Aimee Semple McSanford.

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June 24 2009 5:11 PM

Aimee Semple McSanford

Gov. Mark Sanford's disappearance echoes a notorious 1926 incident.

Aimee Semple McPherson.
Aimee Semple McPherson

Mark Sanford's sudden disappearance and subsequent confession to an extramarital affair is so deeply odd that at first it would seem an episode without precedent in American history. In fact, though, it is a less-brazen replay of Aimee Semple McPherson's faked kidnapping in May 1926.

Sister Aimee is poorly remembered today, but in her time she was infinitely more famous than the South Carolina governor. A Pentecostal minister and proprietress of the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood (seating capacity: 5,000), McPherson was the first evangelist to build a massive broadcast audience—the broadcast medium in this instance being radio. In a 1977 American Heritage article, William B. Hamilton described her method:

The cause of Aimee's success was not her so-called Foursquare Gospel: biblical infallibility, conversion, religious healing, and the imminent return of Christ. It was her vibrant personality, unconventional preaching, and, especially, her flair for drama and publicity that won her the loyalty—and money—of her people. Aimee gave them a show, and they were willing to pay for it. Angelus Temple was fitted out with a stage on which Sister enacted sacred operas and religious tableaux. Dancing devils complete with hellfire and pitchforks were routed before the eyes of the assembly by the godly gunfire of Aimee's Army.

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On May 18, 1926, Sister Aimee disappeared while swimming near Venice Beach. Many believed she'd drowned, but McPherson's mother received a ransom note from a group called "the Avengers." If she did not pay $500,000, the note threatened, the Avengers would sell Sister Aimee into white slavery! The mystery of McPherson's disappearance became a huge national story—much bigger than Sanford's—and after 32 days, McPherson surfaced on the Mexico-Arizona border. She claimed she'd been kidnapped, tortured, and drugged by two baddies named Steve and "Mexicali Rose" and that she'd finally escaped by sawing through her ropes with the sharp edge of a tin can and walking 13 hours across the desert. (Sanford's purported quiet hike along the Appalachian Trail is a poor substitute.) Hollywood filmmakers instantly dramatized her story.

The trouble was, her story was deeply suspicious from the start. Her shoes were unscuffed, the Mexican shack where she claimed she'd been held could not be located, and although she'd disappeared from sight wearing a bathing suit, she reappeared fully clothed. Prosecutors became so frustrated with McPherson that they went after her for perjury. The investigation that followed uncovered considerable evidence that Sister Aimee had in fact run off with her lover, an employee and radio engineer named Kenneth Ormiston. But this was never proven, in part because McPherson, unlike Sanford, never, ever flinched from repeating her quite obviously untrue story. Although the press thereafter viewed her as a fraud, McPherson returned to her ministry, which she continued until she died (from an overdose of sleeping pills) in 1944. After her death, her son Rolf became pastor of the Angelus Temple. When Rolf died earlier this month at age 96, it was observed, "He didn't have the charisma that she did."

That, Gov. Sanford, is what we call panache.

AP Video: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford Admits Affair

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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