The Mystery of the Eccentric Evangelist



By Cora Bullock, Assistant Editor, Fraud Magazine

One of my favorite things about being part of the ACFE is the emails and discussions that fly around about the craziest fraudster news and headlines. One recent story in particular intrigued me. Aimee Semple McPherson was a preacher from the 1920s who left Canada to spread salvation throughout the U.S., finally settling in L.A., which was just teeming with sinners, according to her. I had never heard of her, but her story is incredible. I found a video of her online, preaching about Broadway being the "mecca of sin" (apparently sin stretched coast to coast). She's pretty, dramatic and waves her delicate hands around while bashing sin in the sweetest, most melodic voice, even breaking into song. So, of course, she made the perfect fraudster.

Sister Aimee was at the vanguard of the new technology of radio, and she was the first woman to preach on the airwaves (she ended up owning a station). She wrote plays, started two magazines, hired PR and media people, and her publicity stunts were legend. She would blast out sermons via megaphone from the back seat of her 1912 convertible, and burst into brothels and boxing rings to preach. She eventually opened the Angelus Temple in L.A., an elaborate, 5,000-seat megachurch where thousands went for her supposed healing powers. It featured a huge, lighted cross, so sinners could see it from miles away. The walkway between her house and the church had so many reporters hanging around, ready to report on her every move, that it became known as "newspaper alley." In San Diego, 30,000 attended one revival, which lasted five weeks and required the Marines and Army to help maintain order. She was a rock star at these revivals, dressed in a flowing white gown, speaking in tongues and imbuing the holy spirit into the crowd, supposedly healing the sick, giving sight to the blind. During broadcasts, she even told her radio listeners to place their hands on their radios so she could heal them.

And then one day in 1926, she just up and vanished while swimming. Her followers assumed she was dead and went into mourning, and newspapers reported her death on their front pages. "The Jungle" novelist Upton Sinclair wrote a poem commemorating her, titled "An Evangelist Drowns." One of her followers threw herself into the ocean and drowned, and one of the divers searching for her body died of exposure.

Five weeks later she appeared out of the desert in Agua Prieta, a Mexican town just on the other side of the border from Douglas, Ariz. She claimed she'd been kidnapped and tortured and barely managed to escape. But she was in good physical shape and her shoes weren't even dirty. Rumors spread that she had fled to Mexico with her married lover and concocted the whole story. The inconsistencies in her story caused a frenzy in the press, but two grand juries didn't indict her of perjury. In 1944, she ended up OD'ing on sleeping pills and sedatives.

Stories of such alleged fraudsters that I've never even heard of fascinate me. If you want to find out more stories like Aimee's, be sure to check out the traveling Fraud Museum exhibit at the 24th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference, June 23-28, 2013, in Las Vegas.