From the Archives: Aimee Semple McPherson Dies Suddenly in Oakland


Aimee Semple McPherson died yesterday.

The Evangelist passed away in Oakland on one of her typical “magic carpet” crusades of whirlwind activity.

She was found in bed by her son Rolf, who said that, although unconscious, she was breathing heavily when he entered her room in the Leamington Hotel at 10:30 a.m.

Two doctors and an Oakland Fire Department inhalator squad worked in vain to revive her. She was pronounced dead at 11:15 a.m.


Although death was believed to have been caused by a heart attack, an autopsy, at first scheduled for 6 p.m. yesterday, will be performed at 9:30 a.m. today by Dr. E. F. Schmerl, Oakland autopsy surgeon. The postponement was requested by Rolf, to enable Attorney Joseph Fainer, who handled Mrs. McPherson’s legal affairs, to be present.

Sleeping Capsules Found

The autopsy was ordered after a bottle containing about 20 sleeping capsules was found in her handbag. The bottle was about half full and there were several capsules scattered on the floor beside her bed.

Rolf said that Mrs. McPherson, who would have been 51 on Oct. 9, had been having difficulty in sleeping and that she was “keyed up” after speaking before a throng of 10,000 Tuesday night. She had been taking sedatives to insure rest, Rolf said.

Dr. Norman Leet and Dr. B. M. Palmer, who were called when Rolf was unable to arouse his mother, expressed belief that death had been caused by a heart attack, but added that perhaps Mrs. McPherson had taken too many sleeping tablets.

Doctor Denies Prescription


Although the name of the Los Angeles physician who has attended Mrs. McPherson for the last four years, Dr. Wilburn Smith, was reported to be on a prescription attached to the bottle of sleeping capsules, he emphatically denied last night that he had prescribed the sedative.

“It’s a mystery to me how my name was on that bottle,” Dr. Smith declared.

Dr. Smith said that he last saw the evangelist two months ago and at that time her heart and blood pressure were normal.

Dr. Smith said that while the evangelist was dying in Oakland yesterday morning he received a telephone call from Oakland but was operating at the time and could not answer.

Race Run With Death

After failing to get him, Dr. Smith said that the party in Oakland called another Los Angeles doctor whom Mrs. McPherson also consulted recently. This physician, Dr. Smith said, recommended Dr. Palmer in Oakland.

Inasmuch as Dr. Palmer was one of the two physicians who were finally called to the evangelist’s bedside, it is believed that long-distance telephone lines between here and Oakland ran a race with death — and lost.

Besides her son, Mrs. McPherson was accompanied on the trip to Oakland by Miss Angela Sid, her maid; Norman Nelson, tenor soloist; Rev. Charles William Walkem, an evangelist, and Rev. Grover T. Owens, her public relations representative.

She arrived in Oakland Monday to assist in the dedication of a new Foursquare church, with services continuing until Friday.

Tonight Mrs. McPherson was to have spoken on “The Story of My Life.”

After a spectacular career punctuated by romance, legal battles, adventure and tragedy, the founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel was still shouting “Hallelujah!” to the masses a few hours before her death.

She had ridden in a horse-drawn buggy with customary showmanship to the Oakland Auditorium and lectured on “The Story of My Life.” She was scheduled for three additional revival sermons, “V-Day,” “Great Divine Healing” and High Voltage.”

Adding More to Her Fold

She was adding another unit of her church which was spread to the jungles of the Amazon and to the heart of darkest Africa. The woman who herself had baptized more than 40,000 with water was preparing to add more to her fold.

Mrs. McPherson had been in the public eye for more than a quarter century and the center of her activities was Los Angeles.

Friends and foes — the scoffers who doubted her story of being kidnapped from the beach at Ocean Park in 1926 and being spirited to Agua Prieta, Mex. — were always intrigued by the career of a girl who became known around world by her first name.

That name was “Aimee.”

Throughout her spectacular career she seized the trappings of the theatrical world — huge bouquets, klieg lights, a radio station, a Prayer Tower in which followers had maintained a continuous vigil, day and night for more than 20 years — as an aid in battle to save souls.

Old-fashioned Oratory

Sister Aimee, herself, wearing a large cross about her neck and in flowing white robes, still was using old-fashioned oratory to spellbind her audiences and lead thousands “into the fold.”

“I am not a healer,” she said repeatedly, “Jesus is the healer. I am only the office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’ ”

Her technique — in her huge temple in Los Angeles, in a tent on the prairie, beside the swamp on a distant continent — was the same.

At its peak, the bass horns of a big brass band would boom triumphantly. The “miracle room” at Angelus Temple would open, a museum of crutches and other artificial aids discarded by the halt and the lame after the prayer-induced recovery.

The music would soften into a religious appeal. It would sweep in crescendo in martial strains. Then Sister’s sermon and the climax:

“Ushers! Jump to it!” her vibrant, far-reaching voice would shout, “Clear the one-way street to Jesus.”

She would make a dramatic pause in the blinding spotlight.

Then her cry:

“Come on, sister! Come on, brother!”

And down the aisle they came, first slowly and haltingly. Then in droves. Sobbing, shouting, on crutches, in wheel chairs and on foot came the faithful followers. They would kneel and pray. Sister Aimee would shout hallelujahs for their salvation. She would scatter roses as a benediction for the penitent.

Began in Tent

All this stemmed from evangelism which began in a tattered tent which sometimes was saved from collapse by a rusty nail. It was a successor to evangelism in a two-by-four Canadian rooming house lighted by a flickering kerosene lamp.

Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy she was born on a farm near Ingersoll, Ont., Can., on Oct 9, 1890. Baptized and reared in a home where religion dominated she early was struck by wanderlust.

She was attracted by a sign advertising a Pentecostal mission and against the wishes of her Methodist parents she attended a revival meeting at this undenominational edifice.

Curious, she became a worker in the mission. At the bedside of two sick children she met a tall, fair-haired clergyman, Rev. Robert Semple. They were married when she was 19 and they traveled as missionaries to the Orient where both fell ill of an epidemic fever. Mr. Semple died and shortly thereafter a daughter, Roberta Semple, was born to his widow.

Marries Grocery Clerk

Shortly after returning to the United States she continued her evangelism in the South, where she married a grocery clerk, Harold McPherson. A son, Rolf McPherson, was born to them but this marriage ended in divorce.

Sister Aimee first visited Los Angeles in 1917 and five years later she and her mother, Mrs. Minnie (Ma) Kennedy, had collected more than $500,000 to erect the cream-colored temple opposite the trees and lagoon of Echo Park. On completion with Radio Station KFSG and furnishings, it was valued at $1,500,000.

This structure was dedicated on New Year’s Day, 1923. Four hundred gypsies who acclaimed her as a religious leader were among the throng of the devoted.

Money Pours In

The pennies and nickels of the Chautauqua circuit were now “noiseless” currency which didn’t rattle in the collection plate. And this one service alone $100,000 was raised for the temple.

In years to come this was to be a mere dribble as the Foursquare Gospel expanded to 400 churches in the United States and 200 mission stations abroad.

Yet in depression years a mortgage again weighed on the temple. When the cycle veered upward a few years ago, Sister Aimee again celebrated in spectacular fashion. The mortgage was burned on a New Year’s Eve in a huge urn placed on the roof of the temple dome. Klieg lights played on the evangelist as she lighted the match. A throng of 15,000 jammed the streets below.

“Angels” — temple workers clad in white, with full cloth wings stretching from their shoulders — flitted about on the dome as the triumph of faith over gold was celebrated.

Funds Go to Church

All funds were plowed back into the church. Previous to her death, her attorney said she would leave a personal estate of only $4000.

Undoubtedly the greatest consistent splash of publicity for any woman in modern history began when Sister Aimee, clad in a green bathing suit, walked into the breakers at Ocean Park on May 18, 1926, and disappeared.

For 34 days, thousands of her followers patrolled the beach. A $25,000 reward was offered but later withdrawn. Search lights glared across the waters all night.

On June 23, Sister Aimee stumbled into the border settlement at Agua Prieta, Mex., saying she had escaped from two dark-complexioned individuals name Rosie and Steve.

She told reporters the pair had approached her on the beach at Ocean Park and asked her to administer to their dying baby. When she was taken to a car, she declared they clapped a blanket over her head and she became unconscious when a sponge was pushed onto her nostrils.

Steve burned her fingers with a lighted cigar attempting to elicit information (the nature of which was never disclosed) while she was driven to a one room shack in Mexico, Sister Aimee said.

The evangelist declared she used a jagged tin can to slash the ropes. Doubtful critics insisted her clothing, especially her shoes, failed to show sufficient wear to make her story credible.

Sister Aimee’s return to her temple was triumphant. Crowds jammed the tabernacle nightly.

Story Contradicted

Contradictions of her story came from many sources. The Los Angeles County grand jury heard testimony but returned no indictment. Several weeks later the District Attorney’s office filed a complaint against Mrs. McPherson, her mother, Mrs. Minnie (Ma) Kennedy, Kenneth G. Ormiston, former radio operator at the temple, and Mrs. Lorraine Wiseman Seilaff.

The complaint charged conspiracy to obstruct justice and to prepare false evidence. It alleged Mrs. McPherson “pretended she had been kidnaped” but that instead she spent 10 days in a cottage at Carmel with Ormiston. The radio operator denied this and subsequently the charges were dismissed at the request of Dist. Atty. Keyes. Investigations had failed to shake the story.

Sister Aimee began several world tours. In 1930 the British administration of Palestine asked her to leave Jerusalem because Moslem troubles might be aggravated by her evangelism.

Stricken Ill in 1931

She was stricken with a nervous breakdown in 1931 and members of her congregation maintained a “death watch” in the tower.

Roberta Semple fell in love with a ship’s purser, William Smyth, and they were married. Rolf fell in love with Lorna Dee Smith, a temple Bible student and married her. “Ma” Kennedy, long a widow, fell in love with Guy Edward (What-a-Man) Hudson, a traveling salesman, and was married to him.

Of the three marriages, Rolf’s has been the only one that lasted. Roberta was later divorce and married an orchestra leader, Harry Salter.

Sister Aimee herself eloped by plane to Yuma on Sept. 13, 1931, with David L. Hutton, rotund and jovial baritone in her choir. Almost on the wedding night, Hazel Joan St. Pierre announced she was suing Hutton for breach of promise. She was a nurse who once had treated him. She got a $5000 judgment.

Divorce Ends Marriage

On a trip to Central America with Hutton, Sister Aimee contracted a serious tropical ailment. She was recovering from this illness and a nervous breakdown when she learned of the breach-of-promise suit judgment. The information caused her to faint and she fell to a concrete floor, suffering brain concussion. The marriage to Hutton ended in a 1934 divorce.

Stories about Sister Aimee are legion.

In preaching to millions she was hailed by her followers as a miraculous healer. Every time she spoke her temple was jammed. She entered Texas Guinan’s famed New York night club, was hailed by the trademark greeting, “Hello, Sucker” and announced she was warring against sin.

Names Assistant

She appointed Rheba Crawford Splivalo, the “Angel of Broadway,” as associate pastor of the temple in 1935. This friendship was ruptured in 1937 when Mrs. Splivalo filed a $1,080,000 slander suit against Mrs. McPherson. The suit later was settled.

This was the 45th suit against Sister Aimee in 14 years. Most of the cases were dismissed.

Mrs. Kennedy, estranged from her daughter in recent months, went into seclusion at her Hermosa Beach home when she learned of the death.

Atty. Fainer announced that Rolf, temple business manager, is authorized both by Mrs. McPherson’s will and through other arrangements to assume the presidency and pastorship of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel of Angelus Temple and its branches throughout the world.

Dr. W. B. Teaford, temple dean, said Mrs. McPherson’s body will lie in state when it is brought here. Pilgrimages are expected from every State and Canada. Tentative arrangements are for funeral services to be conducted Sunday for the Canadian farm girl who carried the gospel throughout the worlds