A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has any famous person ever succeeded in faking his own death?

September 21, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Has anyone ever actually faked his own death and assumed another identity? I am speaking of public figures like Elvis, Hoffa, and the like, not the ordinary insurance scam. I know there are lotsa theories out there, like JFK and Elvis and Hoffa on a desert island having a hoot and so forth, but what's the straight dope?

Cecil replies:

As always, I consulted the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board and got this reply from Czarcasm: "What, you mean besides Elvis, Hoffa, and JFK?" These guys are a million laughs.

Right off the bat I can't think of anybody famous who disappeared and assumed another identity permanently (I assume you're not interested in Nazi or other war criminals), but I know of a few who did so briefly. I've already told the story of mystery writer Agatha Christie, who disappeared for 11 days in 1926. After her car was found abandoned, 15,000 volunteers searched the countryside. Turns out she'd checked into a health spa under an assumed name. Why was never made clear, but her husband had been cheating on her publicly and maybe she just flipped out. Anyway, she returned home, divorced the lying son of a bitch, and lived reasonably happily ever after.

Curiously, another celebrity also vanished earlier in 1926 — maybe that's where Christie got the idea. The desaparecida was Aimee Semple McPherson, a radio evangelist whose eloquence and showbiz flair drew thousands to her Los Angeles temple every week. When not giving sermons, "Sister Aimee" liked to swim. On May 18, leaving her secretary on the beach, she swam out into the ocean and didn't come back. There was a huge uproar. A massive search failed to turn up the body. The newspapers churned out extras as ten thousand followers kept vigil on the shore.

Rumors swirled. Some said she hadn't drowned but had been eaten by a sea monster; others said the whole thing was a publicity stunt. She was sighted more times than Elvis — 16 times in one day, in locations all over the country. The coroner refused to issue a death certificate. On June 20, McPherson's mother received a ransom note from "the Avengers" demanding $500,000.

Three days later the evangelist showed up in Agua Prieta, Mexico, just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She told a bizarre story. She had been wading in the surf when a couple lured her into their car with a story about a dying child. She was chloroformed, driven to a two-room shack in the desert, and held there by two men and a woman. A few days later the men left, then the woman announced she was going into town for supplies. McPherson cut her bonds on the jagged lid of a five-gallon syrup can. Once free, she walked across the desert for 17 hours before collapsing inside the gate of a house.

But the story was fishy. The shack she'd described could not be found. Despite her supposedly lengthy trek, she was not dehydrated or sunburned, and her dress showed no signs of sweat. Her shoes weren't scuffed or worn except that she had somehow contrived to get grass stains on them in the desert. She was wearing a watch given to her by her mother that she hadn't taken to the beach, and so on. The cops searched halfheartedly for the kidnappers while hundreds of reporters tried to figure out what McPherson had really been up to. Soon it was reported that she had spent ten days in the seaside resort town of Carmel, California, with Kenneth Ormiston, her radio engineer, with whom she was thought to be having an affair.

A grand jury hearing on the kidnapping turned into an interrogation of McPherson. A woman claimed she had been bribed by McPherson and her mother to say that she, not the evangelist, had been with Ormiston in Carmel. Despite McPherson's protestations that she was an innocent victim, she was indicted for obstruction of justice, along with Ormiston and others. The story filled the newspapers for months and became an embarrassment for Los Angeles civic leaders. Finally William Randolph Hearst's Examiner reported that the district attorney was dropping the charges. The DA declared he was doing no such thing but eventually took the hint, saying the evidence was too confused to permit prosecution.

What really happened? The story doesn't make sense any way you look at it. McPherson's kidnapping yarn was silly, but if all she wanted was a tryst with Ormiston there were a dozen easier ways to have one than faking an abduction. I've yet to hear a persuasive account of the whole mess. McPherson returned to preaching but remained a controversial figure for the rest of her life, dying of a sedative overdose in 1944. So, could a famous person successfully fake a disappearance with today's tabloids on the case? Maybe Hoffa et al pulled it off, but I say fat chance.

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