Madalyn Murray O'Hair

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Madalyn O'Hair (Mays)

Also Known As: "Murray", "Roth", "Fiorillo"
Birthdate: (76)
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, United States
Death: September 29, 1995 (76) (Murder)
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Irv J. Mays and Lena Christina Mays
Wife of Richard O'Hair
Ex-wife of John Henry Roths
Mother of Private and Jon Garth Murray

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Madalyn Murray O'Hair


Madalyn Murray O'Hair (April 13, 1919 – September 29, 1995) was an American atheist activist. She was the founder of the organization American Atheists and served as its president from 1963 to 1986. 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. She 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. Officially-sponsored prayer in schools had been ended a year earlier by the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."

In 1995 she was kidnapped and murdered, along with her son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, by former American Atheist office manager David Roland Waters.

Early life

Madalyn Mays was born in the Beechview neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 13, 1919, to Lena Christina (Scholle) and John Irwin "Irv" Mays. As an infant, she was baptized into the church as a Presbyterian. 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. Murray was a married Roman Catholic, and he refused to divorce his wife. Mays divorced Roths and began calling herself Madalyn Murray, and gave birth to a boy she named William J. Murray and nicknamed "Bill."

In 1949, Murray completed a bachelor's degree from Ashland University. In 1952, she received her Juris Doctor degree from South Texas College of Law; however, she failed the bar exam and never practiced law. In later writing for American Atheists, she referred to herself as "Dr. O'Hair," likely with regard to her juris doctor.

On November 16, 1954 she gave birth to her second son Jon Garth Murray, fathered by her boyfriend Michael Fiorillo. She and her two children traveled via ship to Europe with the intention of defecting to the Soviet embassy in Paris and residing in the Soviet Union. The Soviets denied them entry. Murray and her sons returned to Baltimore, Maryland in 1960.

Murray stated that she worked for seventeen years as a psychiatric social worker, and that in 1960 she was a supervisor at the Baltimore city public welfare department.

Atheist activism

Main article: Abington School District v. Schempp

In 1960, Murray filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System, 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 this.

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.

Clashes with the law

Murray left Maryland in 1963 after she allegedly assaulted five Baltimore police officers who came to her home to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend. In 1965, she married U.S. Marine Richard O'Hair. Although the marriage resulted in separation, she remained married to him until his death in 1978.

O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in regard to the Apollo 8 Genesis reading. O'Hair wished the courts to ban U.S. astronauts — who were all Government employees — from public prayer in outer space. The case was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction. 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 not denied the opportunity to conduct the first Communion service in space.

American Atheists

Main article: American Atheists

This article appears to contradict the article American Atheists. Please see discussion on the linked talk page. Please do not remove this message until the contradictions are resolved. (September 2009)

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.

O'Hair was the voice and face of atheism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, therefore making her a highly controversial figure. In a 1965 interview with Playboy Magazine, she claimed religion was "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense."

In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair gave a lengthy 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, "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 claimed caused her father's fatal heart attack.

She filed several lawsuits on issues over which she felt there was a collusion of church and state in violation of the United States Constitution, including a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore demanding they assess and collect taxes on property owned by the Catholic Church.

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.

O'Hair was the very first guest on The Phil Donahue Show, when it debuted as a local program in Dayton, Ohio on November 6, 1967; she would make several appearances on the program during its run. Host Phil Donahue would later call her message of atheism "very important," but said that O'Hair was "unpleasant" to be around and that she mocked him off-camera for being Catholic.

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. 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.

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, they vacationed together, and they returned home together.


On 27 August 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon, and granddaughter Robin suddenly disappeared. 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, her diabetes medication was on the kitchen counter, and her dogs had been left behind without a caregiver.

In phone calls a few days later, the trio claimed that they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. 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.

Until September 27, American Atheist 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. After September 28, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.

Public speculation

Speculation abounded on the cause and meaning of O'Hair's disappearance. Some hypothesized that the O'Hairs had abandoned American Atheists and fled with the money. One investigator working for Vanity Fair, after looking at evidence presented to him by former employee David Roland Waters, concluded that they had escaped to New Zealand.

Exactly one year after the disappearance, William Murray filed a missing persons report. He had previously stated that he would not file such a report due to the inevitable media attention that it would bring. He also noted the lack of evidence of foul play, stating, "I don't want to search for people who don't want to be found." The O'Hairs were declared legally dead, and many of their assets were sold to clear their debts.

Investigation and arrests

Ultimately, a 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 several suspicious burglaries during his tenure, and he pleaded guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing $54,000 from American Atheists.

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. Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways.

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 all three people. Danny Fry, an accomplice, was murdered a few days after the O'Hairs; his body was found on a riverbed with his head and hands severed and missing, but his remains remained unidentified for three and a half years. Waters eventually pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

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. 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. 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. 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 which 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.

Waters was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In addition, 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.

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

"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 which contributed to the removal of compulsory Bible reading from the public schools of the United States has had 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 (such as "See You at the 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.


In 1980, William Murray was baptized at a Baptist church in Dallas, where he took up work as a preacher. This led to a permanent estrangement between mother and son. As she put it, "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."

Murray spoke critically and regretfully of his mother after her disappearance, and characterized her social activism as being motivated by a love of hedonism and a need for dominance:

"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.... My mother’s whole life circulated around such things... It was love of power over people that finally caused not only her death, but the deaths of my brother and my daughter... My mother was an evil person... Not for removing prayer from America's schools... No, she was just evil. 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....Regardless of how evil and lawless my mother was she did not deserve to die in the manner she did."

Murray claimed his mother had illegally stashed "tens of millions" away. He attempted to gain "guardianship" over his missing mother and brother's assets, declaring that they had stolen money, and said, "My brother had a tendency to fall for con games and con artists".

In an episode of City Confidential that covered O'Hair, a former employee of American Atheists stated that another former employee had told him of a foreign bank account where O'Hair had deposited $18 million of American Atheists money. He noted he had heard the story from someone and, therefore, it was technically hearsay. However, he said that he himself had seen a New Zealand bank statement showing a balance of $1.2 million of American Atheists money in New Zealand currency, which then translated to between $800,000 and $900,000 in US currency.

Petition 2493

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 being used for religious broadcasting. 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, twelve years after O'Hair's disappearance and long after her confirmed death.

A 2009 variation of Petition 2493 claims 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."Dobson denies any involvement.

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Madalyn Murray O'Hair's Timeline

April 13, 1919
Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, United States
November 16, 1954
Age 35
September 29, 1995
Age 76