At a healing, the lame must walk, the tubercular breathe, or at least some of them, otherwise the faithful could become disillusioned — especially those who failed to mend — and the preacher castigated. “There is no job in the world so thankless as praying for the afflicted,” McPherson wrote years later. “But I have been forced into this sort of thing by public demand.”
Historian Carey McWilliams, McPherson’s longtime neighbor and friend, admired her “goodness and kindness,” and refusal to face negativity, but deplored her literal-mindedness and reactionary politics. He saw two sides to her ebullient spirit. “Being in love with her must have been rather like living in a one-room apartment with a radio going full blast night and day.” At the same time, “The most important factor in her success was the way she substituted the cheerfulness of the playroom for the gloom of the morgue.
“Seemingly quite by accident,” McWilliams added, “she had discovered that healing sessions were immensely valuable as attractions.”
On January 15, 1921, to increase audiences at Dreamland, McPherson laid hands during the evening service. As people sang “Nearer My God to Thee,” she encouraged the sick and the lame to come forward. “I cannot heal you,” she cautioned, and “If you doubt that He can, you will not be cured.”
One of the first to climb into the ring, William T. Ewing, said he had been deaf since the Civil War. As the audience swayed to “Nearer My God,” and some local ministers prayed, McPherson anointed Ewing’s forehead with oil. She clutched his hands and raised her head. She didn’t command him to heal. Instead, a witness recounted, she “invited him to join with her in total belief.”
Ewing’s eyes popped open, as if alerted by a strange sound. “I can hear!” he proclaimed. “I CAN HEAR!!”
The crowd exploded, waving hundreds of handkerchiefs and shouting “Amen!” The roar, like the cannon-fire that had made him deaf, startled Ewing so much he covered his ears with his hands.
A mother carried an ashen-faced infant wrapped in a dusty blanket to the stage. “She accidentally drank a mixture of gasoline and kerosene,” the woman said, “which burned its way down her little mouth” and closed her throat. She couldn’t eat or drink. After six operations, “doctors gave her up to die.” McPherson prayed. Someone brought a glass of water. The infant took a sip, swallowed freely.
The woman in white rocked back, as if struck by lightning, then exclaimed, “Who could resist a savior such as this?”
“Did Mrs. McPherson aid any of the score of suppliants?” a Union reporter asked the next day. “Emphatically yes, if [their] testimony is to be believed.”
By evening’s end, a pain-wracked horde surrounded the ring and clogged the aisles. Some waved crutches, others bandaged limbs. All pleaded: “Me! Take me!” An exhausted McPherson raised her right hand for silence. Although she’d planned only two more of these sessions, she said, now she would devote the next two weeks to “divine healing.”
During that time, north downtown became thick with cars, some double-parked on the street, some on sidewalks. Discarded crutches and canes leaned against Dreamland’s brick facade. Packed houses crammed both the 2:30 and 7:30 services. On January 20, McPherson added a 10:30. Another 3000 people came, but she was too tired to lead it. She had to sneak away to avoid scores of invalids outside, begging for aid. When she took off her shoes, a witness said, water spilled out.
“As soon as one was healed,” McPherson wrote, “she ran and told nine others, and brought them too, even telegraphing and rushing the sick on trains.” People camped in their cars. Few hotels had vacancies. Dreamland was so stuffed with humanity that every room — including a walk-in refrigerator — became a place of prayer. Overflow crowds went to the Lutheran Church a block away.
As she entered the arena for a service, trying not to trip over wheelchairs in the aisles, extended arms and voices hounded her: “Sister — when — Sister what about — Cancer — tumor — Benny’s rheumatism — mother’s cataract — varicose veins — husband’s paralysis,” McPherson wrote. “A dozen people are all pulling us in different directions and trying to talk at once…each in their trembling eagerness interrupting the other till our heads are whirling with confusion.”
Her only refuge became the place she dreaded: the boxing ring. “Oh those welcome ropes! So now we realize, as never before, why Christ got into a row boat and pushed away from land in order to talk uninterruptedly to the clamoring and needy throng.”
People discovered the friend’s house where she was staying. The phone rang nonstop. Some came to testify. Others spoke only in groans. Mothers thrust babies through her open bedroom window. McPherson moved to a hotel near Balboa Park, where clerks and bellhops promised secrecy in exchange for reserved seats and registration cards for the sick.
One afternoon between services, McPherson was running late. She only had time for a quiet, five-minute meal of steak and potatoes (“to keep up our strength”) at the hotel’s cafeteria. She sat alone. A woman came to the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but isn’t this Sister McPherson?”
When told yes, the woman replied, “Oh! I’m so glad,” and waved across the room. “Papa! Come over here and sit down. We can talk to Sister as she eats.”
A man in his late 60s held a brown-stained handkerchief to his neck. “Papa has a cancer. It is so painful — and raw, just like that steak.”
McPherson shuddered and pushed her plate away. She couldn’t eat another bite. For once, her goodness and kindness vanished.
The woman kept describing her father’s agony. Then stopped. “Oh,” she said, “I’m so sorry,” and escorted him out.
The contract concluded after five weeks at Dreamland. But McPherson “had only touched the fringe of that great multitude clamoring for prayer.” In her hotel room across from Balboa Park, she envisioned the unthinkable. The reservation system at Dreamland never worked. They tried to admit only those who hadn’t come before; they devoted nights to specific groups: service men, employees of department stores, various religious denominations. They extended the run twice, even held services at other churches. And still the multitudes grew.