By Kayla Armstrong —
The way the secular media reported it, Madalyn Murray O’Hair – the famous atheist who got Bible reading kicked out of public schools – was a national hero after the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in 1963.
A year earlier, the Supreme Court prohibited government-sponsored prayer in schools. After O’Hair won her case, a 1964 Life magazine profile referred to her as “the most hated woman in America.”
But secularists went so far as to say the historic ruling placed the U.S. on the vanguard of a new morality with the “triumph of rationalism over superstition.”
Because she spouted a liberal agenda, reporters were willing to overlook murmurings about psychological abuse towards her children and her employees at the American Atheists organization.
When rumors surfaced of her skimming tens of thousands of dollars from her non-profit, investigative journalists turned their attention elsewhere. The latest gloss on the Madalyn mystique was applied last month in a Netflix movie which portrayed her as a doting mother and dedicated civil rights activist, her eldest son said.
William Murray III knew the real Madalyn, the churl who bullied her children and bragged to them when they were very young about watching X-rated movies. She was an ardent feminist who resented men, Bill says.
“One of her favorite stories — I’ve heard her repeat it many times — is that when I was born and the doctor told her, ‘It’s a boy,’ she asked him if there wasn’t some way he could put it back,” Bill told People magazine.
She bit him, smashed his model airplane to pieces in a fit of rage, and ridiculed his attempts to play baseball. She kept a liquor closet full and the refrigerator stocked with fattening, unhealthy foods. She extolled the virtues of sexual liberty and wrote for Hustler magazine. She even tried to defect to the Soviet Union with her entire family and supported communist causes, Bill says.
As a middle school child in Baltimore, Bill became an unwitting pawn in her 1963 Supreme Court battle against school prayer. Madalyn sued the school district and rode a movement to strike down prayer and Bible reading.
With a petulant eloquence, she tirelessly voiced the acrimonious atheism, and the media lapped up pretty much everything she served. “We find the Bible to be nauseating, historically inaccurate and replete with the ravings of madmen,” she said. “We find God to be sadistic, brutal and a representation of hatred.”
Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Phil Donahue all hosted her on their evening TV programs. Madalyn reveled in the attention. Every misfit in the country wrote her letters of praise that included generous checks of her non-profit, American Atheists, Bill says.
“My mother was an evil person, not for removing prayer from America’s schools, no, she was just evil,” Bill wrote online in 2011. “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 organizations.”
While Madalyn busied herself with “rhetoric, newsletters, fund-raising and publicity,” Bill grew increasingly disaffected. He eloped and divorced, was drafted in the military and worked for an airline. He left his daughter Robin under the care of his mother. His second marriage was unraveling and he had run-ins with the police.
While he drifted through struggles and failures, he began to harbor doubts about the atheist manifesto. Why was his mother spending the non-profit’s money on a new Cadillac and mobile home? Why would she sue to keep NASA from airing Astronaut Buzz Aldrin taking communion on the moon? Why not instead spend on new X-ray machine for a hospital? If atheism was the savior of modernity, why did it focus mostly on the antagonistic roll of shutting down others? Why not do something in favor of humanity?
“I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive,” he said.
Bill turned increasingly to alcohol to quash his anxieties and misgivings.
Once when police arrived after he had a dispute with his wife, he accidentally fired a rifle through the door. Bill was charged with aggravated assault and sentenced to five years probation.
It was, perhaps, the nadir of his life.
The incident served as wake up call. He realized he needed help and turned to Alcoholics Anonymous. The support group and a volunteer job at a drug rehab program is where he “found my first awareness of a loving God. I saw some miraculous things people were able to accomplish with faith. And I couldn’t help comparing all that with atheism.”
Bill did something his mother would loathe – he gave his life to Jesus Christ.
He hadn’t spoken to her, however, for years. Then in 1980 on Mother’s Day, he came out publicly, declaring himself as a Christian. He hadn’t seen his daughter, Robin, in years. When he attempted to call his daughter or brother, they hurled insults at him — calling him a traitor — and hung up.
They were, Bill said, under the complete control of a monster intoxicated with her identity as America’s Apostle of Atheism.
Her hubris got worse. When her estranged son fired a salvo in favor of the Savior, she launched a complete nuclear attack: “One could call this a postnatal abortion on the part of a mother, I guess,” she said, as quoted on Wikipedia. “I repudiate him entirely and completely for now and all times. He is beyond human forgiveness.”
Bill’s steps towards Christianity were at first tentative and searching. He didn’t want to line up with any group. But as he studied the Word, he fell in with the Baptists and dedicated his life to undo some of the damage he felt responsible for with his role in the Supreme Court ruling banning Bible reading and prayer.
“The part I played as a teenager in removing prayer from public schools was criminal,” he wrote for a newspaper in Austin, where his mother’s non-profit was based, and Baltimore, where the lawsuit was filed. “I swear on the altar of God that I will strive to right this wrong that I have done.”
Today, Bill, 70, is a Baptist pastor, and he is chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a non-profit in Washington D.C. that fights for the rights of Christians in Islamic and communist countries. He founded a printing press to produce Bibles in Russia shortly after communism collapsed in the old Soviet Union.
While Madalyn was still alive, Bill would travel to cities where she had speaking engagements to expose her lies at counter-protests. However, his opposition wasn’t what brought Madalyn down.
Her demise came from within her own camp, when atheists turned against her.
Strangely, Madalyn liked to hire criminals at the American Atheists headquarters in Austin. Bill says she derived pleasure from exercising authority over lawbreakers, and maybe she also felt a kinship with flagrant felons. Whatever the case, she had a dim view of the people she hired. Her diaries called her employees “pimps, whores, hopheads, queers, pinkos, drunks, glue-sniffers and freaks.” She was not known to be a sweet employer.
In 1993, Madalyn hired David Roland Waters, a convicted felon on parole who had killed a teenager over 50 cents of gasoline when he lived in South Africa. Waters started in the print shop and rose to office manager.
As investigators later learned, Waters became part of Madalyn’s fraud schemes. He helped print forged stock certificates in a bid to take over a competing and more profitable atheistic organization, Bill said. And he embezzled $54,000 from American Atheists. He claimed he siphoned off the money at the behest off Madalyn’s family in a deal where he would keep a part. Only he was convicted.
To distance herself from any implication, Madalyn exposed in her public newsletter Waters’ criminal past. She included morbid details of how he beat his mother in 70s with a broom handle and then abused her body.
According to an IRS affidavit, Waters was outraged and began to voice “fantasies of killing Madalyn” and torturing her by “snipping off her toes,” the Washington Post reported.
Meanwhile, Madalyn attempted unsuccessfully to take over the wealthier atheist organization run by James Hervey Johnson in San Diego. Johnson’s lawyers retaliated with a $7 million lawsuit in 1993 that Madalyn feared she would lose.
She began to liquidate assets and transfer finances abroad, according to her employee, David Travis. In the Washington Post, Travis said he accidentally opened a letter to Madalyn’s son, Jon Garth Murray, which reported $1 million in a New Zealand Guardian Trust.
Travis and the other employees expected Madalyn, Jon and Robin to abscond to the South Seas at any moment.
So no one was surprised when on Aug. 28, 1995 a typewritten note appeared on the door of the American Atheist headquarters one morning before work. It said: “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 the writing of this memo.”
Even the Austin police weren’t interested in investigating the missing persons report filed by Bill. Only the IRS wanted to find the threesome for fraud schemes.
During the first days of their disappearance, Jon and Robin called American Atheist headquarters. They were vague and sounded strained but reported that the family was OK in San Antonio, Texas. They were not OK.
Jon, under duress of kidnappers, bought $500,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler, which he turned over in hopes of earning freedom for his family. The kidnappers spent (not all of) the money, according to the FBI, IRS and local police. Instead gaining freedom, the Murray-O’Hairs were murdered in a grisly manner.
Bill explained on his website: Madalyn “and my daughter were held for almost 30 days, probably tied and gagged, while my brother desperately tried to obtain ransom money. At all times my brother was escorted by one of the kidnappers. My brother was a total slave to my mother. He saw himself as her provider and rescuer. All his life she had talked down to him and made fun of him and now, in his mind, he would show her his worth by single-handedly rescuing her. He was murdered for his faithfulness.”
Waters and two accomplices had so carefully disposed of their corpses that they weren’t found until Waters himself, finally convicted of their murders in August of 2000, led detectives to a Texas ranch where he buried their mutilated bodies.
The Murray-O’Hair atheists might have disappeared and gone unaccounted for like missing aviator Amelia Earhart, except that a decapitated, handless body that was found in a wooded area near the Trinity River outside Dallas in October 1995. The site showed little blood, which indicated he was dumped there, not killed there. The corpse was so severely butchered that it was intended to never be identifiable by police.
Without face, fingerprints or clothing, the corpse remained unidentified for three years. A reporter for the San Antonio Express-News had researched the case for two years when he got an anonymous tip after writing an article on the “town-skipping” atheists. The caller said a friend of his also disappeared about the same time when he went to see Waters. Knowing that Waters was an enemy to the family, the reporter alerted police.
A DNA test proved the body belonged to Danny Fry, who had joined with another convict in Waters’ kidnapping ring. Both were arrested and convicted for the gruesome murders of Madalyn, Jon and Robin.
“Did Robin pray to receive Christ as she was bound and gagged? Perhaps,” Bill wrote grimly on his website. “Did my mother or brother cry out to the Lord just before they were murdered? I don’t know. Christ is there for the vilest offender. The serial killer whose prayer at the hour of his death is genuine is also forgiven. My mother, my brother and my daughter may well await me in heaven.
“On the other hand, they may have stood their ground defying God to the end, in which case they are now spending yet another day of eternity in hell. If that is the case I will never see them again.”
Bill wonders why atheism doesn’t die along with his mother, brother and daughter.
“The deaths of my mother, brother and daughter should make all too clear the need for Christ to others that proclaim atheism,” Bill wrote. “But those who would follow my mother continue to fight against God and His authority. ‘Fools make a mock at sin… ‘ Prov. 14:8.”
Kayla Armstrong studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Westside Los Angeles.