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Madalyn Murray O'Hair commonswikimediaorgIf you’ve missed the last three posts, you might want to read them before reading this conclusion to the Madalyn Murray O’Hair story.

Why is she important?  She helped bring about the abolition of prayer in US state schools.  She turned from Presbyterianism to atheism in her youth and made it her life’s mission to ‘educate’ the American public about a society and life free from God.  In this concluding part, we’ll look at the last part of her life.  Key themes and words in the text are highlighted in green, as in the first two parts.

After the abolition of coercive school prayer in 1963, Madalyn worked to eradicate school prayer full stop.  To keep a regular salary coming in, however, she worked as a psychiatric social worker and as a supervisor at the Welfare departement for the City of Baltimore.   

Personal relationships strained

Madalyn’s father John Mays was a godly Presbyterian.  He told her years ago how disappointed he was in her giving birth out of wedlock not only once but twice and now here she was gaining national notoriety campaigining and filing lawsuits trying to ban prayer in schools.  He and Madalyn would have a strained relationship going forward.

Madalyn had an older brother, Irv.  He, too, turned against his sister. 

Madalyn’s elder son William, or Bill, increasingly disliked his mother and eventually broke all ties with her.  By 1963, he would have been finishing high school.  Imagine the comments and treatment that he and his younger brother must have endured.   He and Uncle Irv would take over the Freethought Society (see previous post).  In 1980, Bill became baptised in the Baptist Church and has a ministry which continues today.  Madalyn said, ‘One could call this a post-natal abortion on the part of the mother, I guess … He is beyond human forgiveness.’  

But she also had trouble with the law.  In 1963, she allegedly assaulted five Baltimore police officers.  They had come to pick up a runaway girl, said to have been Bill’s girlfriend.  Murray later claimed she had been beaten by ‘God-fearing’ police.  After that incident, she and her sons moved to Hawaii, then Mexico, before deciding to settle in Austin, Texas.  There, she met a retired US Marine, Richard O’Hair.  They married but went their separate ways.  However, they did not divorce.  O’Hair died in 1978.

It was also in Austin that she founded the American Atheist Center, which still exists today.  She began making the talk show rounds in earnest, espousing her viewpoint.

Madalyn espoused many causes and had a philosophy of life that would be mainstream today. However, keep in mind we’re talking 35-45 years ago. She:

  • Believed young children should be given sex education in school (so, required prayer is bad but required sex ed is okay) 
  • Thought children should engage in sexual intercourse as soon as they reached puberty
  • Said that religion was ‘a crutch’ and ‘supernatural nonsense’.

Disappearance and death

In August 1995, Madalyn, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin — all of whom worked at the American Atheist Center — disappeared.  The other staff had the impression from a note left behind that they would return.  During the next month, Jon and Robin occasionally rang the office but sounded ill at ease.  The office received no communication from Madalyn.  The three were never seen again or heard from after September 1995.

One year later, Bill filed a missing persons report.  He said that he had hesitated to do so earlier because of the publicity it would generate and also because he believed that people who didn’t wish to be found shouldn’t be sought.  The O’Hairs were declared legally dead.  As they were in debt, remaining assets were sold to clear them.

Speculation was rife on what had happened.  Perhaps they were still alive and in a faraway country.  If they were really dead, maybe someone had used them for their money and lived the high life for a time.  A murder investigation focused on the O’Hairs’ office manager David Roland Waters, who had already had run ins with Madalyn and had pleaded guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing $54,000 from them. 

In 2001, Waters led police to a Texas ranch and pointed out where the bodies were buried.  Police believe that while the O’Hairs were alive Waters lived off their money and went on shopping sprees.  He was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery and murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  He was also under court order to pay back over $500,000 in missing funds to the O’Hairs’ organisation and their personal estates, although it is unlikely he was able to do so.  Waters died in prison in 2003.

Madalyn’s son Bill, the pastor, said:

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 organisations. 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.

Think of the company this woman kept and the wilful way in which she turned against Christianity.  She used her own bad theology to make a federal case for imposing her will on a nation, and that nation — including its highest court — was foolish enough to go along with it.    

What else are Americans — or any of the rest of us in the West — foolish enough to do next? 

For more information on Madalyn Murray O’Hair, click here, here, here and here


Madalyn Murray O'Hair athiestsorgcaIf you haven’t read yesterday’s post — or the one prior to that — they are about the abolition of school prayer and the Presbyterian-turned-atheist pivotal in making that happen: Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who had her heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

The post on school prayer explains influences that helped this development to fruition.  If you’re pressed for time, I’ll highlight these concepts and movements in green in the text.

Young, single mum

In 1948, Madalyn returned to her studies, this time at Ashland College in Ohio, specialising in History.  Her parents moved to Texas where her father had better work prospects.  Madalyn joined them and enrolled at the South Texas College of Law.  Whilst she completed her law degree, she did not pass the state bar exam. 

She ended up working odd jobs in Texas before moving to Baltimore, Maryland.  During this time, her co-workers found her ‘disruptive and combative’.  This is not surprising, given that she had a small son to care for and no husband.  Texas must have been particularly difficult.  Baltimore, too, however, was a conservative, bourgeois city at the time.  Historically, it offered colonial Catholics the freedom to practice their religion and earn a living.   

Eight years after William was born, she had another affair whilst living in Texas and ended up pregnant again. She had been working in the engineering department of an aircraft manufacturer and the father was one of her colleagues, Michael Fiorillo. Once more, there was no chance of marriage and she had to change jobs.  In 1954, Jon Garth Murray was born.  Although Captain Murray was not the father this time, Madalyn had given her first son his name and began using it herself, which no doubt raised fewer eyebrows when it came to taking him to the doctor or enrolling him in school.

Her father, John Mays, a churchgoing Presbyterian, had strong words with his daughter about her morality and behaviour. 

Spare time

As I mentioned in the first part of this series yesterday, Madalyn felt increasingly out of place in society and at home.  Consequently, she turned to the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1956.  She considered herself such an ‘outsider‘ that she applied for citizenship of what was then the USSR.  She even falsified information to do it.  But the USSR turned her down.  The SLP gave her opportunities to speak at their meetings and marches.  Her knowledge of history was helpful in developing persuasive rhetoric. 

So, essentially, what we have is a highly intelligent agitator, who considers herself an outsider, appealing to other outsiders.  She wanted everyone to be as miserable as she was.

Head-to-head over school prayer

Somehow, Madalyn was able to send William to private school in Baltimore.  Once he reached junior school age, she put him in a state school.  On his first day in 1959, she went to enrol him and was shocked to see pupils praying the Our Father.  She told the administrator that it was unconstitutional.  One can imagine what the school administrators thought.  No one at the time would have dreamt of saying something like that.  Nearly all state schools took part in prayer before the first class of the day.  It was the norm. 

That wouldn’t put her off.  In December 1960, she put her SLP skills to work and protested outside the school.  Her case, Murray v Curlett, tried in the Superior Court of Baltimore, was dismissed. Undeterred, and knowing it had garnered considerable publicity, she took the case to the Supreme Court.  It was joined with another case, Abington School District v Schempp.  In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that required prayer and Bible recitation were unconstitutional in America’s state schools.

But Madalyn didn’t stop there.  She kept going with new lawsuits to further separate church and state.  She unsuccessfully challenged the tax-exempt status of churches.  Then she helped found what was called the Freethought Society, the purpose of which was to educate the public about atheism.  Ever the agitator, she published newsletters, gave lectures and appeared on television.  Meanwhile, her personal relationships were slowly unravelling.

Life magazine called her ‘the most hated woman in America’.  Indeed, wherever she and her sons went, Americans gave her their frank opinions about her beliefs and what she had done.  Her actions were unbelievable and unthinkable. 

If our forebears had been smart, they would have taken out their ire on the Supreme Court instead.  This is what I was referring to in the post on school prayer.  The American ways of thinking had been settling into a new groove since the 1930s.  Even today, most Americans don’t realise why and how so much has changed in such a short space of time.  By the time the school prayer challenge and O’Hair came to the fore, the die had already been cast long before.    

To be continued tomorrow …


Madalyn Murray O'Hair athiestfoxholesorgYesterday, I featured a post on the abolition of school prayer in the US.

The primary person responsible for this landmark ruling was a person familiar to those of us growing up in the 1960s and 1970s: Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  She was infamous for being ‘America’s most hated woman’.  What was most shocking at the time was that not only was she an atheist but a woman atheist.  No right-thinking, self-respecting person could figure her out.  These days, atheists are a dime a dozen, but things were different then.  I don’t recall that anyone I knew ‘hated’ her, but it made a good headline for Life magazine.  We did, however, find her perplexing and disturbing.  How could anyone be so rabidly anti-God?  Yes, we knew one or two atheists personally but they never made a scene about their beliefs.    

As you read about O’Hair’s life, think about yesterday’s post and the principles that Gramsci and the Frankfurt School espoused.  See if you can detect a pattern here.  If you don’t have time to read the preceding article, I’ll highlight the relevant terms in green.

Early years

Madalyn was born in 1919 to a Pittsburgh couple, Lena Christina Scholle and John Irwin Mays.  Madalyn’s mother, a Lutheran, became a Presbyterian upon her marriage to Mr Mays.  As Madalyn later recalled, ‘She attended that church for 50 years. My brother and myself were both brought up in the Presbyterian church.’

As a girl, Madalyn began reading voraciously and was accustomed to regular trips to the library.  One weekend when she was in ‘fifth or sixth grade’, her father didn’t take her to the library.  Madalyn, stuck at home with no new books, read the Bible and then began asking her parents about what she had read. She found the stories cruel and inhumane. She says her mother answered with, ‘Oh, that’s not in my Bible!’  And, so were sown the seeds of her unbelief.

Versions of her youth and her father’s fortunes differ, even from Madalyn herself, but it is thought that her father suffered in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression.  The family moved from Pittsburgh and lived in Detroit and Chicago.  Madalyn’s family, including her older brother, ended up living with one of her maternal uncles in Rossford, near Akron, Ohio, whilst Mr Mays was often away from home on business. 

It was at her uncle’s that she began reading about government paternalism and started thinking about the way American government worked.  She lived across the street from the local drug store where she spent hours with her friends at the soda fountain.  Her friends recall that she had high ambitions for herself and was highly intelligent.  After graduating from Rossford High School, Madalyn took up a National Youth Administration Scholarship to attend the University of Toledo.  She planned to go on to study medicine.

Young adulthood

She attended the University of Toledo only briefly before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh.  Madalyn earned money at university by helping her father with the bookkeeping in his new contracting business there.  He urged her to take civil engineering courses, which she did.  It was at this time that she became interested in a new movement, feminism.  She liked to consider herself a breed apart from other women, however. 

Soon after taking up studies at the University of Pittsburgh, she met her first husband, John Henry Roths.  After a brief, whirlwind courtship, they married on October 9, 1941.  The Second World War soon interrupted their marriage.  Her husband joined the Marines.  Madalyn joined the Women’s Army Corps (WACs).  She was able to gain high security clearance and helped Allied staff in North Africa, France and Italy.  It was whilst she was a cryptographer in Italy that she met the father of her first child: Army Captain William J Murray Jr, a married Catholic.  During her pregnancy she returned to the US to face her parents and her husband.   

Needless to say, the couple were divorced soon after her return.  Captain Murray had no intention of leaving his wife for Madalyn.  Whilst the story of an unwed mother might be a Hollywood staple today, she was living on the edge of society.  It was during her pregnancy that she stood outside in a thunderstorm, alone, and challenged God to strike her and her unborn child dead.  God will not be mocked or challenged, however, and William Murray was born on May 25, 1946. 

Madalyn became angrier with God over the choices she had made for herself and the consequences of those choices.

Finding herself very much alone in society, she developed a hard shell of self-defence.  She felt that she did not fit in with the world she encountered.    

To be continued tomorrow…


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