With her white hair, big glasses and floral dresses, Madalyn Murray O’Hair certainly didn’t look like she embodied a danger to American morals. But this social worker and activist was also a zealous campaigner against the church’s influence on public and political life, making her extremely unpopular among more traditional sectors of society.
So unpopular, in fact, that Life magazine titled their 1964 feature on her ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’. A description that has now been used as the title of a Netflix biopic starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, which recounts the turbulent life and grisly death of this remarkable woman.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair rose to fame in 1960 when she filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Public Education System, objecting to the fact that her son Bill had to read the Bible in class. The lawsuit reached the Supreme Court in 1963 and was approved by eight votes to one. And so, prayers and Bible reading were banned in American schools, to the outrage of many Christians across the country.
O’Hair went on to become a champion of atheism in the USA, founding American Atheists in 1963 – the year of her Supreme Court victory.
Buoyed by her initial success, O’Hair soon found a new cause. She filed a lawsuit against NASA in an attempt to prevent US astronauts on Apollo VIII from reading from Genesis in public. The courts ruled against her on that occasion. In 1979, this dauntless iconoclast took on an ever greater foe: fighting to prevent Pope John Paul II from celebrating Eucharist on the National Mall.
Foul mouthed and argumentative, O’Hair could nonetheless be extremely eloquent in defending her cause: ‘An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist thinks that heaven is something for which we should work for now – here on earth – for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist thinks that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue, and enjoy it. An Atheist thinks that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find understanding that will help lead to a life of fulfillment.’
O’Hair went on to become a champion of atheism in the USA, founding American Atheists in 1963
O’Hair spent much of the sixties and seventies arguing the case for atheism and campaigning against the church’s influence in public and political life, appearing on countless TV and radio programmes. The 1980s brought bad news for the activist when her eldest son, Bill, was baptised by the Dallas Baptist Church. Bill went on to become an evangelical preacher and disown his mother. Madalyn was furious, saying: ‘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.’
Things got even worse for American Atheists in the decade the followed, turning to tragedy in 1995 when Madalyn, her youngest son, and her granddaughter all vanished without a trace one day. The only clue was a note stuck to the door of her office 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 writing this memo.’
One year after their disappearance, Bill Murray O’Hair appealed to the police for help.
The investigation ended up focusing on David Waters, an ex-employee of American Atheists. Evidence pointed to Waters – along with a couple of accomplices – kidnapping the family and forcing them to hand over the organisation’s funds before murdering them.
After his conviction in 2001, Waters informed federal agents that the O’Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch and led them to the bodies. When law enforcement excavated there, they discovered that the bodies had had their legs dismembered with a saw. The remains exhibited such extensive mutilation and decomposition that identification had to be made by DNA testing and dental records.
Waters was sentenced to 80 years in prison, eventually dying of lung cancer at the Federal Medical Center in North Carolina. Sadly, Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s passionate – if controversial – life of activism was quickly forgotten, buried beneath the horror of her death.