This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America

Trista - January 23, 2019

Religion in schools has been a hot topic for parents since Madalyn Murray O’Hair marched up the steps of the United States Supreme Court in the 1960s because her son was forced to say prayers in school. O’Hair, who was an atheist, did not believe that children should have to worship in the same place they receive their public education. It would be this moment that Madalyn Murray O’Hair came to be known as the most hated woman in America.

Born Madalyn Mays on April 13, 1919, her family baptized her at four years old, into her father’s religion, Presbyterian. Madalyn graduated high school from Rossford High School in Rossford, Ohio, and then went off to marry John Henry Roths in 1941. However, the two would separate after they both joined the military during World War Two. In April of 1945, as a member of the Women’s Army Corps, Madalyn met William J. Murray, Jr. While Murray refused to divorce his wife because he was Roman Catholic, Madalyn divorced her husband and then adopted the last name of Murray.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
Portrait of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Tim O’Brien/CPS.

Together, William and Madalyn had a son after returning home from the war, whom they named William J. Murray III, also known as Bill. Madalyn would go on to obtain her bachelor’s degree in 1949 and earn a law degree a few years later. However, she was never able to pass the bar. Therefore, Madalyn moved, Bill, and another son, Jon Garth Murray, to Baltimore, Maryland. Her youngest son, whom she called Garth, never met his birth father, William J. Murray as his parents separated before his birth.

O’Hair To The Supreme Court

Not too long after O’Hair and her boys moved to Baltimore to live with her mother and brother, things took a drastic turn for her oldest son and the Baltimore Public School district. In 1960, O’Hair decided to file a lawsuit on behalf of her son, William J. Murray against the Baltimore Public School system because she felt that her son should not have to go to school and have to recite his prayers. In the lawsuit, O’Hair claimed that it was unconstitutional to make her son read from the Bible and recite the prayers.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
Madalyn Murray O’Hair with her son, Jon Garth, and Robin. Trisagionseraph.

The issue of her son having to recite the prayers and take part in the reading of the Bible came to O’Hair’s attention when Bill came home one day and said that other students bullied him because he refused to take part in the activities. O’Hair started to have a bigger problem with the issue when Bill continued to tell her that his teachers and other administrators at the school allowed the students to bully Bill because he refused to take part in the activities.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her sons, Bill (16) and Garth (8), leaving the Supreme Court in 1963. UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN/The Baltimore Sun.

Eventually, the court case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1963. During this time, the Supreme Court dealt with two other similar court cases. The first one, Engel v. Vitale, was a year prior and the court ruled that it was unconstitutional to make students pray in school. The second case, Abington School District v. Schempp, happened in 1963, right before O’Hair’s case. Once again, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating it was unconstitutional to be forced to read the Bible.

Therefore, when O’Hair’s case made it to the Supreme Court, it was not the first time this type of lawsuit went to the Supreme Court. So just like with the previous two cases, O’Hair won her case. Because of her efforts, and the efforts of others, against prayer in the schools, the situation started to change. In 1964, Life Magazine wrote an article about O’Hair and her fight to end religion in schools. It was in this interview that O’Hair ‘s nickname “The most hated woman in America” made headlines.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
O’Hair’s “The most hated woman in America” article from 1964. Life Magazine/Nola.

O’Hair’s Activism Continues

However, O’Hair’s new nickname did not seem to bother her one bit. In fact, O’Hair remained an activist for the causes she truly believed in. During the 1960s and beyond, she continued to file many lawsuits over different situations. For instance, in the late 1960s, she filed a lawsuit against NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), because they read verses from the Bible in their Apollo 8 Genesis reading. However, this time O’Hairs efforts to bring the lawsuit to the Supreme Court failed because the court felt there was hardly any effect from the challenge’s reading.

O’Hair then started to appear on various television shows during the 1970s. However, her visits were often met with disgust from the television show hosts. While she appeared several times on The Phil Donahue Show, starting in 1967, Phil Donahue later said that she was a bully off the camera and mocked him for being Catholic. In March of 1970, she again appeared on The Phil Donahue Show along with Preacher Bob Harrington, where they debated religion.

During the road to the 1976 United States presidential election, Madalyn O’Hair became widely known for her support for Jimmy Carter. O’Hair spoke out on the several reasons why she supported Jimmy Carter. In her reasoning, O’Hair stated she foremost supported Jimmy Carter because he did not endorse religion in schools. She also added that she supported Carter because of his stance on environmental matters and that he also supported sex education in public schools.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center/National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons.

The End Is Near

The more Madalyn O’Hair appeared on television shows, the more people in the United States started to despise her. However, O’Hair was enjoying her celebrity status and unaware of the plot that was about to unfold in her later life. O’Hair soon stopped appearing on so many television shows, and it seemed that people slowly forgot about her. Her sons grew up and soon started their own lives with their own families. However, not everyone forgot about Madalyn O’Hair and her Supreme Court case against religion in the schools.

In her personal life, her oldest son, Bill, become Evangelical and rejected his mother’s own beliefs. He began to blame the feelings and actions of his brother, Garth, and his daughter, Robin on his mother. Years after the death of his mother, Bill would admit that both his mother and his brother called him a traitor because he had turned to religion. However, no matter what happened between O’Hair, Garth, Robin, and himself, Bill never wanted their lives to end the way they did.

This Atheist Leader Used To Be The Most Hated Woman In America
Madalyn O’Hair quote. AZ quotes.

The Kidnapping and Murder of O’Hair, Her Son, And Her Granddaughter

On August 27, 1995, Bill Murray’s life would change forever when his daughter, Robin, his brother, Garth, and his mother disappeared. At first, it seemed as if the trio had left for an emergency because, on the door of their office, there was a typewritten note which read, “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.”

However, it was not long before things started to look fishy. Upon their investigation, police discovered that Garth had ordered $600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler. O’Hair’s organization, the American Atheists, received phone calls from the trio until September 28, 1995. Eventually, the FBI, IRS, and police realized that the Waters, a family where O’Hair had been accused of murdering a teenager, kidnapped the trio. Soon, a search was underway to find the family. The authorities then went in search of Waters and another man, Gary Karr.

Both the men were arrested and tried in court. Karr was found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion, money laundering, and interstate transportation of stolen property. They found Waters guilty of robbery, kidnapping, and homicide. However, it would not be until 2001 when Waters finally told authorities the location of the bodies. He led investigators to a Texas ranch, where they found three bodies. Their legs had been sawed off, and because of decomposition, investigators could only identify the bodies as O’Hair, Garth, and Robin through dental records.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Controversial Figure who was Called the ‘Most Hated Woman In America.'” Steve Palace, Vintage News. November 2018.

“Bodies Identified as Those of Missing Atheist and Kin.” Ross E. Milloy, New York Times, March 2001.

“Who Was Madalyn Murray O’Hair?” Beliefnet.

“Why Madalyn Murray O’Hair Was the Most Hated Woman in America.” Sean Elder, Newsweek. March 2017.

” The Atheists’ Cold Case Gets Warmer”. Paul Duggan, The Washington Post, August 1999.

“The Son &”. The Washington Post, Henry Mitchell, November 1982.