She is best known for the lawsuit Murray v. Curlett which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling and ended the practice of daily prayer in American public schools. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that, in 1964, Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."
She was murdered in 1995 along with her son and granddaughter, for reasons unrelated to her public image and activism.
She married John Henry Roths in 1941. They separated when they both enlisted for World War II service, he in the United States Marine Corps, she in the Women's Army Corps (WACs). In 1945, while posted to a cryptography position in Italy, she began an affair with an officer, William J. Murray, Jr. Murray was a married Roman Catholic, and he refused to divorce his wife. Mays divorced Roths and began calling herself Madalyn Murray and gave birth to a boy she named William J. Murray.
Murray completed a bachelor's degree from Ashland College. In 1952, she completed a law degree from South Texas College of Law, but she failed the bar exam and never practiced law. On November 16 1954, she gave birth to another son, Jon Garth Murray, by a different father.
Differing versions of this point in Murray's life exist. Some sources state that Murray attended meetings of the Socialist Workers Party, in 1957, while living in a Baltimore townhouse with her sons, parents and brother. In 1959, she applied for Soviet citizenship. The following year, having gotten no response, she and her two children traveled by ship to Europe with the intention of defecting to the Soviet embassy in Paris and residing in the Soviet Union. The Soviets refused them entry. Murray and her sons returned to Baltimore in 1960.
Murray left Maryland in 1963 after allegedly assaulting five Baltimore police officers who came to her home to retrieve a runaway girl, Bill's girlfriend. Murray claimed she was beaten, by "God-fearing police". She and her family first went to Hawaii, then Mexico, and eventually settled in Austin, Texas, in 1965. She married Richard O'Hair, a Marine. Although the marriage broke down, she remained married to him until his death in 1978.
O'Hair filed a lawsuit with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in regards to the Apollo 8 Genesis reading. O'Hair wished the courts to ban US astronauts — who were all Government employees — from public prayer in space. The case was rejected by the US Supreme Court for lack of jurisdiction.
O'Hair constantly challenged and publicly debated religious leaders and public figures on a variety of issues. She described herself as a "sexual libertarian" and stated that children in sixth grade should be given sex education and allowed to have intercourse without supervision or restriction. She felt that relationships between people, such as emotional or sexual relationships, were not open to any kind of supervision by other people and especially not by the government.
O'Hair was the voice and face of atheism in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and, therefore, was a highly controversial figure. Her son, William, described her as, "profane and vulgar," and said his mother had several grotesque statues of mating animals displayed in her home. In a 1965 interview with Playboy, she claimed religion was "a crutch" and an "irrational reliance on superstitions and supernatural nonsense."
In the same Playboy interview, O'Hair gave a lengthy list of alleged incidents of harassment, intimidation and even death threats against her and her family for her views. She read several profane letters she received in the mail, with content including one that said, "You will be killed before too long. Or maybe your pretty little baby boy. The queer-looking bastard. You are a bitch and your son is a bastard." In response, O'Hair told the interviewer, "Isn't that lovely? Christine Jorgensen had to go to Sweden for an operation, but me they'll fix with faith – painlessly and for nothing." She stated that she left Baltimore not from fear of prosecution for assaulting police officers, but because of persecution from Baltimore residents, including receipt of mail containing photos smeared with feces, the strangulation of her son Bill's pet kitten, and the stoning of her home by neighborhood residents, which she claimed caused her father's fatal heart attack. She filed several lawsuits on issues over which she felt there was a collusion of church and state in violation of the United States Constitution, including a lawsuit against the city of Baltimore demanding they assess and collect taxes on property owned by the Catholic Church.
O'Hair remained a polarizing figure into the 1980s. She served as "chief speechwriter" for Larry Flynt's 1984 presidential campaign, and continued to be a regular talk show guest. Jon Murray succeeded her as leader of the American Atheists; he was not liked by many in the organization, and various chapters seceded from the main group. In 1991, the remaining local/state chapters were dissolved.
In the 1990s, American Atheists amounted to O'Hair, her son Jon Murray, her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, and a few support personnel. (Robin, the daughter of William Murray, was adopted by Madalyn as an infant. William had not seen nor spoken to any of them in many years.) The trio lived together in O'Hair's large home, they went to the office together, they vacationed together, and they returned home together.
In phone calls a few days later, the trio claimed they were on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. A few days later, Jon ordered US$600,000 worth of gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler but took delivery of only $500,000.
Until September 27, American Atheist employees and friends received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither would explain why they left or when they would return; while they said nothing was amiss, their voices sounded strained and disturbed. After September 28, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.
Exactly one year after the disappearance, Bill Murray filed a missing persons report. He had previously stated he would not file such a report due to the inevitable media attention it would bring. He also noted the lack of evidence of foul play, stating, "I don't want to search for people who don't want to be found." The O'Hairs were declared legally dead, and many of their assets were sold to clear up their debts.
Shortly after his theft of the $54,000 was discovered, O'Hair wrote a scathing article in the 'Members Only' section of the American Atheists newsletter exposing Waters, the theft and Waters's previous crimes, including a 1977 incident in which Waters allegedly beat and urinated upon his own mother. Waters's girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article, and that he fantasized about torturing her in gruesome ways.
Police concluded that Waters and his accomplices had kidnapped all three O'Hairs, forced them to withdraw the missing funds, went on several huge shopping sprees with the O'Hairs' money and credit cards, and then murdered all three people. Danny Fry, an accomplice, was murdered a few days after the O'Hairs; his body was found with its head and hands severed on a riverbed, but his remains were unidentified for three and a half years. Waters eventually pled guilty to reduced charges.
In January 2001, Waters informed the police that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and he subsequently led them to the bodies. When the police excavated there, they discovered that the O'Hairs' bodies had been cut into dozens of pieces with a saw. The remains exhibited such extensive mutilation and successive decomposition that identification had to be made through dental records, by DNA testing and, in Madalyn O'Hair's case, by her prosthetic hip.
The gold coins extorted from the O'Hairs were put in a storage locker rented by Waters's girlfriend. Waters had taken out $80,000 and partied with his girlfriend for a few days, but upon his return he discovered that the remaining $420,000 had been stolen. A group of thieves operating in that area had a master key to the type of lock which Waters used to secure the locker. In the course of their activities, they came across the locker, used the master key to open it, and found a suitcase full of gold coins. They eventually spent all but one, which the police recovered.
Waters was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In addition, he was also ordered to pay back a total of $543,665 to the United Secularists of America and the estates of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray-O'Hair. It is unlikely that any of these debts were paid, as Waters had no ability to earn money while in prison. Waters died in prison of lung cancer on January 27 2003.
There was some criticism of the Austin Police Department's apparent apathy about the disappearance. Austin reporter Robert Bryce wrote:
"Despite pleas from O'Hair's son, William J. Murray, several briefings from federal agents, and solid leads developed by members of the press, the Austin Police Department (APD) sat on the sidelines of the O'Hair investigation...Meanwhile, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office are working together on the case....a federal agent was asked to discuss APD's actions in the O'Hair case. His only response was to roll his eyes in amazement."
Murray spoke critically and regretfully of his mother after her disappearance:
"My mother was an evil person... Not for removing prayer from America's schools... No, she was just evil. 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. She once printed up phony stock certificates on her own printing press to try to take over another atheist publishing company....Regardless of how evil and lawless my mother was she did not deserve to die in the manner she did."
Murray claimed his mother had stashed "tens of millions" away. He attempted to gain "guardianship" over his missing mother and brother's assets, declaring they had stolen money, and said, "My brother had a tendency to fall for con games and con artists".
O'Hair's notoriety lives on through a decades-old urban legend. In one version, an e-mail claimed "Madeline Murray O'Hare [sic] is attempting to get TV programs such as Touched by an Angel and all TV programs that mention God taken off the air" (the e-mail invariably misspelled O'Hair's name). It cited petition RM-2493 to the FCC which had nothing to do with O'Hair, and which was denied in 1975, concerning the prevention of educational radio channels being used for religious broadcasting. A variant acknowledging her death was circulating in 2003, still warning about a threat to Touched by An Angel months after the program's last episode had been aired. In 2007, similar e-mails were still being reported, twelve years after O'Hair's disappearance and long after her confirmed death.
Between the time of O'Hair's disappearance and the discovery of the bodies, a comedic play called The Last Days of Madalyn Murray O'Hair in Exile was written by Dave Foley. It was based on the premise that she, her son and her granddaughter had stolen the money and fled to an island in the South Pacific.