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How Did Madalyn Murray O'Hair Die? The Controversial Activist's Death Was Gruesome

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Netflix's latest true crime biopic The Most Hated Woman In America premiered at SXSW earlier this month and it tells the story of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an activist who advocated for the separation of church and state by successfully winning a 1963 Supreme Court case calling for an end to school-sponsored bible readings in public schools. But in spite of that landmark case's significance to progressive ideals, O'Hair was a controversial figure whose approach to secularization often relied on hate speech against religion. She met a gruesome end, but how did Madalyn Murray O'Hair die? The atheist activist was kidnapped, murdered, and dismembered in 1995.

The story is so astonishing that the film's star Melissa Leo couldn't believe this was the first scripted movie ever made about O'Hair. Her Supreme Court victory came on the heels of a similar one just one year earlier, outlawing institutionalized prayer in public schools. And although she received the expected conservative Christian backlash for her role in this culture shift, she really stirred the pot when she decided to use her newly public platform following the ruling to open a nonprofit in Austin, Texas called American Atheists. The organization fought for the civil liberties of atheists in America and worked towards further dismantling the Christianity baked into a Constitution that promised freedom of religion.

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Unfortunately, tolerance of different religious backgrounds wasn't really O'Hair's strategy. Instead, she relied on insulting all religions and those who practice them, which gained her enemies on both sides. By the time she disappeared, American Atheists was staffed solely by O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, and a small team of employees all working out of one office.

Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were kidnapped by David Roland Waters, Danny Fry, and Gary Paul Karr on August 27, 1995. A note was left at the office, apparently signed by Jon, stating that the family was called away to deal with an emergency with no known date of return. For the next month, Jon and Robin would occasionally call into the office, presumably by force at the hands of their captors, to reassure the employees. During this time, their kidnappers also extorted over $600,000 from the family. Many believed that Madalyn, Jon, and Robin simply liquidated their assets and ran off with the money, away from the scrutiny of their infamy. Their bodies weren't discovered until 2001 as part of a plea deal Waters struck when he was finally caught.

The bodies were so mutilated that a cause of death could not be determined for Madalyn and Robin. Their corpses were found burned and stacked on top of one another with the legs removed. Jon was also found with his arms tied, a plastic bag around his head, and blunt force trauma to the skull, which could have been his cause of death, though nothing definitive was determined. O'Hair's bizarre and tragic legacy had essentially faded into obscurity until The Most Hated Woman in America brought her story back into the spotlight. You can catch the biopic on Netflix starting Friday, March 24.