Madalyn Murray O’Hair: The Founder Of The American Atheists Who Was Gruesomely Murdered

Published October 31, 2018
Updated January 27, 2020

Madalyn Murray O'Hair waged a 30-year-long war against religion in America, a battle that had her dubbed as 'The Most Hated Woman In America' by Life Magazine.

Most Hated Woman In America Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty ImagesMadalyn Murray O’Hair on January 24, 1984.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the American Atheists organization in the 1960s following the landmark Supreme court ruling that banned prayer in public schools — of which O’Hair pushed for herself.

The mission of the American Atheists was in part inclusive, and O’Hair opened her arms to people of all kinds — including ex-cons. It would be this willingness and openness, though, that would lead to her grisly demise more than 30 years later.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Early Life

O’Hair was born on April 13, 1919 in Pittsburgh and was baptized a Presbyterian, though she said that she became an atheist early in life. She was raised in an upper-middle-class family until the 1929 stock market crash hit her family’s interests hard, and her father had to become an itinerant worker.

O’Hair then joined the military and served as a cryptographer in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. When she was stationed in Italy, she met and became involved with William Murray Jr, an officer. Both O’Hair and Murray were already married at the time.

The Army officer refused to divorce his wife to be with Madalyn because of his strict Roman Catholic upbringing which mandated that he couldn’t divorce. O’Hair had a son from the relationship, divorced her husband, and took the last name of Murray even though she never married the officer.

Perhaps the seeming hypocrisy of the married officer’s religion moved O’Hair closer to atheism.

The Establishment Of The American Atheists

After the war, O’Hair earned her law degree from South Texas College of Law in 1952. She then joined the Socialist Workers Party because she was unhappy with the American government’s policies towards the Soviet Union, and even tried to emigrate to the U.S.S.R. in 1959 and 1960, but the country denied her son William citizenship.

Madalyn Murray O'Hair And Her Husband

Bettmann / Contributor/Getty ImagesMadalyn O’Hair, the “Most Hated Woman In America”, and her husband Richard display charters for the faux-church they established to undermine the tax exempt status of other churches.

At about the same time, William, then in junior high, attended a public school in Baltimore. It was here that O’Hair first made a name for herself. O’Hair was incensed that William had to say daily prayers while in school. She sued the school district for failing to adhere to the separation of church and state, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1963, the court voted 8 to 1 to ban mandated prayers in public schools. O’Hair proclaimed at the case that Americans had “an unalienable right to freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.” She then appeared on the first episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show to publically discuss her views.

Using the court case as a springboard, O’Hair founded the group American Atheists and moved the organization’s headquarters to Austin, Texas. The aim of the organization 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.”

But why stop at prayer in schools? O’Hair wanted God out of everything. In 1964, Life magazine dubbed her the “Most Hated Woman in America.”

Becoming The Most Hated Woman In America

Following her legal success in 1963, atheists sent O’Hair money to continue her fight against religion. At the peak of the American Atheists, it’s estimated that O’Hair controlled up to $15 million in donated assets.

Larry Flynt, owner of Hustler, even signed over his $300 million empire to her in case he died — that is, until, Flynt’s brother heard what happened and convinced the multi-millionaire to do away with the offer.

O’Hair went on to try to get “In God We Trust” taken off of American coins and currency. She wanted “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance. O’Hair also didn’t want the Catholic and Mormon churches to have tax-exempt status in the United States. O’Hair failed in these latter attempts. However, that didn’t deter her: “I love a good fight. I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?” O’Hair is reported to have said.

Indeed, her combative style won her many enemies, but she didn’t care and she didn’t back down. People who didn’t get along with her called her “Mad Madalyn.” Her biographer referred to as: “a unique combination of brilliant manipulator and outrageous, foulmouthed trouble-seeker.”

A televised interview with Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

But O’Hair continued to appear on talk shows, wrote articles for Playboy and Hustler, and managed to keep her message in the media spotlight.

Madalyn Murray Of The American Atheists On Johnny Carson

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty ImagesMadalyn Murray O’Hair during an interview with Tonight Show host Johnny Carson on Feb. 12, 1975.

O’Hair’s message was inclusive. She accepted anyone into her inner circle, so long as they were atheist. The mission of the American Atheists, in fact, stated that “An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist accepts that heaven is something for which we should work now — here on earth — for all men together to enjoy.”

But her open arms would prove to be her undoing.

Embezzlement, Scandal, And Murder

In 1993, O’Hair fired an office manager, David R. Waters, for stealing $54,000 from the organization. Either unbeknownst to O’Hair or because she did not care, before his employment at American Atheists, Waters was actually a convicted murderer out on parole. But O’Hair believed everyone deserved a fair shake.

Two years later, 77-year-old O’Hair, her second-oldest son 40-year-old Jon Garth Murray, her granddaughter, 30-year-old Robin Murray O’Hair, and $610,000 in cash all went missing.

Texas officials were able to implicate Waters, along with two accomplices Gary Karr and Danny Fry, for the crime. But the bodies of the O’Hairs continued to be missing until the murderers eventually lead authorities to the exact spot they were buried in 2001.

In a remote ranch in southern Texas, officials found the burned and dismembered bodies of the three O’Hairs. Their legs had been removed and their bodies stacked on top of each other. The method of execution for Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her granddaughter were indiscernible, but her son was found with signs of blunt force trauma: his arms were tied and a plastic bag was placed around his head.

A severed head and hands from a fourth body were also found, who authorities believed to belong to the third accomplice, Danny Fry.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Legacy

O’Hair’s surviving son, William, went on to become a Christian evangelist and rejects his mother to this day.

Family Of Murray O'Hair

Mysanantonio.comMurray O’Hair with her son Jon, left, and granddaughter, Robin, right.

In a 1999 statement, William Murray wrote, “My mother was not just Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist leader. She was an evil person who led many to hell. That is hard for me to say about my own mother but it is true.”

He claimed that O’Hair would brag that she watched X-rated movies in Baltimore and that she was often the only woman in the movie theater. He resented that she seemed to have a significant amount of power over his younger brother and his daughter, Robin. He believed that it was that power which led to their deaths.

A trailer for Netflix’s new movie on Madalyn Murray O’Hair, The Most Hated Woman In America.

In 2017, Netflix produced a movie based on O’Hair’s life titled The Most Hated Woman In America. William Murray said that the film took too many fictitious liberties. and because no one contacted him for source material, he believes that most of the producers’ information came from a Google search.

Much of O’Hair’s legacy is laden with ironies, but she was given the funeral she would have hoped for. Her remains were cremated and no one prayed over her soul.

After this look at Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the real story behind The Most Hated Woman In America, check out this American religious tolerance study. Then, read up on another controversial though more sinister organizer, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party.

William DeLong
A graduate of Missouri State University with a degree in English and creative writing, William DeLong is a freelance wordsmith who has written approximately 40,000 articles since 2009.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.