Beyond belief: The remarkable life and mysterious disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most famous atheist, was ready to retire.

Back in 1964, Life magazine had called the former Rossford resident “The Most Hated Woman In America” after she had won a Supreme Court case stopping prayer in public schools.

For two decades, her brash, abrasive personality made her a favorite of the talk-show circuit, debating ministers over the existence of God and assembling a multimillion-dollar empire dedicated to fighting religion in any arena.

But the morning-in-America Reagan years had pushed her to the sidelines, and the 1990s brought little hope of an atheist revival. The Moral Majority had been defeated, but the Christian Coalition was right there to replace it. In her 70s and suffering from diabetes, Ms. O’Hair was in no shape to leap back into the religious war she helped create.

“I have little or no hope about the country,” she wrote in a May, 1995, letter to Toledoan Naomi Twining, a Rossford High School classmate of hers. “I think that it is going to be taken back to Medievalism. The American people are not politically sophisticated enough to manage an (alleged) democracy. Oh well, it’s been a good fight, even though a losing one.”

She seemed well on her way to being just another answer to a trivia question. “I was 76 in April,” she wrote. “That is just one helluva long time to be alive.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was ready to give up the fight and prepare for the pleasures and pains of old age.

Four months later, she vanished.

Some surmised that an angry God had taken her; others said she had gone into hiding because she was near death and didn’t want Christians praying for her. More cynical types suggested she had stolen millions and had run away to a retirement overseas.

But federal authorities believe none of those scenarios are true. They say Ms. O’Hair was kidnapped, murdered, dismembered, stuffed in a plastic barrel, and buried somewhere on a West Texas ranch.

A few weeks ago, more than four years after her disappearance, the man they think did the killing was sentenced to time behind bars, but on unrelated charges.

Ms. O’Hair had long ago faded from the spotlight. Few took notice of her activism. Even the one triumph of her life, her Supreme Court victory, is endangered: the court will consider, in its session that begins tomorrow, several cases that could chip away at the church-state divide she helped create, including allowing prayers at high school graduations.

It is one of her life’s bizarre ironies that it took her disappearance to make the world notice her one last time.

“Next year, it’ll be 40 years since my mother came into public view,” said her surviving son, Bill. “And in that time, she’s gotten more attention from this than from anything else she did. Everything else she did was a flash in the pan. But this is a Lizzie Borden story, a Lindbergh kidnapping, a Jack the Ripper, an Amelia Earhart – a case people are still going to be talking about a hundred years from now.”


From the moment she entered this world, Madalyn was touched by darkness.

When little Madalyn Mays was born on April 13, 1919, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Beechview, she emerged in a black shroud, a bizarre dark membrane coating her infant body.

At least that’s the story told by Madalyn’s Presbyterian mother, Lena Mays, after her daughter became a nationally hated atheist. Like many stories about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, it’s impossible to know whether it’s true.

Not much is conclusively known about young Madalyn’s childhood. Her parents, while not particularly religious, had Madalyn baptized in a Presbyterian church as a child. Her father, John, moved from job to job, and in 1934 took the Mays family to Rossford for a job at Libbey-Owens-Ford. Madalyn enrolled as a sophomore at the high school.

It’s unclear when young Madalyn started thinking about God and religion. After she achieved her fame, she told several different stories about how she came to her beliefs. Sometimes she said she had been an atheist since age 6. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965, she said her eureka moment came when the family was living in Ohio.

“I was about 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible.

“Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend – just as if it were a novel – very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it, the whole thing shocked me profoundly.”

But if Madalyn was thinking about atheism at Rossford High School, there’s no indication in her yearbooks. Next to her 1936 senior photo is a listing of her school activities: the French Club, the school newspaper, and the Girl Reserves. The Girl Reserves, the yearbook says, was “a subsidiary of the Young Women’s Christian Association” and held chapel programs and a Christmas ball.

“She was very assertive, very bright,” said Stanley Schultz, who was then the Rossford High student body president and now sells real estate in California. “But she was not a particularly attractive girl. She was sometimes the victim of classmates’ jokes: ‘Who are you going to take to prom? Madalyn Mays?’ ”

He recalled walking to school with Madalyn and having discussions about her religious doubts. “She had the same views she had later, but not quite as strong,” he said. “She took life seriously. She didn’t believe in God; I was Catholic, so I would disagree with her. But she didn’t get too angry about things back then.”

Classmate Charles Duricek has less pleasant memories. “She was terrible,” he said. “She was anti-Rossford, just anti-regular society … She was just a different type of girl, that’s for sure. She wanted to be president of the United States.”

Her views didn’t make Madalyn very popular, either during high school or at later reunions.

Naomi Twining was six years behind Madalyn in school, but remembers her vividly. “I used to walk behind her on the way to school,” she said. Later, Ms. Twining became involved in her old schoolmate’s movement and talked to her about their Rossford days.

“Madalyn told me that one of the first places she started thinking about religion was in the Brooks drugstore in Rossford,” Ms. Twining said. “The owners of the drugstore had been to college, and she liked to sit at the counter by the soda fountain and talk about philosophical issues with the owners.” (One of the workers at the former Superior Street drugstore, Jerome Brooks, went on to be the Detroit regional director of the National Labor Relations Board and president of the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.)

Even in high school, Mr. Schultz could see Madalyn’s potential.

“I’m sure she would have succeeded in whatever she did, and I had to admire her because she had beliefs and she stood up for them,” he said. “But I was a little disappointed that she took so much pride in being so hated.”

After graduating from Rossford in 1936, Madalyn attended the University of Toledo, but only for a year. “My father moved a lot, and I went to whatever college was handy,” she told an interviewer in 1964.

She ended up attending the University of Pittsburgh, Howard University, and the South Texas College of Law, along with a total of four Ohio schools: UT; Ashland College, where she received her bachelor’s degree; Western Reserve University; and Ohio Northern University, where she attended law school for one year.

Later in life, in her Playboy interview, she talked about her time at Ashland, a Brethren institution which required two years of Bible study for graduation. “It was a good, sound, thorough, but completely biased evaluation of the Bible, and I was delighted with it, because it helped to document my doubts; it gave me a framework within which I could be critical.”

In 1941, Ms. O’Hair eloped with a steelworker named John Roths, but World War II separated them two months after marriage. He joined the Marines and was sent to the Pacific; she went to Europe in the Women’s Army Corps. While in Europe, she had an affair with a married air corps officer named William Murray, Jr., and in 1945 conceived her first child.

When she returned to Mr. Roths, she demanded a divorce and hoped Mr. Murray would leave his wife for her. He never did, but Ms. O’Hair decided to take his name anyway. She became Madalyn Murray, and named her son William Murray III.

Over the next few years, Madalyn moved back to Ohio, then to Texas, and finally, in 1952, to Baltimore. She met another man, who fathered her second child, whom she named Jon Garth Murray – despite the fact that her wartime lover was not the father. She took a variety of jobs, including a lengthy stint as a psychiatric social worker.

It was there, in 1960, where she found her true calling. Her eldest son, Bill, was enrolled at Woodbourne Junior High, where students were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each school day. Ms. O’Hair, by that time an avowed and open atheist, decided to file suit against the Baltimore schools, saying that her son’s rights were being violated when he was forced to be around prayers in a public school.

Few noticed, until a Baltimore Sun reporter decided to do a story on her and her son. Within days, every major television and radio network was on the story. Ms. O’Hair was a celebrity.

In 1961, a local court dismissed her suit, but she appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals. She lost there too, leaving only one court to hear her case.

When the suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys general of 18 states had filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Ms. O’Hair. On her side were an array of liberal and humanist groups, along with the National Council of Churches and several Jewish groups.

On June 17, 1963, the court ruled 8-1, with Justice Potter Stewart dissenting, that school-sponsored prayer was unconstitutional. She had won.


After the Supreme Court decision, Ms. O’Hair became a star.

In truth, her role was not essential to the court’s ruling. The Supreme Court made its groundbreaking decision on another case, Abington Township v. Schempp, and merely attached Ms. O’Hair’s suit to that one. Had Ms. O’Hair’s suit never been filed, school-sponsored prayer would be just as unconstitutional as it is today.

And it didn’t take an atheist to oppose school prayer: many believers of many faiths believed the court had made the correct decision in keeping religion and education separate.

But, to millions of Americans, Ms. O’Hair was the villain.

The plaintiff in the Schempp case was a relatively quiet Unitarian from Pennsylvania. Ms. O’Hair was a fire-breathing radical atheist, eager for attention and always ready with an enraging quip. When the media and angry Christians went searching for someone to symbolize the massive change the court decision had wrought, they didn’t go looking for Ed Schempp of suburban Philadelphia. They went to Ms. O’Hair.

She loved it. She took to calling herself “the most hated woman in America,” and reveled in the seeming importance it brought her.

“My mother was constantly talking about how brilliant she was: ‘I’m Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very important person!’ ” said her son Bill, who converted to Christianity in 1980. “She always told my brother, ‘Maybe one of these days you’ll live up to being called the son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair!’ ”

She immediately set to filing more lawsuits, seeking more impressive victories. She tried to remove the tax exemption of churches; when she couldn’t win that battle in court, she succeeded in getting her atheist organizations declared tax-exempt. She tried to get “In God We Trust” removed from American money. She tried to stop public bodies from having prayers before meetings, and to stop courts from swearing witnesses and jurors with “so help me God.”

She tried a lot of things, and most of them got her a lot of publicity, if little success. For her work, Ms. O’Hair received an enormous amount of abuse, from death threats to physical confrontations – which isn’t surprising, considering she was cracking jokes about virgin births and advocating sex for 13-year-olds at a time when Leave It To Beaver was still on the air.

Christian clerics began using the name of Madalyn Murray O’Hair in their sermons as a symbol of all things bad about the modern world.

After describing, one by one, the performance of each of her past lovers to Playboy, she said: “Say, I wonder why I’m telling you all this. I know I’m being indiscreet, because this kind of thing could be used against me nationwide; it’ll just add fuel to the fire, which is already hot enough for me. But you know something? It just so happens that I don’t give a damn. I’m going to be damned anyway. If they haven’t destroyed me yet, I’d say I’m indestructible.”

Her rise coincided with the rise of the talk show and the televised debate, and she was a perfect match for the new medium. Ms. O’Hair was smart, well-read, and a powerful speaker; she could be a magnetic personality when she wasn’t repulsing her audience with her ideas. (She spoke twice in northwest Ohio, in 1972 and 1975.)

In 1967, when a young Dayton man named Phil Donahue was starting a talk show on WLWD-TV, he had Madalyn Murray O’Hair as his first guest. During that first show, Mr. Donahue noticed that audience members were asking tough questions of her during commercial breaks. He decided to run out into the audience with a microphone, getting them to repeat the questions on the air – and starting the modern daytime talk show format.

By 1965, Ms. O’Hair had moved to Austin, where she would live for the rest of her life. She made the Texas capital the center of the many atheist organizations she founded . She claimed that her main group, American Atheists, had more than 50,000 members, although more objective estimates put the total at around 2,000 or 3,000.

But somehow, with a small membership, her atheist groups managed to pull in enormous amounts of money, and some of it reached the O’Hair family. She bragged about paying for the new 16,000-square-foot American Atheist headquarters in 1986 with more than $1 million in cash. At that time, she drove a Mercedes, as did her son Jon; granddaughter Robin drove a Porsche. Jon bragged in the media about how much his suits cost; the entire family had overseas bank accounts with hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A leader of a rival atheist organization once called Ms. O’Hair “the Jimmy Swaggart of the movement.”)

At the same time, her abrasive manner alienated more than a few members of her organization. She was not known for keeping her voice down, and she didn’t hesitate to belittle even her allies. In 1980, even her own son Bill revolted, declaring he had found Jesus Christ (on Mother’s Day, no less) and becoming a fundamentalist minister.

She put her other son, Jon Garth, and granddaughter Robin into positions of power within the organization that others didn’t feel they were ready for, pushing more people away. Some revolted and formed splinter groups; some became O’Hair enemies.

“She perpetually challenged everyone’s motives and intentions,” said Frank Zindler, a Columbus resident who edits American Atheist magazine and remained a friend of Ms. O’Hair’s until her disappearance. “She was cautious – some would say paranoid – about others, and that was always lurking in the background. She could get extraordinarily angry at the people who worked for her and with her.”

In 1995, according to federal authorities, one of those people was not willing to take that abuse anymore, and settled on revenge.


The mystery began on Aug. 28, 1995, when employees of American Atheists showed up for work at the Austin headquarters.

“The Murray-O’Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis,” read a note left at the headquarters. Ms. O’Hair, son Jon, and granddaughter Robin were nowhere to be found.

An atheist friend of the family stopped by their home, and found a half-eaten breakfast on the table, and Ms. O’Hair’s blood-pressure medication on the kitchen counter.

Concerned associates of the O’Hairs tried reaching them on Jon’s cell phone, and succeeded. Ms. O’Hair told her callers that she was on unspecified business in San Antonio and that she shouldn’t be contacted. She told them that everything was fine, but her friends told authorities they weren’t so sure. “You could tell everything was not OK,” said Ellen Johnson, now president of American Atheists.

The last contact with the O’Hairs took place on Sept. 29. After that the phone was turned off. No one has heard from the three of them since.

Few noticed when Ms. O’Hair vanished, because her star had long ago dimmed on the national scene. People in Austin threw out a few theories, from alien abduction to Satanic human sacrifice.

No one even filed a missing persons report until September, 1996, when son Bill finally did.

Over the next two years, a few tantalizing clues trickled out of private and law enforcement investigations. While in San Antonio, Jon Murray had wired $600,000 from an offshore account in New Zealand to a San Antonio bank. He had used that money to buy 1,174 gold coins from a jewelry store.

And a former office manager at American Atheists named David Waters was pushing his own theory: He claimed to have documents taken from the atheists headquarters proving that the O’Hairs were planning on fleeing to New Zealand with the organization’s money. He even wrote an as-yet-unpublished book about it, entitled Good Gawd Madalyn! The Not-So-Sudden Disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The theories and counter theories flew furiously until March 24 of this year, when FBI agents raided Waters’s Austin apartment and simultaneously entered the Novi, Mich., home of a man named Gary Karr.

Waters, 52, and Karr, 50, have extensive criminal records. Waters has the longer rap sheet, with a homicide, an assault, and two forgeries. Karr had been convicted of armed robbery and indecency with a child, along with weapons charges.

Agents in Waters’s apartment were looking for, among other things, pieces of Ms. O’Hair’s jewelry, the missing gold coins, and a 9mm handgun. They didn’t find those, but they did find 119 rounds of ammunition. As a convicted felon, Waters is banned from having weapons or ammunition, and he was arrested on weapons charges.

At the same time, agents in Michigan found two handguns in Karr’s Novi home, and arrested him on similar charges.

It quickly became clear that the agents weren’t just looking for evidence for weapons charges against these two men. They were, agents revealed, the leading suspects in the murders of the O’Hairs.

Neither man has been charged with anything related to the family’s disappearance, and no bodies have been found. But an affidavit filed in federal court and unsealed on May 26 lays out a substantial circumstantial case against Waters and Karr.

Here, according to the affidavit, is what agents believe happened to Ms. O’Hair and her family:

In April, 1994, more than $54,000 disappeared from the bank account of one of Ms. O’Hair’s groups. A subsequent investigation showed that the money vanished when Waters had written checks to himself from the account. In May, 1995, Waters pleaded guilty to theft, and despite his lengthy, violent criminal record, received a light sentence: 10 years of probation, and an order to repay the money over a 10-year period.

Ms. O’Hair was flabbergasted; had someone stolen this amount from, say, a Protestant church, the sentence would have been much more severe, she believed. As she often did, she took out her anger in writing, penning a long article for the July, 1995, issue of the American Atheist newsletter about Waters.

She detailed his criminal past, including details of his 1978 battery conviction against his mother, in which he beat her with a broom handle, broke wall plaques over her head, and urinated in her face. She detailed how fear of Waters had caused the organization to erect a seven-foot steel-link fence around atheist headquarters.

According to Waters’s girlfriend at the time, the essay enraged Waters. He began talking about wanting to kill the O’Hairs, to torture Ms. O’Hair by pulling off each of her toes with pliers. He felt he had been mistreated by the O’Hairs and wanted his revenge.

So, according to the affidavit, he recruited Karr – an old buddy from a prison stint in Illinois – along with a man from Florida named Danny Fry. Their plan: kidnap the O’Hairs, force them to withdraw money from one of their bank accounts, convert it into untraceable gold coins, then kill them.

According to the affidavit, they carried out the plan. Waters rented a mini-storage warehouse in San Antonio in which to store the gold coins , and ordered Jon Murray to get them the money. Once the gold coins were purchased, the O’Hairs weren’t heard from again.

A confidential source quoted in the affidavit stated that soon after, Danny Fry “looked sick … It was obvious that Waters and Karr were getting along, but Fry was not part of the group … It was quite uncommon for Fry to be so quiet [and] strange that Fry was not drinking or even drunk, as he usually drank whiskey and beer everyday.”

Three days after the O’Hairs were last heard from, Fry disappeared as well. His body, with its head and hands chopped off, was dumped by a river east of Dallas. It went unidentified for more than three years.

In the month after the killings, Waters and Karr went on a spending spree, buying expensive clothes, jewelry, and cars.

Most elements of the government’s case are well documented through phone and purchase records accumulated throughout investigations. The major holes: no bodies and no weapon. But when authorities went to Michigan to question Karr, he allegedly admitted to his role in the killings of the O’Hairs and Fry, according to court testimony from one of the FBI agents who interviewed him. (Karr, through his attorney, has since said he made no such admission.)

The government’s explanation has satisfied many of the people around the O’Hairs. “I think that’s what happened,” said Ms. O’Hair’s son, Bill. “They make a strong argument, and it makes sense to me,” said her colleague, Frank Zindler.

But some still have doubts, and hold out hope that the family is still alive.

On May 27, Waters pleaded guilty to the weapons charges, for which he was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.

Then, on Aug. 11, came what might be considered Ms. O’Hair’s revenge from beyond the grave.

She had been enraged when Waters was given just 10 years probation on his theft of $54,000 from American Atheists in 1994. But the federal weapons charges were a violation of the terms of that probation.

So an Austin judge decided to throw the book at him and sentenced him to 60 years for the theft for which, just a few years earlier, he had gotten off almost scot-free.

Karr is being held in the Wayne County jail in Michigan on the weapons charges, awaiting a judge’s ruling on a motion to suppress key evidence in his trial.

As important as Ms. O’Hair fancied herself to be, her movement has survived without her. American Atheists moved its headquarters to New Jersey and has kept its membership rolls steady. Many atheists are happy that their movement now has a less abrasive face.

In the new U.S. Supreme Court session that begins tomorrow, the justices are expected to take up several cases that could weaken her historic school prayer victory, including suits over private school vouchers and prayer at graduation ceremonies or football games.

But her legacy has survived. In the wake of last year’s school shootings, more than a few conservative pundits blamed the violence on Ms. O’Hair and her removal of school prayer.

If she is dead, it’s possible that her body will never be found. If authorities are correct, it’s likely that only Waters knows where it is, and he has little incentive to talk. But Ms. O’Hair, more than a decade ago, sketched out for an interviewer how she would like to be remembered:

“I told my kids I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I’ll probably be cremated. One is ‘woman.’ I’m very comfortable in that role. I’ve loved being a woman, I’ve loved being a mother, I’ve loved being a grandmother.

“I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That’s me.”