This past June was the 50-year anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling against school-sponsored prayer (Engel v. Vitale, June 25, 1962).
That’s probably why I saw the book America’s Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair on a cart to be re-shelved recently at the library. Perhaps a student had to write a report, or interest was sparked around this landmark decision’s anniversary.
I had no idea, however, that the infamous atheist had been murdered.
Intrigued, I checked out the book and began to read about O’Hair. Considering the death threats, the vicious hate mail, the taunting of her two sons, and the sentiment of much of the church-going public around that time, this woman must have been one tough cookie.
The book examines Murray’s beginnings and the seeds that were sown early on that might have moved her to fight her lifelong battle against religion in American public schools and more. In this book and the other one I mention below, she is often portrayed as obese, slovenly, loose, impulsive, alcoholic, and argumentative. Indeed, I watched a few old interview clips of her online, and some of what she says in them is quite offensive and crude, even by today’s standards.
But I figured there had to be some likeable qualities there somewhere, too. Evidently, Madalyn Murray studied law and flunked the bar but was by all accounts highly intelligent, if not socially refined or popular. She was said to be an enthralling and engaging speaker, and indeed, was the very first person interviewed by Phil Donahue on his show in 1967. The statements made by O’Hair during that first episode were so contentious that the audience was jumping up to ask questions to challenge her, and the previously seated Donahue had to grab a mic and go out into the audience, thus making television history and creating a new style of talk show with audience participation.
No, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not popular. The government was after her (the IRS, FBI, CIA, Justice Dept.), organized religion in America was after her, the Pope was after her–even many in the different atheist factions were after her because of her attempts to capitalize on the movement.
In Ungodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the front cover promises thus:
“… traces the self-anointed atheist high priestess from her public skirmishes with the law through her remarkable legal maneuverings and her schemes to siphon off enormous sums of money from the foundations she created.”
“… explains for the first time the full story of the kidnapping and murder of O’Hair, her son, and granddaughter–a gristly multiple murder masterminded by a genius ex-con who hoped to pocket nearly a million dollars’ worth of loot in a pitiless and cunning plot.”
It seems really ironic that Madalyn and her family were ultimately kidnapped and murdered by a former employee and fellow atheist rather than someone following through with one of the many vile and violent threats made by so-called “church-going” persons.