Year of the Scandalous Divas

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

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The year 1926 produced three scandals that gripped the world’s attention while they were unfolding and in the years since, have fired the imaginations of scores of writers.

On May 18th, the charismatic and theatrical evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappeared while swimming at Venice Beach near Los Angeles.  Famed for elaborately staged performances at her Angelus Temple, she was one of the most photographed and widely quoted women of her time.  Her disappearance caused a media frenzy.  Presuming she had drowned, her parishioners gathered in the thousands to hold seaside vigils.

Soon, however, the Temple began receiving ransom notes and rumors spread of an illicit romance between Aimee and a married employee.  Had she been kidnapped, or had she forsaken the ministry for the pleasures of the flesh?  Would her kidnappers sell her into white slavery as threatened, or was she resting in the arms of Jesus as her mother insisted?

After six weeks of sensational headlines and wild surmise, Aimee staggered out of the Arizona desert with a dubious tale about having been drugged and held captive by a threesome identified by the district attorney as Steve Doe, Mexicali Rose Doe, and John Doe.  When Aimee returned to L.A., low-flying airplanes showered her with roses and a crowd of 50,000 turned out to greet her.  But the more details she shared about her ordeal, the hinkier they sounded.  The sheriff discovered a love nest in Carmel and a grand jury was convened to inquire into the shenanigans of the “red-headed sorceress.”  Allegations surfaced that she had perjured herself and bribed a witness.  The circus atmosphere intensified.  H.L. Mencken described the proceedings as “an orgy.”

Meanwhile, the east coast was embroiled in its own circus trial featuring Frances Noel Stevens Hall, a wealthy socialite with ties to all the best families.  She could hardly have been pleased when she learned that her husband, an Episcopal priest named Edward Hall, was carrying on with a canary in the choir.  When the lovebirds were found murdered, Frances became the prime suspect.

The staging of the crime scene gave fresh meaning to the saying “hell hath no fury.”  The reverend had been shot once in the head, but the pretty singer took three bullets pointblank to the face before her throat was cut and her tongue sliced out.  The murderer then posed the bodies side-by-side, wrapping Edward’s arm around his lover’s shoulders and placing her left hand on his right thigh.  For a crowning flourish, the killer tore up their love letters and sprinkled the scraps like confetti across the bodies.

The newspapers had a field day.  Frances had motive, means, and opportunity, plus the alleged assistance of her two brothers.  But the chief witness for the prosecution proved unreliable and there wasn’t enough evidence to convict.  Frances stormed out of court vowing to sue for defamation, but the spotlight had already shifted to another drama brewing across the Atlantic.

On December 3rd, Archibald Christie informed Agatha that he wanted a divorce and stalked off to spend the weekend with his mistress.  A few hours later, the queen of detective fiction drove away in her Morris Cowley and vanished.  The discovery of the abandoned car, hood up at the bottom of an embankment, electrified the press on two continents.  Thousands of police and volunteers scoured the countryside.  Ponds were dredged and the police interviewed relatives and suspects, including Archie.  Dorothy Sayers rushed to investigate and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle consulted a psychic.

Her Boyfriend's BonesHad Archie murdered his wife and disposed of the body?  Had she been waylaid by thugs?  Or had she perpetrated an outrageous publicity stunt to boost sales of her latest book?  The country buzzed with speculation.  After eleven days, a snooping reporter found her in a Yorkshire spa, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.

The press pilloried her just as they did Aimee.  But whereas Aimee said too much, Agatha said nothing at all. Those of the hell-hath-no-fury persuasion believe she had intended to commit suicide and frame Archie for her murder, but couldn’t go through with it.  Others think Archie’s infidelity threw her into a psychogenic fugue state, rendering her unable to recognize her own face plastered across the front page of every newspaper.

We can never know exactly what happened to these extraordinary divas during their days of personal crisis and public humiliation.  Aimee stuck to her story and eventually, the charges against her were dropped.  She resumed her ministry and went on to found the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  Frances lived for twenty years after her acquittal and when she died, was buried beside her faithless husband.  Agatha remarried and published another ninety-three novels.

Sinclair Lewis, Nathaniel West, and Evelyn Waugh based fictional characters on Sister Aimee.  A slew of biographies have been written about Agatha.  And just for the record, there’s a lot of Frances grafted onto a certain character in Her Boyfriend’s Bones.

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2 thoughts on “Year of the Scandalous Divas

  1. Wow, Leila, thanks for this, as a former reporter and a writer who depends on history to supply context to my stories, and dish up a few real live villains in my own story, Murder at the P&Z, I appreciate the role history plays in our mysteries. This is fascinating. And, I’m surprised more people haven’t written about Agatha’s disappearance, I read about it long ago, but haven’t read a word in years, so this is long overdue. Christie use to say that her husband is an archeologist and the the older she got the more interested he was! I loved the quote, but alas, it failed to bare out.

  2. Wow! Truth — if indeed we can call these stories true — is stranger than fiction! I loved the scandalous nature of the history lesson!

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