Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919–1995) was an activist, founder of American Atheists, and famous for her stern opposition to religion, who in 1960 filed and won a lawsuit (Murray v. Curlett) against the Baltimore City Public School System, claiming that it was unconstitutional for her son (William J. Murray III) to study the Bible at school; this lawsuit, combined with another, would reach the Supreme Court and result in the banning of prayer and recitations of Bible verses in American public schools in June, 1963.[1]

"There is no God. There's no heaven. There's no hell. There are no angels. When you die, you go in the ground, the worms eat you." - Madalyn Murray O'Hair.[2]


O'Hair was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania on April 13, 1919, the daughter of John Irwin and Lena Scholle Mays. She grew up there and in Ohio, graduating high school in Rossford in 1937. Her parents were Presbyterians and attended church regularly, but it was apparently during her teen years that she became an atheist.[3] In 1941 she had her first marriage to John Henry Roths; this marriage was separated due to World War II and the enlistments they made to the Marine Corps and Women's Army Corps. In 1945 she engaged in an affair with a married man while stationed in Italy; the result of which was a son, whom she named William J. Murray III after the father; she had since divorced her husband and had taken up the name "Murray". By 1952 she had earned two degrees: a bachelors from Ashland University in Ohio, and a degree from the South Texas College of Law; she never, however, capitalized on her law degree by going before the Texas bar and becoming a lawyer. A relationship with boyfriend Michael Fiorillo resulted in another son, Jon Garth Murray, being born in 1954.

William would later have a daughter, Robin; after being forced to surrender custody due to drug issues, Robin would be formally adopted by O'Hair.

Immoral life

Her life was filled with pornography. Her house had figures of mating animals, and she would often describe her trips to X-rated theaters, stating with some delight that she was the only female in the building.

As son William (who would later convert to Christianity and become a Baptist pastor) stated later:

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. She was proud of the fact she was the only woman in the movie house watching this filth. My mother’s whole life circulated around such things. She even wrote articles for Larry Flynt’s pornographic magazine, Hustler. My mother lived in spiritual death as Paul writes: “But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” I Timothy 5:6

My mother delighted in hiring unrepentant criminals to work in her atheist office. She particularly enjoyed hiring convicted murderers who had served their time but were unrepentant about what they had done. She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life. It was love of power over people that finally caused not only her death, but the deaths of my brother and my daughter...

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. I could go on but I won’t. [4]

She was also a communist, going so far as to attempt an unsuccessful defection to the Soviet Union in 1960, taking both sons with her.[5]

Disowning of Christian son

William would later convert to Christianity; as a result O'Hair (along with his brother Garth and daughter Robin) would completely cut all ties with him.

"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." - Madalyn Murray O'Hair on her son William's rejection of atheism, conversion to Christianity and calling as an evangelist.[6]

American Atheists

See also: David Roland Waters, American Atheists and United Secularists of America scandals

Around the time O'Hair filed her infamous court case which would lead to the removal of mandatory prayer in public schools, she would also start the organization American Atheists. Ultimately she would move the organization to Austin, Texas.

Disputes with local authorities, Disappearance and Death

Although Austin is a very liberal city in an otherwise conservative state, over time the relationship between the parties (both American Atheists and the O'Hairs, the latter both personally and as the organization's representatives), and local law enforcement [7] would grow sour. This was especially true in dealings between the parties involving David Roland Waters, an ex-convict who the O'Hairs hired in 1993, who would ultimately Waters would become American Atheists' office manager.

During his tenure Waters would steal a computer and valuable bonds, but the O'Hairs took no action to hold him accountable. When the O'Hairs traveled to California on extended business (to deal with a legal dispute with another atheist organization), Waters took the opportunity to fire the staff, close the office, and empty the bank accounts of $54,000.[8]

These actions would finally cause the O'Hairs to press charges. In doing so, the extent of the poor relationship would be shockingly revealed:

  • During the investigation, Waters submitted an affidavit claiming that Jon Murray called from San Diego, stating that the trial was going poorly for American Atheists, and therefore he should steal up to $100,000 by cashing checks sent to the organization, keep $15,000 for himself, and place the remainder in the office safe (however, Waters would only withdraw just under $55,000, though he did keep $15,000). The affidavit was completely absurd on its face -- the California trial had been decided in favor of American Atheists -- yet accepted as true by the investigators with no further inquiry.
  • Waters would execute the affidavit in early May 1994, yet the O'Hairs were never even told of its existence until mid-August of that year.
  • Despite the seriousness of the crime and Waters' prior extensive criminal record (which involved physical assaults and even murder), over a ten-month period from July 1994 until May 1995 the case was reset 14 times -- and in two instances the case was reset despite Waters' attorney not showing for the hearing.[9]
  • Ultimately the case was heard in May 1995; though found guilty Waters received no prison time, only probation and a restitution order.

In her newsletter O'Hair argued that had the crime been committed against a Christian minister or a church, the wheels of justice would have moved far more swiftly and Waters would have served prison time. She would later expose Waters' extensive criminal record. Waters would gain his revenge shortly thereafter.

On August 28, 1995, a note appeared on the office door of American Atheists, stating that the family (Madalyn, Garth, and Robin) had been called out of town on an emergency with no set timetable for their return. Interestingly, Garth had ordered $700,000 in gold coins but took delivery of only $600,000 of them.[10]

Employees of American Atheists received calls from Robin and Jon for the next month; neither explained why they had left or when they would return and their voices appeared strained and disturbed; after September 28 the three were never heard from again. During this time, nobody with the organization bothered to call police to investigate, and would start a series of rumors explaining their disappearance:

  • One rumor was that the O'Hairs left the country with American Atheists' money.[11] However, the organization's office and its bank accounts were still intact, and their home was not ransacked (O'Hair's diabetes medicine and the family's pets were still there when people started looking for her).
  • Another rumor was that Madalyn had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and wanted to die in peace, without Christians (or "Christers", as she called them) praying for her healing and salvation.
  • Still another rumor was that Jon and Robin wanted to start life without Madalyn in the picture (this rumor fueled mainly by the later disappearance of the pets, which had been taken to the organization's compound after their discovery; the pets' disappearance was never solved).
  • Even still another rumor was based partly in what would actually happen: the rumor was that the O'Hairs had (rightly, it turned out) been the victims of foul play. However, nothing was done to inform law enforcement, because those who believed that the O'Hairs had met their demise also believed that the FBI, the CIA, and/or the Vatican, were behind it, and (in those folks' minds) those groups had the ability to both perform the deed and cover it up.
  • Finally, still others didn't really care how or why the O'Hairs disappeared; they believed that with them out of the picture, the overall cause of atheism would benefit by new leadership. Even within American Atheists this appeared to be true: close confidant Ellen Johnson would quickly relocate from New Jersey to Austin and -- in a suspicious meeting -- took over as the organization's head, while another trustee simply moved into O'Hair's house.

No law enforcement agency bothered to investigate the disappearance, even when estranged son William (the only person who seemed to care about what happened) asked them a year later; Austin PD stated that "it is not against the law in Texas to be missing". (William's requests led to a running battle between him and American Atheists, the latter falsely claiming his "concern" was merely a fundraising stunt for his religious causes.) Ultimately American Atheists would disclose Garth's withdrawal of the money (for the gold coin purchase) which led to the involvement of the IRS (due to unpaid taxes; O'Hair and the IRS had a running battle over amounts owed), and ultimately to a headless, limbless corpse discovered in Dallas back in 1995. The corpse would be later identified as Danny Fry, a small-time felon who had worked with Waters in the past. The Fry murder would finally get the FBI involved (the Austin Police Department still had no interest in the matter) and they would identify another accomplice: Gary Paul Karr. Ultimately it would be discovered that the three of them abducted and murdered the O'Hairs; Waters and Karr then murdered Fry and dumped his mutilated corpse in Dallas.

Neither Waters nor Karr were ever put on trial for the murders: Karr was sentenced to essentially a life term for extortion and money laundering; Waters took a plea deal and received an additional 20 years added to earlier sentences of 60 and 25 years, as part of the deal in January 2001 Waters told authorities where the O'Hairs were buried and led them to the bodies (officials had to identify the badly decomposed bodies through DNA, dental records, and in the case of Madalyn through the serial number of her artificial hip; they also found the missing hands and feet of Fry at the site).

William, as the closest remaining living relative, was granted custody of the bodies (again over objections of American Atheists members, thinking he only wanted them to use in fundraising): at their burial (at an undisclosed location) he stated he did not pray for the deceased, both out of respect for his mother's wishes, and in accordance with his Baptist beliefs that upon death their eternity was set.

As such, the irony of the story is that it would be the O'Hairs' adversaries -- William, the FBI and the IRS -- who would ultimately be responsible for bringing their murderers to justice, and discovering their remains and providing them a proper burial.

Debate with Dr. Walter Martin

Madalyn Murray O'Hair did particularly badly in her debate with Dr. Walter Martin.[12] For example, when she claimed there were supposedly were contradictions in the Bible, Dr. Martin asked her to provide an example of one and Ms. O'Hair did not and could not offer even an alleged example of one.[13] In addition, Ms. O'Hair did a poor job defending against the issue of atheism and mass murder.[14]

Madalyn Murray O’Hair on medical equiptment for a hospital vs. filing lawsuits

See: Madalyn Murray O’Hair on hospitals and Atheist lawsuits

American Atheists organization's leadership and excess weight challenges

See also: American Atheists and obesity and Atheism and obesity and New Atheism leadership's problem with excess weight

O'Hair was overweight.[15] One of the last pictures taken of Madalyn Murray O'Hair features O'Hair standing before a cake as can be seen here.

A few years before O'Hair's murder, she had to have hip replacement surgery (According to the Harvard Medical school, "Losing weight, strengthening muscles, and increasing flexibility may help you stave off joint replacement."[16]).[17] Interestingly, it was her artificial hip that allowed law enforcement authorities to identify her remains.[18] Robin (her granddaughter by birth, but adopted as her daughter) was also so obese she required two seats on an airplane.

In addition, a significant number of the staff members of the American Atheists have had excess weight issues (see: American Atheists and obesity).

See also

External links


  1. Madalyn Murray O'Hair Biography
  2. The Murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair:America's Most Hated Woman. by Lona Manning
  4. Son calls famous atheist Madalyn O’Hair “evil”
  6. Quoted without citation by Ted Dracos, UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair (2003), on her son William's rejection of atheism, conversion to Christianity and calling as an evangelist.
  7. In this case it would be the Austin Police Department and the Travis County District Attorney.
  8. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, NYTimes
  9. The original court date was set for July 21, 1994, but was moved to August 22, September 9, September 15, October 3, October 17, November 7, December 5, January 23 (of 1995), February 6, March 13, April 10, April 24, May 18, and finally for May 22. The article referencing the reset dates did not list those on which Waters' attorney failed to appear.
  10. In an even more bizarre twist to the story, most of the coins were placed in a storage locker, which was itself broken into and the contents stolen by other thieves; only one of the stolen coins was ever recovered.
  11. One former employee -- the first to find the note on the office door -- was aware of at least one offshore bank account, and American Atheists had another legal battle -- not the one which Waters referenced in his phony affidavit -- with a competing atheist group that was not going well for them and which they would eventually lose.
  16. Harvard Health Letter, Avoiding knee or hip surgery, Published: June, 2013 by the Harvard Medical Center
  17. Bone find may solve O'Hair case, Associated Press, Published: January 29, 2001, republished by Deseret News
  18. Bone find may solve O'Hair case, Associated Press, Published: January 29, 2001, republished by Deseret News