Mays was born in Beechview, Pennsylvania. As an infant she was baptized
into the Presbyterian church. She married John Henry Roths in 1941,
however they separated when they both enlisted, he in the United
States Marine Corps, she in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
In 1945, while posted to a cryptography position in Italy, she began
an affair with William J. Murray, Jr, and she gave birth to a boy
Murray was a married Roman Catholic, and he refused to divorce his
wife to marry Madalyn, who nevertheless divorced Roths and began
calling herself Madalyn Murray. In 1949 she completed a Law degree
from South Texas College of Law, but she never practiced law. On
November 16, 1954, she gave birth to another son (Jon Garth Murray)
by a different father.
1960, Murray filed a lawsuit (Murray v. Curlett) against the Baltimore,
Maryland School District in which she claimed it was unconstitutional
for her son William to participate in Bible readings at Baltimore
public schools. She further went on to claim that her son's atheism
had made him the victim of violence from other classmates, violence
that she claimed was overlooked by administrators who didn't care
if injury were to befall an atheist.
1963, this suit (amalgamated with the similar Abington School
District v. Schempp) reached the United States Supreme Court which
voted 8-1 in her favor, effectively banning 'coercive' public
prayer and Bible-reading at public schools in the United States.
Public opinion was such that in 1964, Life magazine referred to
Madalyn Murray as the most hated woman in America.
Following the Supreme Court decision, Madalyn 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 its first CEO before later handing that office on
to her son Jon Garth.
1965, Madalyn married Richard O'Hair. Throughout the 1970s she
publicly debated religious leaders on a variety of issues and
also produced an atheist radio program in which she criticized
religion and theism. She filed lawsuits on many issues over which
she felt there was a collusion of church and state in violation
of the Constitution. Richard O'Hair seems to have dissappeared
from the scene, and his fate remains unknown.
1980, her son William converted to Christianity and was "born
again" at a Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, where he took
up work as a preacher. In sermons, he accused his mother of using
him as a tool in her crusade, claiming she had lied about her
reasons for filing the lawsuit against Maryland, and that he had
never been the victim of any kind of violence at the hands of
his Christian classmates.
said that the true reason for his mother filing the suit was her
deep personal hatred for followers of Christianity. William said
her zeal against Christianity was so great that it had taken over
her life and rendered her incapable of seeing other people (himself
included) as anything but either enemies or people who agreed
with her every ideal. Murray called her son's conversion "unforgivable"
and spoke of symbolically murdering him for what she viewed as
a transgression against her: "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 O'Hair clashed not only with religious believers but with
many atheists. She expelled members of American Atheists who did
not conform to her ideas of how atheists should behave. In a 1982
address, she criticized a wide variety of atheists as being unacceptable,
seemingly all except those whom the psychologist Abraham Maslow
might have characterized as engaged in self-actualization.
On August 27, 1995, Madalyn, Jon Garth, and Robin Murray O'Hair
(William's daughter who had been adopted by Madalyn) disappeared
from the headquarters of American Atheists, leaving a note implying
an absence for some time and a visit to San Antonio, Texas. In
September, Jon ordered $600,000 (USD) worth of gold coins from
a San Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000 (USD).
No further communication came from any of the O'Hairs, and one
year later, William Murray (Madalyn's son) filed a missing persons
was speculation that the O'Hairs had abandoned American Atheists
and fled with the money. One investigator concluded they had gone
to New Zealand. Other theories suggested fundamentalist Christians
had kidnapped the trio. Another rumor was that Madalyn had died
of natural causes, and that her remains had been secretly disposed
of to prevent the possibility of a "Christian burial"
of her by her Christian son. The O'Hairs were declared legally
dead, and many of their assets were sold to clear up their debts.
a murder investigation focused on David Roland Waters, who had
worked as an office manager and typesetter for American Atheists
and who had previous convictions for violent crimes and also one
for stealing $50,000 from the organization. Police concluded that
he and his accomplices had kidnapped the O'Hairs, forced them
to withdraw the missing funds, and then murdered them. Waters
eventually pled guilty to reduced charges.
in January 2001, Waters informed the police that the O'Hairs were
buried on a ranch in Texas, and gave them the exact location of
the ranch and 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's case,
by her prosthetic hip.
Some atheists have contended O'Hair's aggressive (some say abrasive)
strategy of direct confrontion with mainstream Christianity, which
included specific attacks on its validity using quotes from the
Bible, was flawed and ultimately undermined efforts to encourage
and preserve secularism in schools and government.
has also been criticized for failing to adequately address issues
of ethics and morality as they relate to a non-religious outlook
(given that many Christians are reported to erroneously believe
atheists are "by definition" immoral). By the time of
her death the word atheist had become so closely associated with
her name and personal views (especially in the United States)
that it was already declining in popularity among atheists and
various efforts have been made to introduce a new term into common
Madalyn Murray O'Hair achieved posthumous notoriety among users
of the Internet through a seemingly unsquashable urban legend.
An endlessly circulating e-mail (mostly exchanged among Christians)
claimed "Madalyn Murray O'Hare 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
cited a 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 2006 similar e-mails
were still being reported, eleven years after O'Hair's disappearance
and long after her confirmed death.