Thu Oct 23, 6:33 PM ET
By Susan Adams
Soon after Madalyn Muruay O'Hair launched the legal battle that would lead to the Supreme Court's 1963 decision banning prayer in public schools, she received an unsolicited check for $5,000. Her benefactor: a nudist Kansas wheat farmer named Carl Brown who believed that man "was an animal and should live accordingly."
His check was one of the first in what would become a rockslide of money. As Texas journalist Ted Dracos writes in his stranger-than-fiction biography, Ungodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair (news - web sites) (Free Press, $25), a surprised O'Hair stumbled onto an untapped market. When a champion for atheism appeared, multitudes came out of the woodwork to embrace her as their Joan of Arc.
Madalyn didn't disappoint. She shined a light on every failure of the U.S. government to separate church and state. She challenged the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (the Supreme Court is still wrestling with that one) and the "In God We Trust" on American currency (a fight she lost). She challenged, unsuccessfully, the tax-exempt status of the Catholic and Mormon churches. O'Hair's faithful lapped it up and kept on writing checks.
At her peak, estimates Dracos, O'Hair controlled at least $15 million in donated assets, including real estate, offshore bank accounts and an atheist library worth $3 million. Her working capital was divvied up among an alphabet of nonprofit organizations, including the SOS (Society of Separationists), UWA (United World Atheists) and PALA (Prison Atheists League of America).
O'Hair's patrons included some of America's most notorious godless rich. At one point Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, for example, signed over to her his entire $300 million empire, in case he died. That is, until Flynt's brother got a Los Angeles judge to block the bequest. Flynt remained a loyal O'Hair supporter and tapped her to write speeches for his 1984 presidential bid.
Before the headline-grabbing school prayer battle, which began as a shoot-from-the-hip challenge to her older son's Baltimore public junior high school, O'Hair had no assets of her own to speak of. The daughter of a sometime bootlegger, she had married and divorced young and produced two sons out of wedlock.
As Dracos describes her, O'Hair was a unique combination of brilliant manipulator and outrageous, foulmouthed trouble-seeker. Among her talents: turning what appeared to be legal or financial disasters into opportunities. According to the treasurer of one of her nonprofit groups, O'Hair learned from watching Jerry Falwell that the secret to getting people to contribute was to create a different crisis every month.
O'Hair, says Dracos, spent sizable hunks of her contributors' largesse on her home in Austin, Tex., on silks, satins, diamonds, Mercedeses and first-class travel for herself and for her younger son, Jon Garth Murray, and granddaughter Robin Murray-O'Hair. Dracos writes: "Madalyn's atheist groups might have been officially nonprofit organizations,' but for Madalyn and her children, they were all profit." In other words, her outrage at commingling extended only to church and state. Assets were another matter. "That's a lie!" insists Ellen Johnson, president of American Atheists, the main atheist group O'Hair left behind. Johnson maintains that all of O'Hair's personal spending money came from public speaking engagements.
The Internal Revenue Service (news - web sites) wasn't so sure. At one point it threatened to go after O'Hair's family for $1.5 million in unpaid back taxes. Madalyn responded with a two-word expletive.
Her combativeness couldn't protect her from a killer in her midst. In 1995 an employee and confidante, David Waters, who had hidden his criminal record from O'Hair, kidnapped the ailing 77-year-old, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin. Along with two accomplices, Waters made off with $750,000 in assets and murdered his victims. In 2001 the government let Waters plead to kidnapping in exchange for information about where he'd buried the partially dismembered bodies--in a shallow grave on a remote Texas hill-country ranch.
Still unknown are the whereabouts of some $10 million that O'Hair's estranged son, William Murray, says his mother stashed in offshore accounts. Ellen Johnson of American Atheists insists those funds are a fiction. What's certain is that no one has taken over Madalyn's mantle as America's atheist Elmer Gantry.