By 10:00 a.m., when McPherson finally crossed the bridge and drove under the arch toward the Plaza de Panama, Mrs. Kennedy had distributed over 500 cards.
They parked the car on circular curbing near the pavilion.
Dressed all in white with a blue serge cape — like a military nurse, wrote a biographer — McPherson ascended the broad platform and saw a sea of dark coats and hats that filled not only the pavilion but all surrounding areas. The San Diego Union made a “conservative” estimate of between 7000 and 9000. Police and park commissioners said that “through the day” — as some left and others took their place — 30,000 people attended. In order to see, photographers and reporters had to stand on rooftops, above beige facades filigreed like wedding cake for the 1915 Exposition.
Beneath fleecy clouds and waving date palms, McPherson identified “pale and emaciated faces; some almost skeletons, human bodies in cages of steel and plaster; the children devoured with the results of Tia Juana’s sins.” She heard “no jesting, and very little talking and at first seldom a smile.” She felt guilty she had kept them waiting.
On the platform she joined a choir, a Salvation Army band — piano, coronet, and trombone — and local ministers from many denominations. She raised her hands. The crowd hushed. She knelt. “Dear Lord, here we are, just the same poor, old, heart-broken, sin-stricken world that we were when you walked upon the earth…”
After the prayer, McPherson asked, “How many of you have friends you would like to see healed?” Thousands of handkerchiefs zig-zagged in the air.
“Everybody stand,” she shouted. “Everybody! Everybody who held up their hands!” The assemblage rose to its feet.
“Higher!” she shouted.
The mass stood on tiptoe, faces turned upward, and prayed out loud for two minutes.
The line of sufferers started down the aisle. Those who could held both arms in the air. Ushers, wearing green labeled “Fisher” checked registration cards. And the process began, accompanied by soft organ music.
McPherson dipped her fingers into a silver cup and anointed each forehead with oil. Then she prayed: “Oh Lord, Jesus, in Thy name we command this paralysis [or deafness, or goiter, or cancer] to fall like a mantle that is worn and old.”
Some proclaimed instant healing. One man, a cripple, danced a jig down the platform steps. He threw his crutches into the audience and yelled, “Use ’em for firewood!”
Some claimed relief from symptoms. Others, wrote McPherson, stood “like a piece of wood, while we pray for them.” They have come “to see if we can heal. Of course, we have no power within ourselves and try to get their eyes on Jesus.”
A man in the front row, wearing a three piece suit, stood up and shouted “Weeeee!”
“Sit down, Charles,” his wife fussed, grabbing his coattails, “You’re forgetting yourself! Sit down!”
By one o’clock, McPherson had prayed over 380 sufferers. Dr. Lincoln E. Ferris, of the First M.E. Church, announced that she needed a break. As aides escorted her toward a door at the side of the great organ, the procession stopped. Cries of hurt, anger, even betrayal shot from the line. “Thousands of eyes,” McPherson recalled, “jealously” watched her leave. “Each moment we lose will mean another disappointed one will be sent away without a touch of prayer.”
Drenched, she changed into another starched white muslin dress. Though not hungry, she ate two sandwiches and wondered, “Who would have believed there was so much sickness and suffering in the world!”
“Whether by accident or design,” wrote historian Carey McWilliams, her neighbor in Los Angeles, “Aimee had selected the predestined setting for her emergence as a miracle woman.”
During the late 19th Century and into the 20th, an estimated one in four newcomers to San Diego came for their health. The army sent all soldiers with TB to the military hospital; the navy requested one as well. Sanitariums dotted the landscape. The suicide rate was highest in the country. San Diego became a “jumping-off place,” wrote Edmund Wilson, “where the coroner’s records are melancholy reading indeed. You seem to see the last futile effervescence of the…American adventure.”
Another result, spawned by the devastating flu pandemic of 1918 — which almost took the life of McPherson’s daughter, Roberta — was a distrust of traditional medicine, especially in San Diego, which became known as “the sick man’s paradise.”
Fifteen minutes later, McPherson emerged through the door. The crowd erupted. The procession, on the right side of the platform, moved forward again. For over two hours, she prayed for supplicants.
By 3:30, the sun had fallen behind the pavilion’s 75-foot bandbox and into a cloudbank. “Swaying and dizzy through the long strain and anxiety of knowing that so many cannot possibly be reached in the remaining time,” McPherson sped up her healing. She moved from one to the next in less than a minute. “The day is going,” she told herself between blessings, “yet we have made no great inroads upon the endless rows of sick and crippled.”
She tried not to panic, but read it in “hungry faces.” The once orderly line began nudging forward, punctuated by “cries of distress” from the rear: “Will they get to me?” “Will I ever be able to walk?”
The day darkened. McPherson, who often improvised her performance, made an instinctive move: “Thinking to reach more in a shorter time,” she hopped down the platform steps to “pray from seat to seat.”
At the foot of the stairs, the throng swarmed the white figure — grabbing, shoving her back. As police and marines tried to rescue her, a surge of supplicants trampled invalids and mothers holding infants. Pleading hands tossed barriers and bodies aside, canes and crutches swung like weapons. Breathless, as if drowning, McPherson raised her arms. Police and marines raced to her side, formed a phalanx, and ushered her up the stairs to the platform.
She clung to a banister, “for protection and, incidentally, for support,” still praying for her flock.