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Can't take it with you

National | IRS auctions off the worldly possessions of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, missing atheist

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

in Austin, Texas - No one wept when the possessions of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, America's most famous atheist, were auctioned off on Jan. 23 in an old warehouse north of Austin. Besides furniture, clothes, china, and other housewares, on the block were several two-dollar bills with "In God We Trust" crossed out, her books (mainly history, art, cookbooks, and The Sex Atlas), and some classical music CDs. Madalyn Murray O'Hair herself mysteriously disappeared three years ago, and the IRS seized her home and its contents to pay back taxes and other debts. Among the various treasures sold on that Saturday were a large blue pro-abortion banner, hand-painted with a coathanger and the words "NEVER AGAIN," which sold for $110. "You can go out this afternoon and have a rally," joked the auctioneer. An autographed copy of Mrs. O'Hair's book, An Atheist Epic, went for $200. Mrs. O'Hair's Bible, its white cover unsullied by use, sold for $2,000. It was given to her on Dec. 15, 1968, by the schoolgirls at the Winnitka Heights Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla. Her complete set of "The Godfather" videos went for $30 while a battered leather briefcase she carried to the Supreme Court sold for $25. In total, the O'Hair family possessions brought in around $25,000. Some auction goers, wearing "Atheist Community of Austin" T-shirts, came to pick up Madalyn memorabilia. "I'm rather saddened by the fact that Madalyn's possessions are being auctioned off without anybody making any attempt to keep it together," lamented Aleta Fairchild. She put up $100 in an attempt to start a pooling of resources that would be large enough to buy the whole lot, but she found no other takers. But many others had no idea whose stuff it was, at least until the TV news cameras showed up. "Knowing that old witch owned it tempts me not to buy it," said one man. "I'm not particularly religious myself, but I think she did a lot of harm." Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a decorated Army veteran, law school graduate, and one-time Baltimore housewife. She became active in atheism in the late 1950s, later founded American Atheists, Inc., and burst into the limelight with the 1963 Supreme Court decision to ban public school prayer. She also gained notoriety for her campaign to remove "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency and for supporting the 1984 presidential bid of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine. Her diaries are also for sale through an Austin bankruptcy trustee. The woman who maligned religion as "evil" frequently obsessed about money, her weight, and her feuds with fellow atheists. "I want money and power and I am going to get it," she resolved on Jan. 1, 1973. "By age 50, I want a $60,000 home, a Cadillac car, a mink coat, a cook, a housekeeper. In 1974, I will run for the governor of Texas and in 1976, the president of the United States." On March 15, 1977, Mrs. O'Hair wrote: "I hope I live my life in such a manner that when I die, someone cares-even if it is only my dogs.... I think I want some human being somewhere to weep for me." "I think I want a Christmas tree," on Dec. 14, 1978, while at home drinking whiskey with her second son Jon. Several boxes of Christmas decorations were sold at the auction. On Aug. 28, 1995, an employee found a note taped to the door of American Atheists' headquarters in Austin. It said that Mrs. O'Hair, Jon Murray, and Robin Murray (the daughter of her first son William Murray) had to leave on an emergency. The O'Hairs made several phone calls over the next month to American Atheists officers, the last from a cell phone in San Antonio on Sept. 28. Ellen Johnson, the current president of American Atheists, says the O'Hairs tried to calm fears during the calls, but something was clearly wrong. It was later discovered that Jon Murray had transferred more than $600,000 from some New Zealand trust accounts of American Atheists affiliates to a San Antonio jeweler to purchase gold coins. He collected $500,000 worth of the coins but failed to return for the rest. William Murray, who converted to Christ in 1980 and later founded an evangelistic association, says he doubts that his mother staged her disappearance; he suspects foul play. The diaries show that Madalyn Murray O'Hair "was an incredibly sad person," he says, whose main goals were power, money, and fame. "The activism was just a means to an end. What was missing was a relationship with God."

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Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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