Madalyn Murray O'Hair PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 16 September 2010 10:48

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Born: April 13, 1919, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Died: September 29, 1995, San Antonio, Texas, USA

Age: 76

Cause of death: Murdered by David R. Waters

Notable because: Lawyer who advanced atheism significantly. In 1963, objecting to her son being forced to recite the lords prayer daily at school, she brought a legal action. This led to two landmark judgments of the U.S Supreme Court banning compulsory prayer and Bible reading in schools funded by public money citing the doctrine of separation of the Church and the State. In 1964 was called 'The most hated woman in America.'

Madalyn Murray O'Hair was an American atheist activist, and founder of the organization American Atheists and its president from 1963 to 1986. Her son, Jon Garth Murray, was the president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she remained de facto president during these nine years.

She is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending government sponsored prayer in American public schools. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."

In 1995 she was murdered, along with her son and granddaughter (whom she had adopted), by David Roland Waters.

Madalyn Mays was born in the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 1919, to Lena Christina Scholle and John Irwin "Irv" Mays. As an infant, she was baptized into the Presbyterian faith. In 1937, she graduated from Rossford High School in Rossford, Ohio.

In 1941, she married John Henry Roths. They separated when they both enlisted for World War II service, he in the United States Marine Corps, she in the Women's Army Corps. In April 1945, while posted to a cryptography position in Italy, she began an affair with an officer, William J. Murray, Jr. Murray was a married Roman Catholic, and he refused to divorce his wife. Mays divorced Roths and began calling herself Madalyn Murray, and gave birth to a boy she named William J. Murray and nicknamed "Bill."

In 1949, Murray completed a bachelor's degree from Ashland University. In 1952, she completed a law degree from South Texas College of Law, however she failed the bar exam and never practiced law. In later writing for American Atheists, she referred to herself as "Dr. O'Hair," likely with regard to her law degree (a juris doctorate), although it is not standard practice for individuals in the United States with law degrees to do so. On November 16, 1954 she gave birth to her second son Jon Garth Murray, fathered by her boyfriend Michael Fiorillo.

She and her two children traveled via ship to Europe with the intention of defecting to the Soviet embassy in Paris and residing in the Soviet Union. The Soviets denied them entry. Murray and her sons returned to Baltimore, Maryland in 1960.

Murray stated that she worked for seventeen years as a psychiatric social worker, and that in 1960 she was a supervisor at the Baltimore city public welfare department.

In 1960, Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System, in which she asserted that it was unconstitutional for her son William to be required to participate in Bible readings at Baltimore public schools. In this litigation, she stated that her son's refusal to partake in the Bible readings had resulted in bullying being directed against him by classmates, and that administrators condoned this. After consolidation with Abington School District v. Schempp, the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1963. The Court voted 8-1 in Murray's favor, which effectively banned coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation at public schools in the United States. Thereafter, she declared herself to have been the leader of the movement to remove prayer from public schools. However, her son William later noted that there were several similar cases before the Supreme Court at the same time, and her case simply happened to be decided first.

Murray left Maryland in 1963 after she allegedly assaulted five Baltimore police officers who came to her home to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend. In 1965, she married U.S. Marine Richard O'Hair. Although the marriage resulted in separation, she remained married to him until his death in 1978.

O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in regards to the Apollo 8 Genesis reading. O'Hair wished the courts to ban US astronauts—who were all Government employees—from public prayer in outer space. The case was rejected by the US Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction.

O'Hair constantly challenged and publicly debated religious leaders and public figures on a variety of issues. She described herself as a "sexual libertarian" and stated that children in sixth grade should be given sex education and "be allowed to go at it without supervision or restriction -- in their parents' bedroom, on the grass in a park", and so forth. She felt that relationships between people, emotional or sexual, were not open to any kind of supervision by other people and especially not by the U.S. government.

Following her arrival in Austin, Texas, O'Hair founded American Atheists, "a nationwide movement which defends the civil rights of non-believers, works for the separation of church and state and addresses issues of First Amendment public policy." She acted as the group's first chief executive officer.

O'Hair was the voice and face of atheism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, therefore making her a highly controversial figure. Her son, William, described her as, "profane and vulgar," and said his mother had several grotesque statues of mating animals displayed in her home. In a 1965 interview with Playboy Magazine, she claimed religion was "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense."

In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair gave a lengthy list of alleged incidents of harassment, intimidation and even death threats against her and her family for her views. She read several profane letters she received in the mail, with content including one that said, "May Jesus, who you so vigorously deny, change you into a Paul." In response, O'Hair told the interviewer, "Isn't that lovely? Christine Jorgensen had to go to Sweden for an operation, but me they'll fix with faith – painlessly and for nothing." She stated that she left Baltimore not from fear of prosecution for assaulting police officers, but instead because of persecution from Baltimore residents, including receipt of mail containing photos smeared with feces, the strangulation of her son Jon-Garth's pet kitten, and the stoning of her home by neighborhood residents, which she claimed caused her father's fatal heart attack.

She filed several lawsuits on issues over which she felt there was a collusion of church and state in violation of the United States Constitution, including a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore demanding they assess and collect taxes on property owned by the Catholic Church.

O'Hair founded an atheist radio program in which she criticized religion and theism, and a television show she hosted, American Atheist Forum, was carried on more than 140 cable television systems.

O'Hair was the very first guest on The Phil Donahue Show, when it debuted as a local program in Dayton, Ohio on November 6, 1967; she would make several appearances on the program during its run. Host Phil Donahue would later call her message of atheism "very important," but said that O'Hair was "unpleasant" to be around and that she mocked him off-camera for being Catholic.

O'Hair remained a polarizing figure into the 1980s. She served as "chief speechwriter" for Larry Flynt's 1984 presidential campaign, and continued to be a regular talk show guest. Jon Murray succeeded her as leader of the American Atheists; he was not liked by many in the organization, and various chapters seceded from the main group. In 1991, the remaining local/state chapters were dissolved.

In the 1990s, American Atheists amounted to O'Hair, her son Jon Murray, her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, and a handful of support personnel. (Robin, the daughter of William Murray, was adopted by Madalyn. William had not seen nor spoken to any of them in many years.) The trio lived together in O'Hair's large home, they went to the office together, they vacationed together, and they returned home together.

On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, Jon, and Robin suddenly disappeared. The door to the office of American Atheists was locked with a typewritten note attached (apparently with Jon's signature), stating "The Murray O'Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo." When O'Hair's home was entered, breakfast dishes were sitting on the table, her diabetes medication was on the kitchen counter, and her beloved dogs had been left behind without a caregiver.

In phone calls a few days later, the trio claimed that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. A few days later, Jon ordered US$ 600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000.

Until September 27, American Atheist employees and friends received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither would explain why they left or when they would return; while they said nothing was amiss, their voices sounded strained and disturbed. After September 28, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.

Speculation abounded on the cause and meaning of O'Hair's disappearance. Some hypothesized that the O'Hairs had abandoned American Atheists and fled with the money. One investigator working for Vanity Fair, after looking at evidence presented to him by former employee David Roland Waters, concluded that they had escaped to New Zealand.

Exactly one year after the disappearance, William Murray filed a missing persons report. He had previously stated that he would not file such a report due to the inevitable media attention that it would bring. He also noted the lack of evidence of foul play, stating, "I don't want to search for people who don't want to be found." The O'Hairs were declared legally dead, and many of their assets were sold to clear their debts.

Ultimately, a murder investigation focused on David Roland Waters, who had worked as a typesetter for American Atheists. Not only did Waters have previous convictions for violent crimes, there were several suspicious burglaries during his tenure, and he pleaded guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing $54,000 from American Atheists. In the wake of the disappearance, Madalyn Murray O'Hair's estranged son William Murray publicly stated that his mother had a tendency to hire violent criminals because "She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life." 

Shortly after his theft of the $54,000 was discovered, O'Hair had written a scathing article in the 'Members Only' section of the American Atheists newsletter exposing Waters, the theft and Waters' previous crimes, including a 1977 incident in which Waters allegedly beat and urinated upon his mother. Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways.

The police concluded that Waters and his accomplices had kidnapped all three O'Hairs, forced them to withdraw the missing funds, gone on several huge shopping sprees with the O'Hairs' money and credit cards, and then murdered all three people. Danny Fry, an accomplice, was murdered a few days after the O'Hairs; his body was found on a riverbed with its head and hands severed and missing, but his remains were unidentified for three and a half years. Waters eventually pleaded guilty to reduced charges.[citation needed]

In January 2001, Waters informed the police that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and he subsequently led them to the bodies. When the police excavated there, they discovered that the O'Hairs' bodies had been cut into dozens of pieces with a saw. The remains exhibited such extensive mutilation and successive decomposition that identification had to be made through dental records, by DNA testing and, in Madalyn O'Hair's case, by the serial number of her prosthetic hip.. The head and hands of Fry were also found at the site.

The gold coins extorted from the O'Hairs were put in a storage locker rented by Waters' girlfriend. Waters had taken out $80,000 and partied with his girlfriend for a few days, but upon his return he discovered that the remaining $420,000 had been stolen. A group of thieves operating in that area had a master key to the type of lock which Waters used to secure the locker. In the course of their activities, they came across the locker, used the master key to open it, and found a suitcase full of gold coins. They eventually spent all but one, which the police recovered.

Waters was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In addition, he was also ordered to pay back a total of $543,665 to the United Secularists of America and to the estates of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray-O'Hair. It is unlikely that any of these debts were paid, because Waters had no ability to earn money while in prison. Waters died of lung cancer at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina on January 27, 2003.

There was some criticism of the Austin Police Department's apparent apathy about the disappearance. Austin reporter Robert Bryce wrote:

"Despite pleas from O'Hair's son, William J. Murray, several briefings from federal agents, and solid leads developed by members of the press, the Austin Police Department (APD) sat on the sidelines of the O'Hair investigation...Meanwhile, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office are working together on the case....a federal agent was asked to discuss APD's actions in the O'Hair case. His only response was to roll his eyes in amazement."

Madalyn Murray's lawsuit which resulted in the removal of compulsory prayer from the public schools of the United States has had lasting and significant effects. Until the lawsuit, it was commonplace for students to participate in many types of religious activities while at school, including religious instruction itself. Nonreligious students were compelled to participate in such activities and were not usually given any ability to opt out. The Murray suit was combined with an earlier case, so the Court may have acted without Madalyn's intervention. With the success of the lawsuit, the intent of the Constitution with regard to the relationship between church and state again came under critical scrutiny and has remained there to this day. While students do pray in public schools to this day, even in organized groups (such as "See You at the Pole"), the lawsuit disallowed schools to include prayer as a compulsory activity required of every student. The success of O'Hair's lawsuit led to subsequent lawsuits by Mormon and Catholic families in Texas in 2000 to limit compulsory prayer at school-sponsored football games.

In 1980, William Murray was baptised at a Baptist church in Dallas, where he took up work as a preacher. This led to a permanent estrangement between mother and son. As she put it, "One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess; I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times...he is beyond human forgiveness."

Murray spoke critically and regretfully of his mother after her disappearance, and characterized her social activism as being motivated by a love of hedonism and a need for dominance:

"When I was a young boy of ten or eleven years old she would come home and brag about spending the day in X-rated movie theaters in downtown Baltimore.... My mother’s whole life circulated around such things... It was love of power over people that finally caused not only her death, but the deaths of my brother and my daughter... My mother was an evil person... Not for removing prayer from America's schools... No, she was just evil. She stole huge amounts of money. She misused the trust of people. She cheated children out of their parents' inheritance. She cheated on her taxes and even stole from her own organizations. She once printed up phony stock certificates on her own printing press to try to take over another atheist publishing company....Regardless of how evil and lawless my mother was she did not deserve to die in the manner she did."

Murray claimed his mother had illegally stashed "tens of millions" away. He attempted to gain "guardianship" over his missing mother and brother's assets, declaring they had stolen money, and said, "My brother had a tendency to fall for con games and con artists".

In an episode of City Confidential that covered O'Hair, a former employee of American Atheists stated that another former employee had told him of a foreign bank account where O'Hair had deposited $18 million of American Atheists money. He noted that he had heard the story from someone and, therefore, that it was technically hearsay. He then said that he himself had seen a New Zealand bank statement showing a balance of $1.2 million of American Atheists money in New Zealand currency, which then translated to between $800,000 and $900,000 in American currency.

O'Hair's notoriety lives on through a decades-old urban legend. In one version, an e-mail claimed "Madeline Murray O'Hare  is attempting to get TV programs such as Touched by an Angel and all TV programs that mention God taken off the air" (the e-mail invariably misspelled O'Hair's name). It cited petition RM-2493 to the FCC which had nothing to do with O'Hair, and which was denied in 1975, concerning the prevention of educational radio channels being used for religious broadcasting. A variant acknowledging her death was circulating in 2003, still warning about a threat to Touched by An Angel months after the program's last episode had been aired. In 2007, similar e-mails were still being reported, twelve years after O'Hair's disappearance and long after her confirmed death.

A 2009 variation of Petition 2493 (without the RM- prefix) on the Fox News blog claims O'Hair's organization wants the "Removal of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Charles Stanley, David Jeremiah and other pastors from the air waves," and Dr. James Dobson asks petitioners to send responses and donations to "Lisa Norman". Dr. Dobson denies any involvement.

Between the time of O'Hair's disappearance and the discovery of the corpses, a comedic play called The Last Days of Madalyn Murray O'Hair in Exile was written by Dave Foley.

The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Author: Bryan F. Le Beau
Manufacturer: NYU Press
Amazon Price: $27.00
Offers - Buy New From: $27.00 Used From: $21.70
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Editorial Review:

In 1964, Life magazine called Madalyn Murray O’Hair “the most hated woman in America.” Another critic described her as “rude, impertinent, blasphemous, a destroyer not only of beliefs but of esteemed values.”

In this first full-length biography, Bryan F. Le Beau offers a penetrating assessment of O’Hair’s beliefs and actions and a probing discussion of how she came to represent both what Americans hated in their enemies and feared in themselves. Born in 1919, O’Hair was a divorced mother of two children born out of wedlock. She launched a crusade against God, often using foul language as she became adept at shocking people and making effective use of the media in delivering her message. She first gained notoriety as one of the primary litigants in the 1963 case Murray v. Curlett which led the Supreme Court to ban school prayer. The decision stunned a nation engaged in fighting “godless Communism” and made O’Hair America’s most famous—and most despised—atheist.

O’Hair led a colorful life, facing assault charges and extradition from Mexico, as well as the defection of her son William, who as an adult denounced her. She later served as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt’s chief speech writer in his bid for President of the United States.

Drawing on original research, O’Hair’s diaries, and interviews, Le Beau traces her development from a child of the Depression to the dictatorial, abrasive woman who founded the American Atheists, wrote books denouncing religion, and challenged the words “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on American currency, the tax exempt status of religious organizations, and other activities she saw as violating the separation of church and state.

O’Hair remained a spokesperson for atheism until 1995, when she and her son and granddaughter vanished. It was later discovered that they were murdered by O’Hair’s former office manager and an accomplice.

Fast-paced, engagingly written, and sharply relevant to ongoing debates about school prayer and other religious issues, The Atheist tells the colorful life-story of a woman who challenged America’s most deeply held beliefs.


America's Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Author: Ann Rowe Seaman
Manufacturer: Bloomsbury Academic
Amazon Price: $90.00
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Editorial Review:

Why did Life Magazine dub her "the most hated woman in America"?

Did she unravel the moral fiber of America or defend the Constitution?

They found her heaped in a shallow grave, sawed up, and burned. Thus ended Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the articulate "atheist bitch" whose 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case ended school prayer. Her Christian-baiting lawsuits spanned three more decades; she was on TV all over the country, foul-mouthed, witty, and passionate, launching today's culture wars over same-sex marriage and faith-based initiatives.

She was a man-hater who loved sex, a bully whose heart broke for the downtrodden. She was accused of schizophrenia, alcoholism, and embezzlement, but never cowardice or sloth. She was an ideologue who spewed toxic rage even at the followers who made her a millionaire. She was a doting mother who accosted people to ask them to be sexual partners for her lonely children, and whose cannibalistic love led her children to their grave. She thrived on her fame, but just as the curtain of obscurity began to lower, the family vanished in one of the strangest of America's true crimes.

This is the real story of "the most hated woman in America," by the only author to interview the killer and those close to him and to witness the family's secret burial in Austin, Texas.

From the First Chapter
The sky was gray and drizzling, but it had stopped at the funeral home by quarter to nine. Billy Murray hadn't spoken to his three family members for more than twenty years, but he wanted to give them a decent burial.

Bill was an ordained minister, but he didn't pray over the charred, sawed-up remains. "Baptists don't pray for the dead," he said. "They either accept Christ before they died or they didn't."

He had his mother cremated in accordance with her oft-expressed wish. Her urn sat at the head of the burial vault, as was appropriate, for she had ruled the other two with an iron hand. She was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 76, founder of American Atheists, and the Most Hated Woman in America-a sobriquet she relished.

The other two were his half-brother, Jon Garth Murray, 40, and his daughter, Robin Murray-O'Hair, 30. It had taken five years to find them and bring them to the cemetery for the service, which was kept secret from the public.

It was their second burial. Jerry Carruth, the prosecutor who had searched for the family for nearly four years, had watched them being excavated from their shallow mass grave on a South Texas ranch some months before. He was watching the shoveling, looking for the hip replacement joint Madalyn had gotten in 1988. When they found that, he'd know he'd found Madalyn.

"There it was," he said, "shining in the sun like a trailer hitch."


UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Author: Ted Dracos
Manufacturer: Free Press
Amazon Price: $25.00
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Editorial Review:

Obscene, belligerent, obsessive, and brilliant, the infamous and outrageous Madalyn Murray O'Hair succeeded in becoming "America's Most Hated Woman." Now award-winning journalist Ted Dracos reveals the incredible true story of the life and murder of the woman who changed the religious habits of an entire nation.

As the woman who won a longshot, landmark Supreme Court case to ban prayer in public schools -- and also the millionaire murdered for her ill-gained money -- Madalyn Murray O'Hair was one of the most powerful personalities of the twentieth century. Investigative reporter Ted Dracos presents an amazing account of O'Hair's life -- a story that is rare in the annals of crime and is truly stranger than fiction.

With impeccable research based on thousands of pages of court records, nearly one hundred interviews in fourteen states, and never-before-released documents UnGodly traces the self-anointed atheist high priestess from her public skirmishes with the law through her remarkable legal maneuverings and her schemes to siphon off enormous sums of money from the foundations she created. O'Hair's private life proves as bizarre as her public life. UnGodly also explains for the first time the full story of the kidnapping and murder of O'Hair, her son, and granddaughter -- a grisly multiple murder masterminded by a genius ex-con who hoped to pocket nearly a million dollars worth of loot in a pitiless and cunning plot.

Fearless, combative, and domineering, O'Hair led one of the most unforgettable -- and almost unbelievable -- lives in American history. UnGodly -- a seamless blend of biography and murder mystery -- is a chilling portrait of a fascinating, complex woman whose life finally became a living hell.


Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell , Matthew Fox

Author: Lawrence Wright
Manufacturer: Vintage
Amazon Price: $16.00
Offers - Buy New From: $8.31 Used From: $3.74
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Editorial Review: In this fascinating book about religion in America, one of this country's most probing yet sympathetic journalists puts forth stories not only of real grace but of despair, sexual scandal, and attempted murder.

Lawrence Wright's Saints and Sinners are Jimmy Swaggart, who preached a hellfire gospel with rock 'n' roll abandon before he was caught with a, prostitute in a seedy motel; Anton LaVey, the kitsch-loving, gleefully fraudulent founder of the First Church of Satan; Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose litigious atheism sometimes resembled a brand of faith; Matthew Fox, the Dominican priest who has aroused the fury of the Vatican for dismissing the doctrine of original sin and denouncing the church as a dysfunctional family; Walker Railey, the rising star of Dallas's Methodist church, who, at the pinnacle of his success, was suspected of attempting to murder his wife; and Will Campbell, the eccentric liberal Southern Baptist preacher whose challenges to established ways of thinking have made him a legend in his own time.

By letting us listen to their voices and see the individuals in all their complexities, Lawrence Wright has written a richly fascinating book about the passions, triumphs, and failures of the life of faith.


What On Earth Is An Atheist!

Author: Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Manufacturer: American Atheist Press
Amazon Price: $18.00
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Editorial Review: This is the first book Madalyn Murray O'Hair ever wrote. It is composed of transcripts of her landmark 1968 Atheist radio broadcasts made under the aegis of the Society of Separationists, the parent organization from which American Atheists Inc. later developed.

This corrected new edition allows you to join Madalyn as she expounds upon an avalanche of theological and political topics: government giveaways of property to churches; the real 'religious foundations' of the United States; the philosophical and historical foundations of Atheism; Atheist thinkers and writers of various epochs; the dozens, not legions, of Christian martyrs put to death in antiquity; errors and absurdities of the Bible; and more.


Last Updated on Thursday, 16 September 2010 11:04

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