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Kid Smith was disgusted. For three rounds, the iron-jawed middleweight took the fight to Jimmy Meyers, but their bout ended in a draw. After a monster right almost cracked his ribs, Meyers steered clear, and his timidity put the packed house at Dreamland Boxing Arena in a foul mood. The week before, they’d paid top dollar to watch two heavyweights wallflower for ten rounds. The 3000 fans cursed as Meyers left the ring and promoter Jack Keran — who promised gladiatorial fury in every match — climbed in, followed by, of all things, a woman. She was maybe five-foot-three, a tad stocky, with auburn hair piled high. Her starched, white muslin outfit and high-button shoes made her look like a nurse.

Standing in the center of the sweat-and-blood-smeared canvas, the woman — late 20s, early 30s — looked nervous. So did Keran, who forgot to remove his hat in her presence. When the crowd quieted down, he announced her as an evangelist — Mrs. Aimee Semple McPherson — and shook as he spoke.

“San Diego needs a revival!” she shouted in a frayed, contralto voice.

The pent-up mob erupted. Waves of boos and hoots hit her like flurries of punches. Someone shouted, “Heaven peddler!”

The woman announced that starting the next day — Thursday, January 6, 1921 — she would hold revival meetings at the arena. Everyone should come and “bring the worst sinner in San Diego!”

At those words, the Union reported, “many of our prominent citizens ducked their heads.” People yelled familiar names. “Hard-faced women,” smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, pointed at their escorts. “And for a few seconds” Dreamland became “squirmish and uncomfortable.”

Then a man in the back row nominated Roseben, the great thoroughbred who’d lost — some said tanked — his last three stakes races. The crowd roared approval.

Alert to the moment, the woman changed her tune. She would battle Satan and, raising her fists, said, “I certainly shall thump him hard!” Many cheered, and the woman left the ring feeling, she wrote later, that she had met “the Devil on his own ground.” Back in the car, she confessed relief, not knowing “whether to laugh or cry.”

When she appeared at Dreamland, Aimee Semple McPherson had yet to become a household name. “The San Diego meetings,” writes Edith Blumhofer, set the tone for the year.” By the end of 1921, “a succession of such crusades made Sister a national phenomenon, headline news everywhere.”

McPherson scheduled a three-week run at the arena, but stayed for five, and held two days of revivals at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park. While in San Diego, she discovered how to draw huge numbers. Her goal was saving souls, but the lure became “healing services,” laying hands on the sick.

When she arrived, McPherson saw “a dear little city…the ‘joy of the whole earth’ might well be written on its portals.’ ” San Diego, however, “needed a revival if ever a city did.” Satan lurked in “this harbor and port, wrecking the bodies and souls of hundreds of young men and women upon the rocks of immorality, gaiety, dancing, smoking, gambling, drinking; for Mexico is but 18 miles away, and Tia Juana [its] Monte Carlo…eats like a festering sore into the purity and morals of them whom the Devil tempts.”

McPherson found Dreamland, at the corner of First and A streets, north of the train depot, to be doubly iniquitous. The two-story structure had a boxing arena downstairs, and the Dreamland Marina Dance Hall, where they played the devil’s music, upstairs.

Overnight, McPherson’s crew converted the arena. Palm fronds and pepper-tree boughs hung from pillars and posts. They replaced the overhead shade with one advertising Jesus. They hoisted a grand piano into the ring, which they scoured as white as McPherson’s simple dress, and wove carnations, orange blossoms, and calla lilies into the ropes. McPherson fretted about having to speak in-the-round for the first time, since the audience sat on all four sides. “Will we ever be able to make them all hear?” she asked, in a time before microphones.

For the first meeting, it didn’t matter. The ringside seats were full, the bleachers behind them empty. Jesus came to San Diego, she proclaimed, “and was astounded at the many evils…card parties, theaters, and…” — her gaze rose upward — “dance halls, of girls and houses of sin…and beneath the velvet and paints of the wealthy, he saw their evil too.”

McPherson mentioned healings during her six years on the tent-and-sawdust circuit: a blind man recovering his sight in Philadelphia; a girl cured of spinal trouble; prostitutes mending their ways on the Barbary Coast. The service — which a biographer called “a fluid form of religious theater” — included rousing gospel songs, McPherson banging out the beat on a tambourine. That old-time religion, she sang, “is good for San Diego / And it’s good enough for me.”

She conducted meetings twice daily, an afternoon “teaching service,” and an evening revival. Audiences remained small.

Across America in 1921, female evangelists were a contradiction in terms. In San Diego, however, they were practically a tradition. Katherine Tingley, “the Purple Mother,” had set up her Theosophical Society at Point Loma. In 1905, Teresa Urrea, the “Saint of Cabora” and icon of the anti-Díaz Mexican revolt, came to San Diego and performed healing wonders. As did 72-year-old Maria Woodworth-Etter, her voice barely audible from decades of preaching, in 1916. In effect, San Diego was more than accustomed to female evangelists. From them, it expected miracles.

McPherson had a “something,” a gift she couldn’t explain any more than could Urrea, or Woodworth-Etter, or James Moore Hickson, the internationally renowned Episcopalian faith healer whose cures, unlike most, often lasted well beyond the service. McPherson never took credit. “If the eyes of the people are set on me, nothing will happen…. I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only the little office girl who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’ ”

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Comments

rickeysays Sept. 9, 2009 @ 9:05 p.m.

The power of snake oil salesmen to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of people never ceases to amaze me, and it never goes away. It also amazes me how the sight of people enjoying their lives in ways others don't approve of will inspire the most herculean efforts at saving those people from themselves. "The many evils…card parties, theaters,..... “dance halls, of girls and houses of sin.....gaiety, dancing, smoking, gambling, drinking." Sounds like a good time to me.

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helenaf Sept. 10, 2009 @ 7:14 a.m.

Thank you for writing this article!
May the Lord pour out His Spirit on San Diego again with signs wonders and miracles unto the salvation of many!

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David Dodd Sept. 12, 2009 @ 12:29 a.m.

I don't know how far you plan on taking this one, Jeff, but folks not familiar with Sister Aimee are in for a real treat. I offer only one spoiler, that might not be mentioned in what you continue with since it's Los Angeles related, but our blessed Sister Aimee is one of a handfull of women that could have possibly attested to the rumored size of Milton Berle's, um... shall we say, "Ability to entertain?"

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Jeff Smith Sept. 12, 2009 @ 10:58 a.m.

RefritoG McPherson's biographers, including her most recent one, Matthew Sutton, shoot that rumor down. Berle, they say, also had a big mouth. Berle says it happened twice in 1930. But, writes Sutton, "McPherson spent much of 1930 sick and in bed, so she could not have had many opportunities to meet Berle." This is not to say that McP wasn't averse to, um, entertainment. She was the first to claim that she was never a saint.

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steamreader Feb. 4, 2013 @ 6:38 p.m.

"The healings present a monstrous obstacle to scientific historiography. If events transpired as newspapers, letters, and testimonials say they did, then Aimee Semple McPherson's healing ministry was miraculous. ...The documentation is overwhelming: very sick people came to Sister Aimee by the tens of thousands, blind, deaf, paralyzed. Many were healed some temporarily, some forever. She would point to heaven, to Christ the Great Healer and take no credit for the results." Daniel Mark Epstein (p111 Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson).

McPherson was invited back to town after town.

Good luck trying to top that, snake oil salespeople

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steamreader Feb. 4, 2013 @ 6:46 p.m.

Her supposed affairs, there is really nothing to tell, its just the stuff of old ladies leaning on backyard fences. Plenty of gossip, but never a single thing anyone can put their finger on.

As for the supposed story Milton Berle told in his 1974 autobiography of his two occasions of delight with her:

One has to realize Milt was probably telling some sort of an cerebral cougar joke: 1--he is a comedian, that's what he does 2--She was 20 years his elder COUGAR 3--she was sick half the time flat on her back or out of the country on a trip in 1930, 4--yes he tapped that without anyone else noticing, including his public dinner out with her, a--her chauffeur, who supposedly drove Milt to her, twice, but never said anything b--the Milt claimed charity benefit he worked with her at no one could locate on her calendar, or anyone else ever remembered her attending 5--the apartment by the sea daughter Roberta said she never had
6--Crosses yes, crucifixes as Milt described, unlike Catholics she was not comfortable with the dead man hanging off of them. Period Photographs show her with crosses, not crucifixes. If one was used, it was part of the larger illustration when Jesus executed by the Romans. Hers was a glorious resurrected Jesus Christ. 7--Milt waited until she was 40 years dead until he told his tale. An earlier book he published in 1939 has no such claim. 8--a gentleman never Kisses and tells, while Milt told even of women he never kissed. 9--there was more than "a handful of women," if the far more numerous allegations about Milt and his mother are even fractionally true there, there is little doubt the promiscuous Milt remembers a woman whose name is phonetically enounced "Amy," but it was not of the McPherson variety.

Anyway, I thank you for reminding us of all the work she did in helping, healing all those many multitudes of people..

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