge Carlos S. Hardy, a major figure in yesterday’s post about the Lois Pantages case, which took place a year later. It was revealed that Hardy was paid $2,500 for his counsel and this raised questions about the propriety of his doing this while seated on the bench and as the grand jury, in August 1926, was investigating possible criminal wrongdoing by the evangelist.
The jurist was blunt in his own defense and told the media that he’d given advice to McPherson and Kennedy for several years prior to that time and had been asked to submit a bill for his services, though he refused until then. He averred that he had no involvement in the alleged kidnapping nor was he prepared to have any formal role in a defense if charges were brought.
Hardy added “I want to make it clear that all conferences with the women were conducted at my home and not at my judicial chambers.” He continued that the counsel he offered was “just as anyone might give advice to a friend, and it was absolutely without any thought of remuneration.” The check, he stated, was not accepted until the grand jury ended its work without preferring charges, though McPherson and her mother were indicted later. When the state bar association announced a hearing would be conducted into the matter, Hardy refused to appear and, by mid-October, it was determined that the association had no standing to rule on the matter and it receded from public view.
Meanwhile, as McPherson headed east, the Whittier News reported that she “goes on her way to fight Satan” and, especially in England, was “going to give the devil something to think about.” Even though there was only an hour lead time in her departure announcement, it was said some 2,000 followers showed up at the station to see their beloved spiritual leader off. As she prepared to board, the evangelist expounded that “The devil has been having an easy time in the British Isles and I expect to give him a little trouble.”
She also had a goal of 25,000 conversions while on her crusade. Among her major stops were nine revivals at the Royal Albert Hall on the 16th, followed by stints at Glasgow and then Ireland and Wales. McPherson denied reports that her trip was of an indefinite duration, as if she were escaping her legal woes and negative publicity in the Angel City, and that she intended to be back in the pulpit at Angelus Temple by Thanksgiving.
On the 11th, the Times briefly noted that, while Sister Aimee arrived in New York (the press photo identified the location of the shoot as the Hotel McAlpin, which still operated at Herald Square), she told the press “she controls 200,000 votes and that she is for Herbert Hoover.” She added, though, that, “as she is going on a six months’ tour of Europe,” she would not be voting (nor would she be preaching in Los Angeles by Thanksgiving.) She noted, though, “she has been supporting Hoover over the radio and in editorials in her church paper.”
During her stay, it was reported that she was so taken with the forest of skyscrapers in the Big Apple that she was filmed expressing her awe for a Fox Movietone segment—these being shown in theaters across the country before the feature film was played. An interesting addendum was that she informed reporters that “while she receives no pay from the Angelus Temple she receives the offering on the first Sunday of every month, average $10,000 each time.” That $120,000 windfall translates to nearly $2 million now.
A little more than a week later, McPherson and her son arrived in Paris, where it was initially reported that “Paris, the so-called modern Babylon, does not seem so wicked as represented” to her. She noted that its denizens “seemed to be hard working,” though she professed a modicum of concern about what she called “open bars” and reporters interpreted as the famed cafes of the City of Lights. She told the press she would stay for a couple of days, go to Switzerland for a vacation, and then head to England.
On the 24th, however, the Express had a headline that blared “Paris Sin Horrifies Aimee,” that she “thinks Satan has got Montmartre,” and that she wished to “save peppy Parisians.” The United Press piece portrayed the evangelist as “shuddering as she traveled a trail thick with champagne corks, scantily clad girls and laughter” and that she found gay “Paree” far more wicked than New York (for one thing, alcohol flowed freely in the former!)
At the Dead Rat Cabaret (yup, it was real!), Sister Aimee was confronted with gigolos who asked her to do the fox trot, but, it was stated, “she begged the men to forsake their riotous living and embrace the greater pleasure of religion.” Alas, the article continued, “they turned away.” She went to “Heaven and Hell,” “Russian Caviar,” and other noted ‘Bohemian” haunts and told reporters after fleeing the “Tabarin” that “my heart nearly stopped when I saw girls, unclothed or nearly so, dancing, singing or riding their chariots all for such pleasures of the flesh.”
McPherson then penned a diatribe on the devilish doings of the Parisians proclaiming “I stood on the brink of hell tonight and looked down inside” at the city that “is the rottenest city in the world at its core.” She thundered that this modern Sodom and Gomorrah “is doomed to certain destruction” as “Satan has blinded you. You are sex mad. You have forgotten civilization. You have reverted to animals, but I know you are hungry for religion and some day I will come back and try to save a few souls.”
She railed against the exploitation of young women and referred to the Montmartre district as “wilder and dirtier than the tinselled dance halls of the old Wild West.” McPherson lamented that “it is too awful to describe” but a judgment was to come “and pay will be demanded for every vile kiss which has crushed the lips of callous companions.” In her disgust, she determined that “Paris is like a whited sepulchre, a burial place of thousands of rotted souls” and hoped she could return to “pull the spiders from the webs where jazz is driving people crazy.”
Yet, as she fled to a quiet Alpine retreat in Switzerland and then prepared to travel to England, she found a similarly histrionic opponent, a Los Angeles preacher named W.E. Piersch. Preaching at the Undenominational Church of Hounslow, the minister railed against Sister Aimee and called her “a twentieth century Jezebel” who “is coming to London to chase out the devil and later pack her bag and get out first.” Piersch told the assembled of McPherson’s notorious “kidnapping” and “her return in all her royal splendor” as the gullible “swallowed her story, hook, line and sinker.” He also chastised her for claims of faith healing of “cripples . . . with hopeful hearts” who “she blesses . . . but they come out the same as they went in.”
Working himself into quite a lather, Piersch exhorted “Don’t let this woman in. Shun her. She will wreck your churches, fill the lunatic asylums and leave a trail of wrecked homes, broken hearts and misery.” Displaying a wee bit of paranoia, the preacher claimed there were those who were trying “to muzzle me” but “I have come here to warn you of the evil of this woman. I am going to talk even if I have to swim home.”
Women from the Foursquare Gospel alliance in London, which sponsored Sister Aimee’s visit, expressed shock over such an attack on a woman on British soil and there were evidently attempts to get the Home Office in the capital to deny McPherson entrance “as an undesirable alien, but she was continued her tour. Back home, a column in the Monrovia News showered Piersch with criticism as “he abuses Mrs. McPherson in no Christian spirit” while concluding that the British likely “do not exactly relish having an American religious squabble threshed out over there.”
Popular Times columnist Harry Carr in his feature “The Lancer” expressed bemusement over Sister Aimee’s diatribe against the Parisians, observing that her “sin tour” turned out to be “more productive of thrills than some I have experienced.” When he went to cafes such as she mentioned, Carr noted “the reckless and alluring young ladies supposed to keep such places in a blaze of merriment and wickedness were always so bored that I felt sorry for them. In fact, they felt sorry for themselves—to the point of tears.”
This photo is representative of the remarkable figure Aimee Semple McPherson was in the City of Angels during the Roaring Twenties, though, by the time, she embarked on her European crusade, she had passed her peak of popularity, influence, and renown. She continued her evangelical mission with fervor, however, through the Great Depression years and into the World War II period, even as she faced frequent legal battles and squabbling within her family.
McPherson’s Foursquare Gospel was still a formidable religious enterprise with several hundred churches in the United States and overseas and well over 20,000 members when she died in Oakland in September 1944 due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Her son, who was sixteen when the press photo was taken, succeeded her and oversaw the operation for forty-four years, retiring in the late 1980s and dying twenty years after that.