Madalyn Murray O'Hair
O'Hair in 1983
April 13, 1919
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||September 29, 1995 (aged 76)|
San Antonio, Texas, U.S.
|Cause of death||Murder|
|Occupation||Activist, founder and president of American Atheists|
|Known for||Abington School District v. Schempp (Supreme Court case)|
John Henry Roths
(m. 1941; div. 1946)
(m. 1965; died 1978)
|Partner(s)||William J. Murray Jr.|
|Children||William J. Murray III|
Jon Garth Murray
Robin Murray O'Hair (granddaughter/adopted daughter)
Madalyn Murray O'Hair (born Mays; April 13, 1919 – September 29, 1995) was an American activist supporting atheism and separation of church and state. In 1963 she founded American Atheists and served as its president until 1986, after which her son Jon Garth Murray succeeded her. She created the first issues of American Atheist Magazine.
O'Hair is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which challenged the policy of mandatory prayers and Bible reading in Baltimore public schools, in which she named her first son William J. Murray as plaintiff. Consolidated with Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), it was heard by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that officially sanctioned mandatory Bible-reading in American public schools was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court had prohibited officially sponsored prayer in schools in Engel v. Vitale (1962) on similar grounds. Through American Atheists, O'Hair filed numerous other suits on issues of separation of church and state.
In 1995, O'Hair, her second son Jon Garth Murray (known as "Garth"), and her granddaughter and adopted daughter Robin Murray O'Hair (daughter of William J. Murray (her son) and his high school girlfriend Susan), disappeared from Austin, Texas. Garth Murray withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from American Atheists' funds, and there was speculation that the trio had absconded. David Roland Waters, a convicted felon and former employee of American Atheists, was convicted of murdering O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O'Hair. The bodies were not found until Waters led authorities to their burial place following his conviction.
Madalyn Mays was born in the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 1919, the daughter of Lena Christina (née Scholle) and John Irwin Mays. She had an older brother, John Irwin Jr. (known as "Irv"). Their father was of Scots-Irish ethnicity and their mother was of German ancestry. At the age of four, Madalyn was baptized into her father's Presbyterian church; her mother was a Lutheran. The family moved to Ohio, and in 1936, Mays graduated from Rossford High School in Rossford.
In 1941, Mays married John Henry Roths, a steelworker. They separated when they both enlisted for World War II service, he in the United States Marine Corps, and she in the Women's Army Corps. In April 1945, while posted to a cryptography position in Italy, she began a relationship with officer William J. Murray, Jr., a married Roman Catholic. He refused to divorce his wife. Mays divorced Roths and adopted the name Madalyn Murray. She gave birth to her son with officer Murray after returning to Ohio, and named the boy William J. Murray III (nicknamed "Bill").
She moved with Bill to Baltimore, Maryland. On November 16, 1954, she gave birth to her second son, Jon Garth Murray, fathered by her boyfriend Michael Fiorillo. Their relationship ended, and it is believed that the boy, known as Garth, never met his father.
It was rumored that Murray sought to defect to the Soviet Union at their embassy in Paris in 1960, but that the Soviets denied her entry. Murray with her sons returned to Baltimore in 1960 to live with her mother and brother Irv at their house in the Loch Raven neighborhood. In 1960 she filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Public School System, naming her son William J. Murray III as plaintiff. She said that its practices of mandatory prayer and required reading of the Bible were unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court upheld her position by a ruling in 1963.
Because of hostility in Baltimore against her family related to this case, Murray left Maryland with her sons in 1963 and moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. She had allegedly assaulted five Baltimore City Police Department officers who tried to retrieve her son Bill's girlfriend Susan from her house; she was a minor and had run away from home. Susan gave birth to Bill's daughter, whom she named Robin. Murray later adopted Robin.
In 1965, Murray married U.S. Marine Richard O'Hair, and changed her surname. He had belonged to a Communist group in Detroit during the 1940s. During investigations of the 1950s, he gave more than 100 names of other members to the FBI. Later he was investigated for falsely claiming to be an FBI agent. Although the couple separated, they were legally married until his death in 1978.
In 1960, Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System (Murray v. Curlett), naming her son William as plaintiff. She challenged the city school system's practice of requiring students to participate in Bible readings at the city's public schools. She said her son's refusal to participate had resulted in bullying by classmates and that administrators condoned this behavior. After consolidation with Abington School District v. Schempp, the lawsuit was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1963. The Court voted 8–1 in Schempp's favor, saying that mandatory public Bible readings by students were unconstitutional. Prayer in schools other than Bible-readings had been ruled as unconstitutional the year before by the Court in Engel v. Vitale (1962).
O'Hair filed a number of other lawsuits: one was against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) because of the Apollo 8 Genesis reading. The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction. The challenge had limited effect.
O'Hair appeared on The Phil Donahue Show several times, including the first episode in 1967. Later Donahue said that O'Hair was unpleasant in person and had mocked him off-camera for being a Catholic. She appeared on the show in March 1970 to debate Preacher Bob Harrington, "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street".
O'Hair endorsed Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election because of Carter's opposition to mandatory school prayer, his support for sex education in public schools, and his stance on ecological matters.
After settling in Austin, Texas, O'Hair founded American Atheists in 1963. It identifies as "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 served as the group's first chief executive officer and president until 1986. She was the public voice and face of atheism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Although her son Garth Murray succeeded her officially as president, she retained most of the power and decision making.
In a 1965 interview with Playboy Magazine, she described religion as "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense". In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair described numerous alleged incidents of harassment, intimidation, and death threats against her and her family. She read several letters she claimed to have received, including one that read (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." 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 said that she left Baltimore because of persecution from residents. She had received mail containing photos smeared with feces, her son Jon's pet kitten was killed, and her home was stoned. She said she thought such events were a catalyst for her father's fatal heart attack.
She filed several lawsuits challenging governmental practices, based on upholding and defining the constitutional separation of church and state. Among these was one against the city of Baltimore's policy of classifying the Catholic Church as a tax-exempt organization in terms of property.
O'Hair founded an atheist radio program, in which she criticized religion and theism. She hosted a television show, American Atheist Forum, which was carried on more than 140 cable television systems.
Arrested for disorderly conduct in Austin in 1977, O'Hair continued to be a polarizing figure into the 1980s. She served as "chief speechwriter" for Larry Flynt's 1984 presidential campaign. She was regularly invited on to TV talk shows as a guest. Her second son Garth Murray officially succeeded her as president of the American Atheists, but she was said to retain most of the power. Some chapters seceded from the main group at the time. But as of 2007[update], American Atheists continued as an active organization with a growing membership.
Her son William J. Murray became a Christian in 1980 and later a Baptist minister, publishing a memoir in 1982 about his spiritual journey. Murray O'Hair 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."
In the 1990s, American Atheists staff consisted of O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O'Hair, her granddaughter and adopted daughter, and a handful of support personnel (Robin was the daughter of William J. Murray and his girlfriend). William was estranged from his mother, brother, and daughter. They had not met nor spoken for many years. The trio lived in O'Hair's large home, worked in the same office, and took shared vacations.
O'Hair filed numerous lawsuits in which she argued the separation of church and state had been breached.
During an interview with Playboy in 1965, O'Hair described herself as a "militant feminist" and expressed her dissatisfaction with women's inequality in America, stating during the interview:
The American male continues to use her sexually for one thing: a means to the end of his own ejaculation. It doesn't seem to occur to him that she might be a worthwhile end in herself, or to see to it that she has a proper sexual release. And, to him, sex appeal is directly proportional to the immensity of a woman's tits. I'm not saying that all American men are this way, but nine out of ten are breast-fixated, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am cretins who just don't give a damn about anyone's gratification but their own. If you're talking about intellectual and social equality for women, we're not much better off. We're just beginning to break the ice. America is still very much a male-dominated society. Most American men feel threatened sexually unless they're taller than the female, more intellectual, better educated, better paid and higher placed statuswise in the business world. They've got to be the authority, the final word. They say they're looking for a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad, but what they really want, and usually get, is an empty-headed little chick who's very young and very physical — and very submissive. Well, I just can't see either a man or a woman in a dependency position, because from this sort of relationship flows a feeling of superiority on one side and inferiority on the other, and that's a form of slow poison. As I see it, men wouldn't want somebody inferior to them unless they felt inadequate themselves. They're intimidated by a mature woman.
On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair disappeared from their home and office. A typewritten note was attached to the locked office door, saying "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 police entered O'Hair's home, it looked as if they had left suddenly. The trio said in phone calls that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. Garth Murray ordered US $600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler, but took delivery of only $400,000 worth of coins.
Until September 27, American Atheists employees received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither explained why they had left or when they would return; employees reported that their voices sounded strained and disturbed. After September 28, no further communication came from any of the three. American Atheists was facing serious financial problems because of the withdrawal of funds, and membership dwindled in the face of an apparent scandal. There was speculation that the trio may have disappeared to conceal assets or avoid creditors.
Ultimately, the investigation focused on David Roland Waters, an ex-felon with a violent history, who had worked for American Atheists. He had pled guilty earlier that year to stealing $54,000 from the organization. Shortly after his theft was discovered, O'Hair had published an article in the American Atheists newsletter exposing the theft and previous crimes. O'Hair claimed that, at age 17, Waters had killed another teenager. Waters had been sentenced to prison for eight years.
Federal agents for the FBI and the IRS, along with the police, concluded that Waters and his accomplices had kidnapped all three Murray/O'Hair family members, forced them to withdraw the missing funds, gone on several shopping sprees with their money and credit cards, and killed and dismembered all three people. Waters' accomplices were Gary Paul Karr and Danny Fry. A few days after O'Hair and her family were killed, Waters and Karr killed Fry. His body was found on a riverbed with the head and hands missing. It was not identified for three and a half years.
A search warrant was executed for the apartment of Waters and his girlfriend. The search revealed ammunition of various calibers. Waters, a convicted felon, was arrested, and the contents of his apartment were seized. At the same time, Gary Karr was contacted in Walled Lake, Michigan, and interviewed. Having served the last 30 years in prison for kidnapping a judge's daughter, Karr would not talk. He had read his rights and asked to listen to the information being discussed. Karr decided to talk and implicated Waters in the deaths of Murray and the O'Hairs. Karr signed an affidavit and drew a map so that the police could find the bodies. Karr was arrested for possession of two firearms and taken to jail. He was held in Detroit, awaiting trial. The weapon charge was dismissed, and Karr was transferred to the custody of the United States Marshals in Austin to stand trial for the deaths of the O'Hairs.
After a three-week trial, Karr was found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion, traveling interstate to commit violent acts, money laundering, and interstate transportation of stolen property, all charges related to the O'Hair case. He was acquitted of charges of conspiring to kidnap, because the authorities had not yet located the bodies of the O'Hairs. In August 2000, Karr was sentenced to two life sentences in prison by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks.
Waters was arrested and prosecuted; in a plea agreement to the charge of conspiracy, he agreed to lead authorities to the site where the dismembered bodies of the O'Hairs had been burned and buried. He was sentenced to serve 20 years in federal prison, which he had requested, rather than serve time in Texas state prison on his earlier theft conviction. He did not go to trial for the kidnapping and murders of the O'Hair family. He was also ordered to pay back a total of $543,665 to the American Atheists and to the estates of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray O'Hair. It is unlikely that these debts were paid, because Waters had no ability to earn money while in prison. Waters died of lung cancer on January 27, 2003 at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina.
In January 2001, after his plea to conspiracy, Waters told the federal agents that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and subsequently led them to the bodies. When law enforcement excavated there, they discovered that the legs of the three people had been cut off with a saw. The remains had such extensive mutilation and decomposition that officials had to identify them through dental records, DNA testing and, in Madalyn O'Hair's case, records of a prosthetic hip from Brackenridge Hospital in Austin (the serial number identified her body). The head and hands of Danny Fry were also found at the site.
Waters and his girlfriend had put the gold coins extorted from the O'Hairs in an unsecured storage locker rented by the girlfriend. It had only a cheap Master padlock. Waters had taken some coins and partied for a few days with Gary Karr and his former wife. When he returned to the locker, he discovered that the remaining gold coins (American eagles, Maple Leaf coins, and Krugerrands) had been stolen. A group of thieves from San Antonio operating in that area had gained keys to the type of lock used by the girlfriend. In the course of their activities, the thieves had come across the locker, used a key, and found a suitcase full of gold coins. They returned to San Antonio, and with the help of friends, converted the gold coins to cash. The friends were taken to Las Vegas for a weekend. All but one coin, given as a pendant gift to an aunt, were spent by these thieves. That last coin was recovered by the FBI after a Memorial Day 1999 public appeal.
During the case, Austin reporter Robert Bryce criticized the relative lack of action by the Austin Police Department. He noted the investigation was being led by agents of the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office.
Murray's 1960 lawsuit against the Baltimore City School System was later consolidated with a similar one from Pennsylvania, when these reached the US Supreme Court on appeal. The Court ruled in 1963 (in Abington School District v. Schempp) that school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in the United States was unconstitutional. This decision gradually resulted in the end of religious activities sponsored by public schools. Non-religious students had been expected to participate in such activities, and state-level policies varied.
In 2013, the first atheist monument to be erected on American government property was unveiled at the Bradford County Courthouse in Florida, where other residents had installed a monument to religious ideals. It is a 1,500-pound granite bench and plinth inscribed with quotes by O'Hair, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. The American Atheists said at the time that they planned to build 50 more monuments.
Persistent urban myths were told about Murray O'Hair threatening certain TV programs because of so-called religious content. These have been disproved. A 2009 variation of Petition 2493 claims that American Atheists want the "Removal of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Charles Stanley, David Jeremiah and other pastors from the air waves". Purportedly James Dobson asks petitioners to send responses and donations to "Lisa Norman". Snopes.com says that it is an urban myth. Dobson denies any involvement.
An episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent entitled "Eosophorus" had many elements in it of the O'Hair murder and the Murray-O'Hair family, obviously altered, and ultimately denied by the show's "similarity" disclaimer. It is true that a new case with a different plot and differing actions make it unlike the O'Hair murders in many respects. But there is an obvious basis in the similar relationships and dynamics of the Murray-O'Hair family, the kidnapping and murder of a famous atheist woman, a son who had become a born-again Christian minister, another son who was an atheist, a mixed-up granddaughter, an embezzlement scheme, gold coins, and the criminal ringleader an ex-con and an ex-employee of the atheist organization and a betrayer of his partners in crime. "Eosophorus" was in Season 4, Episode 5, originally aired on 24 Oct 2004.
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| 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)
Jon Garth Murray