Madalyn Murray O'Hair, atheist activist, was born on April 13, 1919, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of John Irwin Mays and Lena Christina (Scholle) Mays. Madalyn Mays questioned religious concepts since her youth, even though she was raised as a Presbyterian. She grew up in an upper-middle class family, but with the stock market crash of 1929, her family lost most of its wealth and her father was forced to become an itinerant worker. This experience with poverty in her youth would be one of the driving factors in the way Madalyn chose to live her adult life.
She attended Ashland College in Ashland, Ohio, and received her B.A. degree. Her education also included studies at the University of Toledo and the University of Pittsburg. While in her early twenties her philosophy of atheism crystallized. She married her first husband, John Henry Roths on October 9, 1941, but they separated when she joined the war effort and served as a cryptographer in Africa and Italy (seeWORLD WAR II). They divorced in 1945. Madalyn began an affair with William Murray during the war, and they had a child, William. She and Murray were never married, however, due to the fact that he refused to divorce his wife because of his strict Roman Catholic beliefs. Nevertheless, Madalyn began calling herself "Madalyn Murray." She studied at Western Reserve University and Ohio Northern University before attaining a law degree from South Texas College of Law around 1952. From there she studied social work at Howard University and found jobs as a social worker for a variety of public welfare agencies. In 1954 she had a second son, Jon Garth Murray, by a different father. Unhappy with the United States policies towards the Soviet Union, Murray began attending Socialist Workers Party meetings (seeSOCIALIST PARTY). In 1959 to 1960 she attempted to defect to the Soviet Union, but the country denied her and her son citizenship.
Murray stepped onto the public scene in 1960 when it was brought to her attention that her then fourteen-year-old son, William, had to say daily group prayers in his Baltimore junior high school. She began a crusade to end prayer in public education and filed the suit Murray v. Curlett. Her case to end prayer in school was dismissed both at the state district court as well as the state appellate court. Ultimately the case was combined with Abington School District v. Schempp and argued before the U. S. Supreme Court. In 1963 Murray won her fight against school prayer when the U.S Supreme Court decided in an eight-to-one vote that school mandated and initiated prayer violated the establishment clause of the first amendment and unconstitutionally breached the barrier between church and state. Murray's famous quote during that case called for the "unalienable right to freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion." Murray appeared on the first episode of Phil Donahue's talk show in 1963 to discuss her Supreme Court win and her atheist beliefs.
After her success with the Supreme Court, Murray organized and operated various atheistic organizations, including American Atheists. The mission statement of the American Atheists was to "defend the civil rights of non-believers, work for the separation of church and state, and address issues of First Amendment public policy." Murray continued fighting what she viewed as an unconstitutional connection between church and state by demanding that "In God We Trust" be removed from U.S coinage and that the tax-exempt status of churches ought to be changed because it was a government support of religion. Neither of these attempts was successful. In 1964 Time Magazine famously dubbed her "the most hated woman in America," a title she apparently enjoyed.
Murray relocated from Baltimore to Honolulu in the early 1960s before moving to Austin, Texas, in 1965 where she established the American Atheist Center and the Society of Separationists. Also during this year, Murray married her second husband, Richard O'Hair. Madalyn Murray O'Hair later obtained custody of her son William's daughter, Robin, because of his drinking and drug problems. Her second husband died in 1978. Although the American Atheists was a small organization, boasting around 2,400 members, O'Hair's radio talk show was popular and ran on more than 150 radio stations nationwide. Most of their lawsuits, however, were unsuccessful, including one against NASA for its television broadcast of Apollo 8 astronauts James Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders as they became first humans to orbit the moon. During the 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast, the astronauts marked the event by reading the first few verses from the Book of Genesis during their final pass (seeLYNDON B. JOHNSON SPACE CENTER).
Even though their legal endeavors were unsuccessful, the American Atheists brought in profit in the form of donations and merchandising. Her son Jon was quoted as saying, "We're accustomed to good food…. All of us have nice clothes. My suits cost a minimum of five, six hundred dollars…. We have a nice house in Northwest Hills, nice automobiles…. We've been around the world three times." Madalyn Murray O'Hair seemed to be enjoying the life she had never had as a youth during the Great Depression.
In 1986, at the age of sixty-seven, O'Hair resigned as the president of the American Atheists. Her son, Jon, replaced her as president. In an interesting twist of irony, O'Hair's first son William, the subject of the Supreme Court case that ended school-sanctioned prayer, had become a devout evangelical Christian. He broke from his mother's non-religious beliefs at the age of thirty-four and had become the chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition. This coalition's ultimate goal was to restore prayer in schools.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair's somewhat unusual life and career was further mystified by her disappearance in 1995. She, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin, once described as "three peas in a pod," disappeared in late August 1995. They had left a note on the door of the American Atheists office that they had been called away on an emergency. They did call their work associates, although the calls were described as "cagey." One top-level employee said he couldn't get a straight answer as to when they were going to be back. The last communication with any of the O'Hairs was on September 28, 1995. What makes the disappearance more mysterious was that around $600,000 of the organization's money went missing at the same time. On September 29, 1995, Jon Garth Murray picked up $500,000 worth of gold coins at a San Antonio jewelry store. This was the last time any in the family were seen alive. The money was actually from United Secularists of America, one of American Atheists' affiliated groups. More money in foreign bank accounts was rumored to have existed as well. Some journalists, associates, and other atheist groups speculated that the three had taken the money and left the country, possibly fleeing to New Zealand. Kidnapping was not out of the question, however. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, as well as her son Jon, had made quite a few enemies over the years. Many people also knew how much money their organization had been making. Another theory was that O'Hair was in poor health and was going somewhere isolated to die because she was so afraid that someone would give her a Christian burial (namely, her other son).
In January 2001 the remains of four bodies were found on a cattle ranch near Camp Wood, Texas, in the southern part of the state. It was found that three men – David Roland Waters, one of O'Hair's office managers, and two of his friends – had kidnapped the three O'Hairs and had extorted money out of them – the $600,000. Within weeks, three of the bodies were confirmed to be Madalyn, Jon, and Robin. The fourth, Danny Fry, was one of the conspirators in the kidnapping and murder. The other two kidnappers had apparently been afraid that he would turn them in. David Waters had led the authorities to the grave sites to avoid being charged with murder and kidnapping (he had already been convicted of extortion). Waters was sentenced to twenty years in prison, and he died of lung cancer there in 2003. In keeping with her wishes, O'Hair was cremated, and no one prayed over her remains. Madalyn Murray O'Hair left behind a legacy of literature in her eleven published books, including What On Earth Is An Atheist, Freedom Under Siege: The Impact of Organized Religion on Your Liberty and Your Pocketbook, and Women and Atheism: The Ultimate Liberation.
O’Hair’s life and death were the focus of two documentaries and one film. The Most Hated Woman in America, a film about O’Hair and her family, premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas on March 14, 2017. The film was written and directed by Tommy O’Haver and starred Academy Award winner Melissa Leo as O’Hair. It was released on Netflix, which finance the film. The two documentaries included Godless in America, which aired on the Sundance cable channel in late 2006, focused both on her atheism and the mystery surrounding her death, and Good Riddance (2011) followed the investigation of her murder.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Dallas Observer, February 1, 2001 (http://www.dallasobserver.com/2001-02-01/news/dead-giveaway/2), accessed May 10, 2007. Madalyn Murray O'Hair (http://www.nndb.com/people/862/000022796/), accessed May 3, 2007. Stuart Rosenbaum, "The Atheist: Madalyn Murray O'Hair," Journal of Church and State, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2003): 830-832. Ann Rowe Seaman, America's Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair (New York: Continuum, 2005). Sophia Tareen, “‘We Close with Good Night, Good Luck’: Apollo Astronaut Marks 1968 Broadcast to Earth,” NBC News, December 23, 2013 (https://www.nbcnews.com/sciencemain/we-close-good-night-good-luck-apollo-8-astronaut-marks-2d11794862) accessed July 14, 2021. Time Magazine, February 10, 1997. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
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