In God She Didn't Trust
by Ed Reiter
Madalyn Murray O’Hair proudly proclaimed herself “the most hated woman in America” – and she was probably right. O’Hair was the nation’s best known, most visible atheist, and for years she devoted all of her waking hours to causes that most Americans found repugnant.
One of those causes attracted special interest in the coin collecting hobby: O’Hair fought for years – ultimately in vain – to get the inscription “In God We Trust” removed from U.S. coins and paper money.
O’Hair was in the news again as the new millennium started, but not in a way she would have wanted. In January 2001, more than five years after her mysterious disappearance, authorities in Texas unearthed what they believed to be her dismembered remains – along with those of her son and adopted daughter. The grisly find appeared to confirm what police had suspected for years: that the three had been murdered in a greed-driven crime.
O’Hair was 76 and suffering from diabetes and heart disease at the time of her disappearance in August 1995. Though still acerbic and feisty, she had curtailed her public activities and appearances. In fact, her absence went relatively unnoticed until her estranged son William Murray told police she was missing a year later – and initially police in her hometown of Austin treated this as a missing persons case, rather than one potentially involving foul play.
At first, some whispered that O’Hair had absconded with money from her atheist organization – fleeing perhaps to avoid an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service. Noting her failing health, others suggested that she had gone off to die, picking a place that was private and remote so the Christians she reviled wouldn’t pray over her body.
Both theories contained a measure of truth: O’Hair had indeed departed, along with more than half a million dollars, and had indeed gone off to die – but definitely not on her own terms.
As police reconstruct events, the drama began on an August day in 1995 when O’Hair left her home in Austin along with her son Jon Garth Murray, then 40, and her adopted daughter Robin Murray O’Hair, then 30. Their departure seemed unusually sudden: Unwashed breakfast dishes remained on the table and O’Hair’s medication was left behind – as were two family dogs. The three were later spotted in San Antonio, but then dropped out of sight, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold coins purchased with atheist organizational funds.
The probe shifted dramatically and picked up intensity in 1997 when an IRS criminal investigator, Ed Martin – following the trail of a possible money-laundering scheme by O’Hair and her children – concluded that the money trail led instead to a former office manager for her atheist organization and that this was more likely a case of robbery and murder, rather than fraud.
The prime suspect, David Roland Waters, had been furious at O’Hair for filing charges against him in the theft of $54,000 – a crime for which he was convicted in May 1995, just three months before her disappearance. Waters denied any knowledge of her fate, but as time went by investigators pieced together a sordid plot which federal agents laid out in court documents filed in 1999.
According to this account, subsequently confirmed by Waters and an accomplice, three men – led by Waters – kidnapped the three victims on that August morning, held them for a month at a motel in San Antonio, then forced them to obtain the gold coins with atheist funds. The three were then murdered, investigators said, and their bodies were disposed of at an isolated Texas location.
When the full story finally came out, it was learned that the bodies had been dismembered at a storage shed in Austin, placed inside 55-gallon plastic drums and taken to the remote 5,000-acre Cooksey Ranch, 120 miles south of San Antonio, where they were buried inside the blue drums.
One of the suspects, Florida con artist Danny Fry, met a similar fate soon afterward. Investigators say Fry was growing increasingly nervous, so his cohorts – fearing he might talk – murdered him and cut off his head and hands. His body was found in October 1995 on a riverbank near Dallas.
The third man involved in the plot, Gary Paul Karr, was convicted in 2000 of conspiracy to extort the money from the O’Hair family and given two life sentences. Then, in January 2001, after years of denials, Waters made a deal with authorities, admitting his role and revealing the location of the bodies in return for being allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. He reportedly struck the deal because he feared for his life, although it was unclear just why he was afraid.
According to the full account, the abductors forced O’Hair’s son to withdraw $600,000 from bank accounts belonging to his mother’s organization, American Atheists Inc., while they continued to hold the other hostages. At Waters’ direction, he arranged the transfer of $600,000 in atheist funds from New Zealand to the United States, then used that money to buy $500,000 in gold coins.
Ironically, most of the coins ended up in the hands of other criminals. Waters and his henchmen placed about $400,000 worth of the coins in a suitcase, which they hid in a rented storage locker in Austin. Strictly by chance, three burglars with no connection to the O’Hair case found the coins while breaking into lockers. Later, when questioned by the FBI, they said they had sold the coins and spent the money on cars, strippers and other luxury items.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was full of life – and spoiling for a fight – in 1977, when she filed suit in federal court challenging the reference to God on U.S. money and seeking to force its removal. She denounced it as an unconstitutional practice. And she went on to say that if she won the suit, she might even go one step further.
“For once in my life, I ought to be dirty rotten,” she told me in an interview. “After I win, I should demand that every penny printed like that, with that phrase on it, be called in and exchanged. That should cost the government a pretty penny. If we got a decision, I think it could be required – and I play with that idea.
“Of course,” she added, “as a taxpayer I don't want to cause the government any cost. But it leaves a delightful taste in my mouth just contemplating it.”
O’Hair, a lawyer, filed the suit in Federal District Court in Austin on behalf of herself and her two sons, Jon and William Murray (from whom she was not yet estranged at the time). Named as defendants were Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal and James A. Conlon, then recently retired as director of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
“Plaintiffs are forced to handle and display with regularity currency and coin which is imprinted by the defendants with the religious motto ‘In God We Trust,’ with which the plaintiffs disagree,” the suit stated.
“This inscription on the currency and coin compels the plaintiffs to subscribe to and affirm a belief which is antithetical to the plaintiffs’ most deeply held convictions and represents an abridgement of their rights under the free exercise clause and establishment clause of the First Amendment.
“Plaintiffs must pay their financial obligations on a daily basis with United States currency and coin. This compelled dissemination of religious symbolism by the plaintiffs through their regular and unavoidable handling of currency and coin so imprinted deprives the plaintiffs of their right to disaffirm the motto in contravention to the First Amendment right to free speech.”
O’Hair won a similar suit with a similar line of reasoning in 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Murray v. Curlett, outlawed official prayers in public schools. She had filed that suit on behalf of her son William Murray. And based on her experience then, she was confident of victory in the coin and currency case, as well.
“The recent criterion to test the constitutionality of any kind of legislation which comes out of Congress was established in that 1963 case,” she said. “And that criterion is, the legislation must have a secular purpose. If there is an incidental benefit to religion, absolutely set aside from the secular purpose of the bill, this is permissible in some instances.
“In this instance, the law that we are attacking says only that ‘there SHALL BE’ the words ‘In God We Trust’ on all coins and paper currency. There’s no secular purpose for that; it is a law which aids religions. It is so clearly cut unconstitutional – so blatant a violation – that I can’t imagine that I’ll fail.”
Use of the familiar phrase on U.S. money dates back to 1864, when it made its debut with the issuance of the two-cent piece. Initially, though, and for more than 40 years thereafter, its use was not required by law: Congress merely authorized the Treasury to use it.
This authorization first came on April 22, 1864, when Congress gave Treasury officials discretionary authority concerning inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins. On March 3, 1865, this authority was extended to gold and silver coins and, for the first time, the motto “In God We Trust” was specifically mentioned.
Use of the motto wasn’t mandated until 1908 – and even then, the order applied only to gold and silver coins on which the words already had appeared. The cent remained “Godless” until 1909, the dime until 1916 and the nickel until 1938 – and when the Mint did add the motto to those coins, in connection with new designs, it was under no requirement to do so.
Not until 1955 did Congress enact legislation requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins – and that legislation, it should be noted, was designed primarily to extend the motto’s use to paper money.
The motto was born in the fervor of the Civil War. Historians generally agree that its use was inspired by a Baptist minister, the Rev. Mark. R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa., who suggested in a letter to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase in 1861 that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
“This,” Watkinson wrote, “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”
Referring to the bitter war, then in its seventh month, the minister went on to say: “From my heart I have felt our National shame in openly disowning God as not the least of the causes of our present national disasters.”
Watkinson actually didn’t coin the phrase “In God We Trust.” The mottos he suggested – “Perpetual Union,” for example, and “God, Liberty, Law” – were rejected after due consideration. It was he, though, who planted the seed. Secretary Chase followed through, and within three years the idea had been brought to fruition.
O’Hair was scornful of the role that Watkinson played in gaining a place for God on the nation’s coins. “It was just that one nut with his nagging that did it,” she said.
Unlike her fight against school prayer, O’Hair came out on the losing end this time. And her violent death nearly two decades later involved one final indignity:
Many, if not most, of the gold coins for which she was killed undoubtedly carried the words “In God We Trust.”
Ed Reiter is senior editor of COINage and executive director of the Numismatic Literary Guild. Reiter wrote weekly numismatic columns in the Sunday New York Times for nearly a decade.