‘Perry Mason’: Is Sister Alice Based on a Real Person?

[This article contains spoilers for the August 2 episode of Perry Mason.]

Season 1 of HBO’s Perry Mason comes to a close on August 9. The previous episode of the gritty reboot/reimagining of the classic courtroom drama featured a dramatic graveside scene where Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany) tried to raise baby Charlie Dodson from the dead. She failed, and chaos broke out. But as she and her mother Birdy (Lili Taylor) fled, something odd happened. 

Sister Alice preaching
Tatiana Maslany as Sister Alice in Perry Mason | Photograph by Merrick Morton/HBO

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Birdy directed their driver to make a detour, where they encountered a group of people crowded around an apparently abandoned infant. Birdy quickly declared that the baby was Charlie, but a disturbed Alice refused to play along, running from the scene. 

Hopefully, in the season finale, we’ll find out who that baby is, what role Birdy may have played in his mysterious appearance, and what role Sister Alice’s church, the Radiant Assembly of God, played in Charlie’s kidnapping and murder. We may also get more insight into Sister Alice’s past and how she became the face of the Radiant Assembly. The character’s story is strange and fascinating, but what some viewers may not know is that the fictional Sister Alice is inspired by a real historical figure. 

Aimee Semple McPherson inspired the Sister Alice character 

Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson | Bettmann / Contributor

In Perry Mason, Sister Alice is the voice of a Los Angeles megachurch. The services she leads attract hundreds of devoted followers and involve elaborate performances that bring Biblical stories to life. She also hosts a popular radio show. 

All of that is pretty similar to a woman named Aimee Semple McPherson. McPherson — like Sister Alice — was originally from Canada. She converted to Pentecostalism as a young woman, became a traveling revival preacher, and eventually made her way to Los Angeles. Once there, she founded the Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The church’s home base was the impressive Angelus Temple near Echo Park, which had a capacity of more than 5,000. Like Sister Alice, she combined preaching with elaborate theatrical productions and sometimes wore a long, white silk gown. And like Sister Alice’s mother Birdy, McPherson’s mother Minnie was deeply involved in her life and ministry. 

Aimee Semple McPherson was even involved in a kidnapping

Aimee Semple McPherson
Aimee Semple McPherson | Bettmann / Contributor

On the HBO show, Sister Alice is beloved by some but seen by others as a charlatan due to her promotion of faith healing and claims she can raise the dead. Like her fictional counterpart, McPherson also attracted controversy. And as in Perry Mason, one of the most notorious events in her life involved a kidnapping, though in this case, she was the victim (supposedly). 

One day in 1926, McPherson went to the beach to go swimming and then disappeared. Some assumed she drowned, but later police received a ransom note demanding $500,000, according to Slate. A few weeks later, McPherson reappeared in Mexico. She said she’d managed to escape from her kidnappers, though questions were raised about her story, with some suspecting she’d run off with a man with whom she’d been having an affair. The case attracted a ton of media attention, but it didn’t seem to do any long-term damage to her church. 

McPherson died in 1944 of an accidental drug overdose, but the church she founded is still around today. As for Sister Alice, it remains to be seen what the future holds for her. 

The Perry Mason Season 1 airs Sunday, August 9 at 9/8c on HBO.