Ann Seaman is the author of America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life And Gruesome Death Of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the story of America’s infamous atheist whose 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case ended school prayer. Madalyn’s Christian-baiting lawsuits spanned three decades bringing her fame and derision until her death at the hands of kidnappers in 1995.
- Who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair?
- She was the outspoken, profane atheist leader who was catapulted to notoriety when her 1963 US Supreme Court lawsuit removed forced prayer and Bible reading from the public schools of the nation. She went on to file scores of church-state separation lawsuits over the next 32 years while building her multi-million dollar American Atheists organization in Austin, Texas.
- One of the things that struck me in reading your book was how much of her public life was filled with lies – lies about her family, her background, the organization’s finances, etc. In this era of Karl Rove, I don’t think she would last a week under the scrutiny of today’s conservative right. What were some of her deceptions, and do you agree that she could not get away with it today?
- In the Army during World War II, Madalyn saw how information from the front was manipulated to present the face of war the Army wanted presented. She used that technique herself later to tell supporters about the persecution she was undergoing from the religious community, to get them to send more money. For example, she reported that her son Bill was barred from gym class and using the library because of her activism. In reality, she had requested that he be exempted from gym because of bullying, and his library privileges were suspended because of missing books and unpaid fines.Another example: in 1962, she reported that she’d had to sell furniture and valuables in June of 1960 to finance her lawsuit. In reality, she’d sold off items to finance a trip to Paris, from where she hoped to defect to the Soviet Union. Her lawsuit wasn’t conceived yet. And she always put forth that she had been married to a William Murray, had two sons by him, and was divorced from him, when actually her two sons had different fathers and both were born out of wedlock; she never married either of their fathers.
- There are many other examples of her fashioning reality to suit her needs. She would surely not get away with the lie about the kids today, but I believe she would still be able to get away with a lot of untruth. Madalyn was very intelligent, and savvy about the media. Even back then, she would craft her manipulations in a way that made them defensible from almost any assault. If anyone went to the trouble to document a falsehood, she always had a number of comebacks and counter-attacks; her accusers were corrupt, biased, religious, jealous, greedy, crazy, incompetent, hostile, or disgruntled. If those didn’t work, she would simply accuse the person of distorting or lying, and try to marginalize him or her. It usually worked — a core of followers always decided to believe her over her accusers.
- Madalyn was an incredibly complex person and could act in the most humane, compassionate manner at times and then quickly turn mean spirited and vicious. Did you come to any conclusions as to what, in her background, made her this way? Could she have been bi-polar?
- Her hated son Bill later wondered if she was bi-polar (it was called manic-depressive in her day), and her parents talked more than once of institutionalizing her for mental illness. Old friends also point out that, in later life, she became a “brittle” diabetic. If she didn’t carefully regulate her insulin (which she didn’t – she was always forgetting to take it), it could result in wild blood-sugar spikes that could lead her to scream at people or write outrageous letters that later came back to haunt her. There was also evidence, from her medical records and her remains (the size of her skull, feet, and hands), that she had a pituitary disorder, acromegaly, which can result in a hormone imbalance. But it wasn’t all just physical. Everyone has a need for some control and power in their lives, but Madalyn’s appetite for it was voracious. She was so consistently controlling (she even had a dollhouse furnished eerily like her own home, and played with it until her death) that it can’t be accounted for by chemistry alone.
- It seems that the lives of two of Madalyn’s children were consumed with Madalyn’s battles and Madalyn’s dreams, and they may have had much fuller lives if they had been able to break free. Also, her one son Bill, who’s currently a leader in the Christian Right, had a very difficult childhood. Would you tell us about their lives and your view of Madalyn as a mother?
Madalyn dearly loved her children; everyone close to her commented on it. She bent over backwards to help them, give them every advantage, and make them feel treasured. And they did; they knew how much she loved them. However, it seems that Madalyn’s love was conditional on her having influence over her loved ones; she couldn’t bear for them to differ from her in any deep way. After Bill became a Christian in his early 30s, Madalyn never spoke to him again. (Granted, he built his career as head of a conservative political action committee by setting himself against her and her atheist cause, but she had forgiven him other attempts to compete with and even vilify her in the past, because he was still an atheist. It was the Christianity that tore it for her; she couldn’t bear that he no longer shared her ideology.) Similarly, when Robin tried to build a relationship with her Christian father, the girl was pressured by accusations of betrayal and failing to love her family, until she gave in and cut off her father and beloved little half-sister. And Garth, the son who stuck by Madalyn and worked tirelessly in the atheist cause, was never able to break away and have a relationship with a woman. Both Robin and Garth followed Madalyn to the grave.
- Briefly walk us through the murder and kidnapping of Madalyn and her two children. How close did it come to being an unsolved crime?
- The three were kidnapped at gunpoint at the American Atheist headquarters in Austin, Texas on a Sunday afternoon. They were held for a month at a motel in San Antonio while $600,000 in gold coins was being purchased with money repatriated from an American Atheist account in New Zealand. During that month, the victims bonded to some extent with their three kidnappers, especially Garth. They all thought they were going to live once the ransom money was delivered. It didn’t turn out that way.The family simply vanished, and the Austin police didn’t seem too interested in jumping on the case. But neither did American Atheists’ officials file a missing persons report for their missing leaders. It was Bill, the estranged Christian son, who finally, a year after the disappearance, filed the request. Still, no progress was made — except by San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack, who, along with private detective Tim Young, stubbornly dogged every lead and slowly cornered the cunning, brilliant murderer. After more than three years, MacCormack and Young’s work finally attracted the attention of the FBI, who took over the case. The O’Hairs had been missing more than five years by the time their charred, sawed-up bodies were finally unearthed from a shallow grave on a ranch in South Texas. Along with them in the grave was a black garbage bag containing a fourth head and a pair of hands. That’s another piece of the twisted, surprising story of the crimes that took the O’Hairs’ lives.
- How did the kidnappers know Madalyn? What became of them?
- The ringleader was a handsome, charming, well-spoken college educated man with a genius IQ, whom Madalyn hired as an office manager. David Waters was his name. She didn’t know that Waters had at least two murders under his belt, nor that he’d gotten his education while in prison. He recruited two men to help him with the kidnapping and extortion, and they ultimately helped him murder the family. One of those two men ended up on a Dallas County riverbank with no clothing, no head, and no hands — nothing to identify him, and he was a John Doe in the morgue until reporter John MacCormack uncovered his identity. The other stood trial for kidnapping and other crimes, but not murder, as, at the time of his trial, there were no bodies, witnesses, nor murder weapons. Still, he was convicted of several crimes and sent to prison for life. Waters himself, on the eve of his own trial, made a plea bargain and began serving 20 unparoled years in Leavenworth at the age of 54. He died suddenly two years later after a month-long bout with cancer.
- What was Madalyn’s impact on America? Would it have happened without her?
- I think the culture wars we’re experiencing today would have happened in some form without Madalyn, but nothing like the polarization that seems to be becoming ever more calcified with each passing day. Same-sex marriage, abortion, school prayer, evolution vs. creationism, school vouchers, faith-based initiatives, judicial activism, states’ rights and the role of the 14th Amendment, theocracy militias like Hamas, Al Qaida, and the Taliban — these issues were in their infancy when Madalyn came along. She pioneered all of them or their precursors. She put them on our radar. And in the process, she made a place for atheism and secularism in the mainstream, took the blows that gave them visibility and acceptance, and laid the groundwork for their vocal place in today’s cultural and social dialogue.