The murdered atheist versus the FBI.

The murdered atheist versus the FBI.

The murdered atheist versus the FBI.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 7 2003 11:12 AM

The Murdered Atheist, Her Rotten Husband, and the FBI

What a new biography gets wrong about Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Book cover

"I'm an atheist," Madalyn Murray told Playboy in 1965, "but I'm also an anarchist, and a feminist, and an integrationist, and an internationalist—and all the other 'ists' that people seem to find so horrible these days." No wonder J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had her on the Security Index, its list of potentially dangerous citizens. But did the FBI go so far as to pay an informant to woo and wed her? That's what Texas-based journalist Ted Dracos claims in UnGodly: The Passions, Torments, and Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, just published by Free Press.

It was 1965, two years after the Supreme Court had used Madalyn Murray's Baltimore lawsuit (plus a Pennsylvania one) to strike down school prayer. Murray was on the lam from charges growing out of a tussle with Baltimore police. In Mexico, she met Richard O'Hair. Later that year they married in Texas.

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The bridegroom, in Dracos' telling, was "more motivated by cash and duty-to-country than carnal desire." O'Hair had once "spied on left-wing groups for the FBI." Now, "what better way was there for the G-men to keep tabs on a possible atheistic menace to the American Way of Life than to have one of itsown guys marry the subversive threat?" The author repeats the point several times, sometimes leaving wiggle room ("[t]his may have been the vital mission of Richard O'Hair") and sometimes asserting it outright (O'Hair got married "mainly to stay on the FBI's informant payroll"). Dracos never identifies his source, though he mentions "a wealth of data" that the FBI released under the Freedom of Information Act.

If Dracos is right, FBI officials were so apprehensive about the atheist leader that they monitored her bedroom and not with a listening device but with an undercover operative. This would have been no quickie seduction-for-secrets, either: The Murray-O'Hair marriage, though rocky at times, lasted from 1965 until O'Hair's death in 1978. For her part, Madalyn Murray was the veteran of a brief marriage in the 1940s and a string of short-term affairs. How poignant if J. Edgar Hoover turned out to be the matchmaker behind the longest relationship of her life.

Just one problem with this informant-at-the-altar allegation: It's flatly contradicted by the FBI's own files on Richard O'Hair, which I recently got through a FOIA request and appeal.

True, O'Hair had once been an FBI informant. In the 1940s, he spent four years as a card-carrying Communist in Detroit while reporting to FBI agents. He named nearly 100 party members in a public (and publicized) hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.

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But his 1940s association with the FBI didn't extend to 1965. By then, far from being one of the bureau's "own guys" or on the "informant payroll," Richard O'Hair was persona non grata at FBI headquarters—a pest, a liar, and even a potential defendant.

The newly released FBI documents include a letter to J. Edgar Hoover dated Oct. 23, 1965, a few days after O'Hair and Murray's wedding. A concerned citizen, name redacted, reported that Richard O'Hair, "claiming to be an F.B.I. agent," had acted "against the interests of the United States": He had helped Madalyn Murray, "the notorious communist and atheist" and "fugitive from American justice," hide out in Mexico and then had married her.

"Agent O'Hair," it seemed, was embellishing. "O'Hair is not and has never been an employee of this Bureau," Hoover declared in a mid-1966 memo. If not an FBI employee, was O'Hair still an informant, as Dracos contends? Nope: "In the past several years O'Hair has written a number of letters offering to be of assistance, but the field has been instructed not to utilize him as an informant. In 1962 it was recommended and approved that we not acknowledge further letters of O'Hair."

O'Hair's tall tales were potentially felonious—impersonating an FBI agent is a federal crime—and Hoover ordered an investigation. Field agents interviewed a man who had known O'Hair in Mexico in 1964-65. According to this source, O'Hair once displayed two FBI IDs bearing his photo, one in his name and the other in the alias "Charles King." He also "talked for hours about having been an FBI Agent, telling about working in a post office opening letters in mail drops in order to track down Communists." He claimed to have spied for Interpol and the CIA, too. And he said he had a metal plate in his head.

The FBI misrepresentations had occurred outside the United States, so Hoover decided not to call in the prosecutors. He did instruct agents in Austin, Texas, where O'Hair and his atheist wife were living, to have informants "advise the Bureau promptly should any information be received indicating that O'Hair is attempting in any way to pass himself off as a Bureau representative or as a Government employee."

Unable to attract the FBI's attention, Richard O'Hair tried to make himself useful to other branches of law enforcement. In 1966, he told Austin police that a socialist organization wanted to use his wife's printing press, and the cops forwarded the tip to the FBI. (Years later, Jack Anderson got a copy of the FBI report and sent it to Madalyn Murray O'Hair.) Through that bank shot, Richard O'Hair became an FBI informant one more time.

Of course, there's no telling what's in the FBI's still-secret files on the feisty atheist-anarchist-feminist-integrationist-internationalist (and 1995 murder victim). But the materials released thus far indicate that UnGodly is wrong: Richard O'Hair, Communist for the FBI in the 1940s, wasn't a husband for the FBI in the 1960s. By then, he couldn't even get the G-men to answer his letters.