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, U.S.
Died September 29, 1995(1995-09-29) (aged 76)
San Antonio, Texas, U.S.
Cause of death Murder
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)
Spouse(s) John Henry Roths (m. 1941; div. 1946)
Richard O'Hair (m. 1965; wid. 1978)
Partner(s) William J. Murray, Jr.
Michael Fiorillo
Children William J. Murray III
Jon Garth Murray

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (née 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, became the nominal president of the organization from 1986 to 1995, but 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, O'Hair, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin disappeared from Austin, TX and were kidnapped, murdered and mutilated by David Roland Waters, a convicted felon out on parole, and fellow career criminals Gary Karr and Danny Fry. Waters was an employee of the American Atheists from February 1993 to April 1994, first as a typesetter and later as office manager.[5]

Early and personal 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 Mays.[7] She had an older brother, John Irwin "Irv" Jr. As an infant, she was baptized into the church as a Presbyterian.[8] In 1936, she graduated from Rossford High School in Rossford, Ohio.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] However, the USSR denied them entry.[6] Murray and her sons returned to Baltimore, Maryland in 1960.[13]

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.[10] She left Maryland in 1963 after allegedly assaulting five Baltimore police officers who tried to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend Susan (who would later be granddaughter Robin's mother).[14] In 1965, she married U.S. Marine and government informant Richard O'Hair.[10][15] Although the marriage resulted in separation, she remained married to him until his death in 1978.[15]

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.[10]

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.[16] The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction.[17] 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.[18][19]

O'Hair appeared on The Donahue Show several times, including the first episode in 1967, following which Phil Donahue said O'Hair was unpleasant and had 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 to debate 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." O'Hair was an early member of the Universal Life Church.[20]

O'Hair endorsed Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election because of Carter's opposition to voluntary school prayer, his support for sex education in public schools, and his stance on ecological matters.[21]

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".[10]

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 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.[10]

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.[10]

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][22]

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."[23][24]

In 1988, O'Hair put out several issues under the masthead during the course of an unsuccessful attempt to take over Truth Seeker; however, the courts ruled against her ownership.[25]

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.[14] 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.[26]

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.[27] 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.[14] 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 for eight years before he could kill again.[14][27] Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways and snipping off her toes.[27] Federal agents for the FBI and the IRS along with 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.[28] Waters' accomplices included Gary Paul Karr and Danny Fry.[28] A few days after the O'Hairs were killed, Fry was murdered by Waters and Karr. What turned out to be Fry's body was found on a riverbed with head and hands missing, and remained unidentified for three and a half years.[28]

In January 2001, after his conviction and imprisonment, Waters informed the federal agents that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and he subsequently led them to the bodies.[14][26] When law enforcement excavated there, they discovered that the O'Hairs' bodies had their legs dismembered 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, IRS Special Agent Ed Martin obtained the records of a prosthetic hip from Breckenridge Hospital an the product number identified the body.{Ed Martin, Retired IRS CID}[29] The head and hands of Danny Fry were also found at the site. The gold coins extorted from the O'Hairs were put in an unsecured storage locker rented by Waters' girlfriend and was locked with a cheap master lock.[14] Waters had taken out a small number of coins and proceeded partied with his girlfriend for a few days with Gary Karr and his former wife, but upon his return to the locker he discovered that the remaining Gold (American eagles, Maple Leafs and Krugerrands) had been stolen.{Ed Martin, Retired IRS CID} A group of thieves from San Antonio, TX operating in that area had a master key to the type of lock that the girlfriend purchased to secure the locker. In the course of their activities, the thieves came across the locker, used the master key to open it, and found a suitcase full of gold coins. They returned to San Antonio, TX and with the help of friends converted the gold coins to cash. For the efforts of the friends the were all taken to Las Vegas, NV for a weekend. {Ed Martin, Retired IRS CID} All the money was eventually spent all but one coin that was given as a pendent gift to an aunt. The coin was recovered by the FBI after a Memorial Day 1999 public appeal. {Ed Martin, Retired IRS CID} [14]

A search warrant prepare by IRS CID Special Agent Ed Martin executed on the apartment of David Waters and his girlfriend. The apartment was across the street from the Headquarters of the Department of Public Safety. The search produced various caliber ammunition and Waters a convicted felon was arrested and the contents of his apartment was searched and seized. At the same time, Gary Karr was contacted in Walled Lake Michigan and interviewed. As a hardened criminal who spent the last 30 years in prison for the kidnapping of the daughter of a Judge, Karr would not talk. After being read his rights Karr, Karr was asked to just listen to the information being discussed. Karr decided to talk and implicate David Waters in the death of the O'Hairs. Karr went so far as to sign an affidavit and to draw a map of where the bodies of the O'Hair could be found. Karr was arrested for possession of two firearms and taken to jail. He lingered in Detroit, MI awaiting trial. The weapon seizure was dismissed and Karr was transferred to the custody of the US Marshal's in Austin, TX to stand trial for the death of the O'Hairs. {Ed Martin Retired IRS CID)

Karr was after a three week trial was found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion, traveling interstate to commit violent acts, money laundering and interstate transportation of stolen property charges related to the O'Hair case.{Ed Martin, Retired IRS CID} However, he was acquitted of kidnapping conspiracy since the bodies of the O'Hairs were not found at the time.[28] Karr was sentenced to two life sentences in prison in August 2000 by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.[30] Waters was arrested and found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 80 years in prison;[31] 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.[14]

There was some criticism of the Austin Police Department's apparent apathy about the disappearance. Austin reporter Robert Bryce wrote:[27]

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, 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.[original research?] Nonreligious students were compelled to participate in such activities and were not usually given any opportunity to opt out.[citation needed] While students may pray in public schools, even in organized groups, 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". 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.[32] 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.[33][34]

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".[34][35] Dobson denied any involvement.[36]

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. ^ "Rossford HS Yearbook "Maroon and Gray" 1936". Ohio Memory. p. 20. Retrieved 17 May 2015. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Murray, Madalyn; Tregaskis, Richard (October 1965). "Madalyn Murray" (reprint). Playboy. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ Vitteriti, Joseph. Religion from the Public School to the Public Square. Princeton University Press 02/09/09. p. 102. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ a b LeBeau, Bryan F. (2003). The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-5171-7. 
  16. ^ Chaikin, Andrew (1994). A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. Viking. p. 623. ISBN 0-670-81446-6. 
  17. ^ "O'Hair v. Paine, 397 U.S. 531". Findlaw. 1970. Retrieved 2008-02-13. 
  18. ^ "An Astronaut Tells of a little-known but Significant Event on the Moon". Guideposts. 1970. Retrieved 2012-04-25. 
  19. ^ "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. 
  20. ^ Lewis Ashmore (1977). The Modesto Messiah: The Famous Mail-order Minister. Universal Press. ISBN 978-0-918950-01-7. 
  21. ^ "Atheist leader endorses Carter for President", Minden Press-Herald, Minden, Louisiana, October 26, 1976, p. 3
  22. ^ Bryce, Robert (1996-05-03). "The Case of the Missing Atheists". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  23. ^ Alan Wolfe (12 April 2004). "Among the Non-Believers". The New Republic. 
  24. ^ 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. 
  25. ^ "Google Scholar". Retrieved September 8, 2015. 
  26. ^ a b MacCormack, John (1999-07-29). "Lucky Break". Dallas Observer. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  27. ^ a b c d Bryce, Robert (1999-06-04). "Preying on Atheists". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2014-06-25. 
  28. ^ 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. 
  29. ^ MacCormack, John (2001-02-01). "Dead Giveaway". Dallas Observer. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  30. ^ Jim Vertuno (January 25, 2001), Times Daily, Judge closes hearing in O'Hair disappearance
  31. ^ McAnally, Amber (2001-04-02). "Waters sentenced for role in O'Hair murder". The Daily Texan. Retrieved 2007-12-01. 
  32. ^ "Religious Broadcasting Rumor Denied". Federal Communications Commission. 2014-02-24. Retrieved 2015-07-21. A rumor has been circulating since 1975 that the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a widely known, self-proclaimed atheist, proposed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) consider limiting or banning religious programming. These rumors are untrue. In December 1974, Jeremy D. Lansman and Lorenzo W. Milam filed a petition (RM-2493) asking the FCC to inquire into the operating practices of stations licensed to religious organizations, and not to grant any new licenses for new noncommercial educational broadcast stations until the inquiry had been completed. The FCC denied this petition on August 1, 1975. Ms. O’Hair was not a sponsor of this petition. Since that time, the FCC has received mail and telephone calls claiming that Ms. O’Hair started the petition and that the petition asked for an end to religious programs on radio and television. These rumors are false.' The FCC has responded to numerous inquiries about these rumors and advised the public they are not true. There is no federal law that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from broadcasting religious programs. 
  33. ^ Emery, David (2007-10-19). "Petition Number 2493: Pastor Removal from Television". Urban Legends. Retrieved 2015-07-21. Circulating via email, new variants of a decades-old petition expressing outrage over the alleged attempt by atheists to force a ban on religious broadcasting in the United States. Description: Email petition Circulating since: March 2003 (Dobson version) Status: False 
  34. ^ a b Mikkelson, Barbara (2009-06-02). "Petition to Ban Religious Broadcasting". Retrieved 2009-11-17. 
  35. ^ "I've received an e-mail about prayers and signatures needed to stop Petition 2493. Is it true?". Focus on the Family. 2011-10-31. Retrieved 2015-07-21. I've received an e-mail petition requesting that I sign a petition. It says: Christian broadcasting is going to be removed from radio and television or, Christmas carols and Christmas programs will be removed from all public schools or, Dr. Dobson is going to be on CNBC requesting prayer or, Madalyn Murray O'Hair has Petition 2493 in front of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and is attempting to have all religious programming banned or, Madalyn Murray O'Hair was behind the removal of "Touched by an Angel" from television programming or, Joel Osteen and other pastors will be removed from public broadcasting or, a combination of any of the above, or something that sounds similar to any of the above. 
  36. ^ "I've received an e-mail about prayers and signatures needed to stop Petition 2493. Is it true?". 

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