THE ONLY THING SHE LOVED more than a good fight was a grand spectacle—with herself at the center. And this was, as she might have put it, pretty gawddamn grand: an auction barn filled with three hundred bargain hunters and antique dealers, camera crews and cops and Christians. All trying to get a piece of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
Lot number two—a box of foreign coins. What am I gonna get now? Start it out now! How much? Buyin’ ’em all for one money. Ten dollars. Now twenty. Ten dollars, now twenty. Now thirty.
It was surprising how bland and middle-American the famous atheist’s earthly possessions were: rows and rows of brown furniture, dull art, and tables heaped with bric-a-brac. In the jewelry case were silhouettes of Madalyn, her son Jon, and her granddaughter, Robin. A needlepoint read, “Time for kindness, and for giving, time for friendship and happy living.” The fancy Monopoly game went for $170, the crystal decanters for $35 each, the dollhouse for $65. Robin’s 1985 Porsche went for $2,750, a sweet deal considering its low mileage and good condition. Madalyn’s diaries were up for grabs too, but bidders had to go through a bankruptcy attorney. All the money would go to pay some $260,000 in back taxes.
A 1969 U.S. one-cent coin and the G-o out of “God” have been taken off the coin. I wonder who did that? Start it out now! How much? You tell me, boys.
The auctioneer’s tones sobered abruptly when he introduced an illustrated Bible signed by a group of twelve-year-old Baptist girls from Oklahoma. The bidding stalled a couple of times before taking off, with two men going head to head, quickly past $1,000 and then $1,500. When the air finally cleared, Jimmy Nassour had paid $2,000. “I got caught up in the moment,” said the bewildered attorney, who had meant to pay one quarter that price. Was he an admirer of O’Hair’s? No, he replied, he was interested in her as a historical figure.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair had not made history in a long time. In fact, the godless radical—who took great, tedious pleasure in calling herself “the most hated woman in America”—had fallen far off the cultural and political radar screen since her cantankerous heyday in the sixties, when she had picked noisy fights with the system: helping to push prayer out of the public schools, trying to get “In God We Trust” taken off coins, suing the pope. It was a measure of the hollowness of her life that few people noticed when the 76-year-old disappeared in September 1995 along with Jon, 40, and Robin, 30; when the authorities were finally notified, people seemed glad to see her go. Now O’Hair was a celebrity again, but only because of the deepening mystery of her disappearance, one of the strangest of our time.
This I really like. An atheist flask. You don’t have to be an atheist to drink from it.
Not everybody was in the giant metal Pflugerville barn last January for the bargains or out of curiosity. A few, like Rodney Florence, missed the O’Hairs. He stood sadly in the crowd, annoyed and disgusted at the auctioneer’s patter. He was one of the true believers who had followed Madalyn, worked for her, believed in her. For more than thirty years she had spoken and written to these people, often elegantly: “We have to live now. No one gets a second chance. There is no heaven and no hell.” They believed in her as other lost souls believe in prophets like Jesus or Muhammad. “You either make the best or the worst of what you have now, or there is nothing. Laugh at it. Hug it to you. Drain it. Build it. Have it.” Some believed in her because they had lost their faith in themselves. That was never her problem. Her problem was, she didn’t believe in them.
All of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Christmas decorations. I’m not kiddin’ you. They came right out of her house. Can’t you just picture her decorating the tree? A little eggnog… We’re gonna sell ’em all. Startin’ it out now. How much? You tell me, boys.
Standing and talking at the back of the barn was an unlikely couple, a journalist and an ex-convict. They had met only the previous September, but they knew each other well. One thought the other had killed the O’Hairs. The other knew he thought it. The journalist, John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News, had said as much about the ex-con, David Waters, in a story on August 16, 1998. And now he was ready to report something else, a piece of information the rest of the journalists covering the auction didn’t know yet: the identity of a headless, handless corpse found in 1995. He was confident that the corpse would tie the whole mystery together—the half-eaten breakfast, the cryptic phone calls, the shifty car salesman, the half a million dollars in gold. And the three vanished atheists.
How much is it worth? You tell me, boys.
Well, you couldn’t really say they had vanished, MacCormack might have said. Three people don’t just vanish into thin air.
Into the earth—that’s another story.
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.—Revelations 3:15
GOD, IF THERE IS A GOD, loves Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For 35 years she was the worthiest of adversaries: She made His believers work harder on His behalf. She spoke of her faith in man, in “man’s ability to transform the world by his own efforts.” She wrote that the atheist “accepts that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist accepts that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated.