Longform

The Case of the Headless, Handless Corpse

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O'Hair had come to prominence more than three decades earlier in the pivotal federal court battles over compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. O'Hair's side won, although her role would become exaggerated over the years. But back then, in the post-war Eisenhower era, atheism ranked with Communism as ideological perfidy in the popular American mind.

To many believers, the loud-mouthed Baltimore mother was the Antichrist in a housedress. O'Hair returned like with like. She asked for no compromises and gave none in her war to hold the line between affairs of church and state.

"Religion is the most monstrous idea in the world. It must be killed without quarter along with fascism, racism, sexism, war, and slavery. All those ideas are nuts and mankind must get over them," she wrote in one of her private diaries.

Her bellicosity and love of the public eye eventually made O'Hair the face of atheism to many Americans. Over the years, she sued successfully to prevent American astronauts from praying on the moon. She also tried legally to erase "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency, but failed.

But O'Hair's gift for being offensive extended even to her philosophical allies, and in recent decades her influence in national atheist circles had diminished.

American Atheists once boasted chapters from coast to coast, but most had mutinied and broken away after tiring of the overbearing founder. By 1995, American Atheists had been reduced to a squat brick building on the east side of Austin, where O'Hair brooked no dissension.

Here, visitors were inspected through dark glass before being allowed entry. Inside, at the bookstore, the clerk gave change after carefully marking out "In God We Trust" from paper currency.

O'Hair's genius for inspiring universal resentment gave rise to a joke about how truly deserving she was of her title of odium as "America's most hated woman."

"Sure she is. All the Christians hate her, and so do most of the atheists," went the punch line.

In late August 1995, O'Hair had just returned from a vacation on the East Coast and was preparing with her son Jon Murray and daughter Robin Murray O'Hair for a trip to New York to picket the visit by Pope John Paul II. (Robin is, in fact, the daughter of Madalyn's son Bill, but was later adopted by Madalyn and raised as her daughter.)

But the plot took a sharp turn August 28 when the O'Hair family abruptly left their comfortable Austin home after taping a note to the door of American Atheists General Headquarters. Signed by Jon Murray, the note said that the paychecks would be sent to employees and that the O'Hairs would return by September 15.

The employee paychecks arrived as promised, but the O'Hairs did not return. Instead, they maintained contact by cellular phone, attending, they said, to an important but confidential business matter.

Later it was learned that they spent the month in San Antonio.
During the month, Jon and sometimes Madalyn talked to atheist officials in Austin and New Jersey dozens of times, never giving any clue that anything was amiss.

But on the afternoon of September 29, 1995, a Friday, after a final call to Jon at about 4 p.m., the cell phone went dead. There were no calls Saturday or Sunday, and Jon did not answer as before.

Monday came, and Jon had still not called as promised to deal with the representatives of the Phil Donahue show.

"Jon was supposed to call me back, specifically me, on the issue of going on the Donahue show," says Orin "Spike" Tyson, current director of American Atheists.

Phil Donahue had O'Hair as a guest on his first television show 29 years earlier. Now he was leaving the air and wanted to close out his long run in similar style.

"When they were in San Antonio, answering their cell phone, the Donahue show had been trying to get Madalyn on for their last show, and they needed an answer," Tyson recalls.

The answer didn't come Monday or Tuesday, but still atheist officials were not alarmed, even as the week passed.

"They weren't truly missing yet in our minds. I figured maybe they had said the hell with Donahue, they don't want to talk to him," Tyson says.

It wasn't until late in the week, when the three Murray O'Hairs did not appear in New York City to picket the pope, that it was clear something was amiss.

"By Thursday or Friday it began to sink in that something had gone drastically wrong with them. It wasn't yet panic, but we knew something was not right," Tyson says.

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John Maccormack

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