Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Madalyn Murray O'Hair.jpg
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 1983
Born Madalyn Mays
(1919-04-13)April 13, 1919
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died September 29, 1995(1995-09-29) (aged 76)
San Antonio, Texas
Cause of death
Nationality American
Education South Texas College of Law
Alma mater Ashland University
Occupation Founder and president of American Atheists
Known for Abington School District v. Schempp (Supreme Court case)
Religion None
Children William J. Murray and Jon Garth Murray

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (born Madalyn Mays; April 13, 1919 – September 29, 1995),[1] who also used multiple pseudonyms (her most preferred being M. Bible),[2] was an American atheist activist, founder of American Atheists, and the organization's president from 1963 to 1986. She created the first issues of American Atheist Magazine. One of her sons, Jon Garth Murray, was the president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, while she remained de facto president during these nine years.

O'Hair is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending official Bible-reading in American public schools in 1963. This came just one year after the Supreme Court prohibited officially sponsored prayer in schools in Engel v. Vitale. After she founded the American Atheists and won Murray v. Curlett, she achieved attention to the extent that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America".[3][4]

In 1995 she was kidnapped, murdered and mutilated, along with her son Jon Garth Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, by David Roland Waters, a convicted felon out on parole, and fellow career criminals Gary Karr and Danny Fry. Waters was a member of the American Atheists from February 1993 to April 1994, first as a typesetter and later as office manager.[5]

Early life[edit]

Madalyn Mays was born in the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,[6] on April 13, 1919, to Lena Christina (Scholle) and John Irwin "Irv" Mays.[7] As an infant, she was baptized into the church as a Presbyterian.[8] 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 a relationship with an officer, William J. Murray, Jr., a married Roman Catholic who refused to divorce his wife. Mays divorced Roths, adopted the name Madalyn Murray, and gave birth to a boy whom she named William J. Murray III (nicknamed "Bill").

In 1949, Murray completed a bachelor's degree from Ashland University.[9] In 1952, she received an LL.B. degree from the then unaccredited South Texas College of Law; however, she failed the bar exam and never practiced law.[6] On November 16, 1954, she gave birth to her second son, Jon Garth Murray, fathered by her boyfriend Michael Fiorillo.[10] She and her children traveled by ship to Europe, planning on defecting to the Soviet embassy in Paris and residing in the Soviet Union, due to that nation's promotion of state atheism.[11] However, the USSR denied them entry.[6] Murray and her sons returned to Baltimore, Maryland in 1960.[12]

Murray stated that she worked for 17 years as a psychiatric social worker, and that in 1960 she was a supervisor at the Baltimore public welfare department.[9] She left Maryland in 1963 after allegedly assaulting five Baltimore police officers who tried to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend.[13] In 1965, she married U.S. Marine and government informant Richard O'Hair.[9][14] Although the marriage resulted in separation, she remained married to him until his death in 1978.[14]

Atheist activism[edit]

Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System in 1960, 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 it.[9]

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 Schempp's favor, which effectively banned mandatory Bible verse recitation at public schools in the United States. Prayer in schools other than Bible-readings had already been ended in 1962 by the Court's ruling in Engel v. Vitale.

O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in regard to the Apollo 8 Genesis reading.[15] The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction.[16] The effects of the suit were varied: although NASA asked Buzz Aldrin to refrain from quoting the Bible in the Apollo 11 mission, he was allowed to conduct the first Communion service in space.[17][18]

O'Hair appeared on the Donahue Show several times, including the first episode in 1967, following which Phil Donahue said she was unpleasant and mocked him off camera for being a Catholic, although after O'Hair's death, Donahue described her message of atheism as "Very important." She also appeared on the show again in March 1970 debating with Preacher Bob Harrington, "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street". Harrington also made a vinyl record on O'Hair entitled "10 Reasons Why Madalyn Murray O'Hair Must Be Stopped." In the record, Harrington ranted that Atheism "Isn't American".

American Atheists[edit]

Main article: American Atheists

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, the public voice and face of atheism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. In a 1965 interview with Playboy Magazine, she described religion as "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense".[9]

In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair gave a long list of 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 (referring to the conversion of Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus), "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 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 believed had caused her father's fatal heart attack.[9]

She filed several lawsuits on issues over which she felt that the United States Constitution was violated by a collusion of church and state. One was against the city of Baltimore, demanding that it assess and collect taxes on property owned by the Catholic Church.[9]

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.[4][19]

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.[4] 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.[4]

Her son William J. Murray became a Christian in 1980. Learning of this, she commented: "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."[20][21]

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, took vacations together, and returned home together.[4]


On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin suddenly disappeared.[4] 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;[4] her diabetes medication was on the kitchen counter, and her dogs had been left behind without a caregiver.[13] In phone calls a few days later, the trio claimed that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas.[4] A few days later, Jon ordered $600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000 worth of coins.[22]

Until September 27, American Atheists employees 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.[4] After September 28, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.

Investigation and arrests[edit]

Ultimately, the 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 also several suspicious burglaries during his tenure, and he had pleaded guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing $54,000 from American Atheists.[23] 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.[13] O'Hair also reported on his murder of another teenager at the age of 17, meaning that Waters was already a convicted felon. This in conjunction with his public use of firearms was enough to sentence Waters to prison before he could kill again.[13][23] Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways.[23] 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 and dismembered all three people.[24] Waters' accomplices included Gary Paul Karr and Danny Fry.[24] A few days after the O'Hairs were killed, Fry was murdered by Waters and Karr. Fry's body was found on a riverbed with his head and hands severed and missing. His body remained unidentified for three and a half years.[24]

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.[13][22] 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.[25] The head and hands of Danny 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.[13] 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 that 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.[13]

Karr was arrested, tried, and found guilty of extortion charges related to the O'Hair case. However, he was acquitted of kidnapping conspiracy.[24] Karr was sentenced to life in prison in August 2000 by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.[26] Waters was arrested and found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 80 years in prison;[27] 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.[13]

There was some criticism of the Austin Police Department's apparent apathy about the disappearance. Austin reporter Robert Bryce wrote:[23]

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 largely led to the removal of compulsory Bible reading from public schools in the United States, amongst other 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 opportunity to opt out. The Murray suit was combined with an earlier case, so the Court might have acted without Murray'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 continue to pray in public schools, even in organized groups (and in the case of "See You at the Pole" at the flag pole), the lawsuit disallowed schools from including 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[citation needed].

O'Hair's notoriety lives on through a decades-old urban legend. In one version, an e-mail claimed "Madeline Murray O'Hare [sic] 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 from being used for religious broadcasting.[28] 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, 12 years after O'Hair's disappearance and long after her confirmed death.[29][30] A 2009 variation of Petition 2493 claims that 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".[31][32] Dobson denied any involvement.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "United States Social Security Death Index: Madalyn M Ohair". Retrieved June 18, 2013. 
  2. ^ Dracos, Ted. UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Free Press. p. 380. ISBN 978-0743228336. 
  3. ^ Goeringer, Conrad F. (2006). "About American Atheists". American Atheists. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Van Biema, David (1997-02-10). "Where's Madalyn?". Time. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  5. ^ Seaman, Anne Rowe (2005). America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. ISBN 0-8264-1644-6, pp. 251, 255, 257. Retrieved 2014-07-13.
  6. ^ a b c Bryce, Robert (1998-11-20). "Madalyn Murray O'Hair timeline". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  7. ^ Reitwiesner, William Addams. "Ancestry of Madalyn Murray O'Hair". Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  8. ^ "Woman, Atheist, Anarchist" (reprint). Freedom Writer. March 1989. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Murray, Madalyn; Tregaskis, Richard (October 1965). "Madalyn Murray" (reprint). Playboy. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  10. ^ Zindler, Frank (2008). "Madalyn Murray O'Hair". In Joshi, S. T.. Icons of unbelief: Atheists, Agnostics, and Secularists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 323. ISBN 978-0313347597. 
  11. ^ Vitteriti, Joseph. Religion from the Public School to the Public Square. Princeton University Press 02/09/09. p. 102. 
  12. ^ Wright, Lawrence (1995-05-16). Saints and Sinners: Walker Railey, Jimmy Swaggart, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Anton LaVey, Will Campbell, Matthew Fox. London: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-76163-2. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Manning, Lona (2003-09-29). "The Murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair: America's Most Hated Woman". Crime Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  14. ^ a b LeBeau, Bryan F. (2003). The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-5171-7. 
  15. ^ Chaikin, Andrew (1994). A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Viking. p. 623. ISBN 0-670-81446-6. 
  16. ^ "O'Hair v. Paine, 397 U.S. 531". Findlaw. 1970. Retrieved 2008-02-13. 
  17. ^ "An Astronaut Tells of a little-known but Significant Event on the Moon". Guideposts. 1970. Retrieved 2012-04-25. 
  18. ^ "Apollo Expeditions to the Moon: Chapter 8". NASA. n.d. Retrieved 2012-04-25. . An urban legend claiming that NASA tried to keep the Communion service secret was disproven."First Communion on the Moon". Christensen, B.M. 2009. Retrieved 2012-04-25. 
  19. ^ Bryce, Robert (1996-05-03). "The Case of the Missing Atheists". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  20. ^ Alan Wolfe (12 April 2004). "Among the Non-Believers". The New Republic. 
  21. ^ Dracos, Ted (2003). "The Family Dysfunctional". Ungodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair. New York: Free Press. p. 138. ISBN 9781439119969. 
  22. ^ a b MacCormack, John (1999-07-29). "Lucky Break". Dallas Observer. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  23. ^ a b c d Bryce, Robert (1999-06-04). "Preying on Atheists". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2014-06-25. 
  24. ^ a b c d Milloy, Ross E. (March 16, 2001). "Bodies Identified as Those of Missing Atheist and Kin". The New York Times. Retrieved October 14, 2012. 
  25. ^ MacCormack, John (2001-02-01). "Dead Giveaway". Dallas Observer. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  26. ^ Jim Vertuno (January 25, 2001), Times Daily, Judge closes hearing in O'Hair disappearance
  27. ^ McAnally, Amber (2001-04-02). "Waters sentenced for role in O'Hair murder". The Daily Texan. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  28. ^ "Religious Broadcasting Rumor Denied". Federal Communications Commission. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  29. ^ "Dr. James Dobson vs. Petition No. 2493". Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  30. ^ "Petition to Ban Religious Broadcasting". Snopes. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  31. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara (2009-06-02). "Petition to Ban Religious Broadcasting". Retrieved 2009-11-17. 
  32. ^ Hartman, Greg (2009). "Petition 2493". Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family. Retrieved 2009-11-17. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
President of American Atheists
1963–1986 (de jure)
1986–1995 (de facto)
(passed title to Jon Garth Murray in 1986 but remained de facto President until her murder)
Succeeded by
Jon Garth Murray