In 1926, Sister Aimee disappeared. She left with her secretary to go for a swim at Ocean Park Beach near Venice Beach. The secretary left to run some errands leaving Aimee at the beach swimming and having some fun. When she returned, Aimee couldn't be found anywhere. After a thorough search without finding a trace of Aimee, people presumed she drowned in the Pacific ocean. That night, Minnie "Ma" Kennedy took Aimee's place at the pulpit declaring, at the end of the sermon, that "Sister is with Jesus" sending the congregation into a frenzy of mourning.
People gathered at the beach praying, searching and mourning in a very public way. All of the commotion drew a lot of press coverage and the press coverage drew more mourners. The Los Angeles Examiner, owned by William Randolf Hearst, added fuel to the fire as did Upton Sinclair's poem about the tragedy, "An Evangelist Drowns".
Exhaustive searches were conducted by divers who worked themselves to exhaustion with one dying from exposure. A teenage girl drowned when she dove into the water thinking that she saw Sister Aimee in the water.
A month into the tragedy after a memorial service, Minnie received a ransom note signed by the Avengers demanding $500,000 for Sister's safe return. Convinced that Aimee was dead, Minnie threw the note away.
After 32 days, Aimee comes walking out of the Mexican desert across from Douglas, Arizona into a small town called Aqua Prieta, Sonora. She came out of the desert telling a tale of being drugged and tortured while she was being held for ransom in a filthy shack. There were two kidnappers, a man and a woman, Steve and Mexicali Rose. Aimee claimed she escaped from the shack and walked 13 hours to safety. She said that while she was swimming she was approached by a couple who wanted her to pray over their sick child. When she went them them to pray, they drugged her and took her to Mexico.
The thought that someone might want to kidnap Sister Aimee was definitely not hard to believe. But her story stretched credibility with her claim of walking 13 hours through the desert in clean clothes and shoes with grass stains when she was kidnapped in her bathing suit and there isn't much grass in the desert. Her story was very holey and not in a religious way.
Suspiciously, there was another disappearance as the same time - Kenneth Ormiston. Ormiston, a married man, was an engineer at KFSG, the radio station owned by the Foursquare church. Ormiston and Aimee developed a close relation while working together during broadcasts. Rumors started going around that Aimee and Ormiston, an acknowledged agnostic, were shacked up together during the kidnapping incident. There were other rumors including Aimee having an abortion, recovering from plastic surgery or it was just a publicity stunt.
While investigating the alleged kidnapping, several witnesses came forward saying they recognized a couple matching Aimee and Ormiston's description. It seems the couple was seen visiting hotels and resorts up and down the West Coast.
Before a grand jury could be convened, the District Attorney charged Aimee with obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. When the grand jury was convened they heard more testimony from witnesses who saw the couple in Carmel, California and they reviewed testimony from handwriting experts who testified that the handwriting on registration cards from several hotels was Aimee's.
In spite of the evidence to the contrary, Aimee stuck to her kidnapping story and stuck to it like glue. The grand jury found no evidence to indict Aimee and the charges were dropped. While her popularity took a hit, it didn't last long. She was forgiven though she never admitted anything.
In the 1930's Aimee fell in love and eloped with David Hutton, a singer and actor who played a part in one of Aimee's illustrated sermons. The marriage was considered scandalous because it broke one of the rules that Aimee herself helped set up. A divorced person was not supposed to marry as long as the former spouse was still alive. Harold McPherson was still alive. Many people saw this marriage as a case of do as I say, not as I do on Aimee's part. This cost her respect with her congregation.
Hutton, who at 30, was 10 years younger than Aimee (which was scandalous enough), brought his own scandals to the marriage. Two days after the wedding, Hutton was named in a breach of promise suit by a woman named Hazel St. Pierre. Though he swore that he never met the woman, the judge in the lawsuit ordered Hutton to pay $5,000. Upon hearing that news, Aimee fainted and fractured her skull. To add to the humiliation, after the divorce, Hutton billed himself as "Aimee's Man" in his cabaret act.
It seems that Aimee did love the men. Though there was never another large scandal like the alleged kidnapping or her third marriage, people talked. She was forever the target of gossip. There were rumors that she kept a private apartment where she would meet men for discrete assignations. She allegedly had an affair with her ghost writer and, according to Milton Berle's autobiography, he met her twice at the apartment.
Though the alleged kidnapping was the most controversial and famous scandal surrounding Aimee, remember that she was human and human means fallible. Yes she was a minister, but she was a woman and she was a woman in a very lonely position when women were supposed to stay at home and raise children. It must have been a difficult life.