Unholy Ghost She was "the loudmouth housewife from Baltimore" who became America's most famous atheist. Now Madalyn Murray O'Hair has disappeared in the Texas dust with her son, granddaughter and a bundle of money. And no one knows what to believe.

March 02, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

After 17 months without a word, William Murray figures that his mother, the famous atheist, must be dead by now, if only because she never could have kept her mouth shut this long.

That's 17 months without once railing against a televangelist, or browbeating her followers for money, or getting thrown out of a truck stop for profanity. That's almost a year and a half without shouting her fading battle cry -- that she, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the Pope of Organized Atheism, is the Most Hated Woman in America, and (please!) don't you ever forget it.

The noise stopped on a weekend morning in August 1995, when O'Hair disappeared along with younger son Jon and granddaughter Robin. By all signs, they bolted from an unfinished breakfast in their home in Austin, Texas, taped an urgent note to an office door and headed south to San Antonio.

There the trail goes cold: They were last heard from that September, then vanished into suburbia with a puff of credit card receipts, abandoned cars and cell phone static.

Oh, and nearly $630,000 disappeared with them.

Jon took the money, draining it from two of the atheist organizations that he, Madalyn and Robin had ruled for years like an unholy trinity. Some people believe they tucked away millions more in Swiss banks.

Now, followers and enemies alike are looking for them. So is William Murray -- son of Madalyn, brother of Jon, father of Robin -- although he hasn't spoken to them in years. Joining the hunt are a handful of reporters and a few unenthusiastic police.

Some think the trail will lead to shallow graves, forlorn dimples upon the Texas sand covered by scrub and sagebrush. Others believe Madalyn simply up and died, that Jon and Robin scattered her ashes and fled, first for the banks, then for the

hills. Or perhaps the whole trio ran off to New Zealand, to a hidy-hole of trust funds and government bonds.

If the latter is true, then the self-described "loudmouth housewife from Baltimore," who in 1963 helped knock organized prayer from America's public schools, may at this very moment be relaxing by the sea, a 77-year-old grandma lounging with her oddly inseparable companions, Jon, 42, and Robin, 31.

It would be quite a scene -- three chunky adults with the same narrowed eyes, the same slow and ponderous movements, dressed as conventionally as Kiwanians from Ohio. The soundtrack would be Madalyn's whining stream of venom with its Bawlamer "gawddamns," Jon snarling his blunt arsenal of insults with his Elmer Fudd R's, Robin occasionally shouting in self-defense. It is the way almost everyone remembers them -- nasty but witty, an angry, compressed universe of three hot and noisy planets revolving tightly around themselves. By now, they'd have turned their new Eden into the same old family Hell.

So don't try peddling any flight-to-paradise theories to atheist David Kent. A one-time employee who long ago became disillusioned with Madalyn, he finds the idea as preposterous as Christianity.

"If Madalyn resurfaces," Kent says, "I will begin to believe in the resurrection of the dead."

It is only fitting that O'Hair's life has taken this strange final twist, for it never lacked bizarre characters or gothic turns of plot. Pull on just about any of the threads woven into the mystery and you unravel a loose bit of stitching from her past.

Friends and associates who haven't been interviewed for years have lately been sought once again by the media, and the irony of their encore is this: After nearly 34 years of shouting to regain the public's attention, O'Hair has at last succeeded by turning as mute as a pillar of salt.

The silence has been a long time coming. She was born as Madalyn Mays on a Palm Sunday in Pittsburgh, April 1919. She was baptized a Presbyterian, said her prayers at bedtime and eventually went to college at an Ohio school run by the Church of the Brethren.

At 22, she eloped with steelworker John Roths; then they went off to World War II. She served in Europe in the Women's Army Corps, writing home that the Allies would win because "God is on our side."

With the war winding down, she met a married officer named William Murray Jr. and conceived her first child. Murray was a Catholic and wished to remain one. He refused to divorce his wife to marry Madalyn. She took his name anyway, both for her baby and herself.

She returned home from the war to find her parents broke and living in a shack with a dirt floor, no electricity and no running water. When Roths returned, she asked for a divorce.

It was during those bleak times, her son William believes, that she decided there was no God. In his autobiography, "My Life Without God," he shares the family tale of her epiphany in the midst of a raging thunderstorm:

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