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Unbelievers Crusading for Control of Atheist’s Fortune

Times Staff Writer

During his long life, there were many things the eccentric and outspoken James Hervey Johnson detested, among them blacks, alcohol, Jews, lawyers, Catholics, people on welfare, modern medicine, Mexicans, meat, liberals and communists. But there was one thing he hated most of all: religion.

Johnson, a devout atheist and notorious tightwad, worshiped money. And now, several months after his death at age 87, atheists, including the most well known in the nation, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, are fighting for control of Johnson’s estate, worth $16.5 million.

According to his will, the millions were to be placed in a trust and the income used to “expose religion as against reason . . . and to publicize my views on religion and health” as well as to continue the Truth Seeker, a monthly magazine Johnson published and edited and which, at 116 years, is the oldest atheist publication in the United States.

By all accounts a stubborn and cantankerous man, Johnson left legal control of his estate in the hands of his former banker, who happens to be a church-going Episcopalian, and the magazine is being run by a woman who is a Mormon. To O’Hair, this is blasphemy.

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She contends that Johnson’s money was left to promote atheism and that it’s ridiculous to think that anyone who believes in God has any notion of how to do that. Then why didn’t Johnson leave his estate to O’Hair? Because he despised her.

And she loathed him. She continues to refer to the man she says she knew for 40 years as “James Scurvy Johnson.”

That so much attention is being paid to a man who had no close friends, was a chronic complainer and who routinely angered many of his acquaintances seems ironic. If it wasn’t for the money and his will, his niche in history might have been that of “village atheist,” in the words of Jack Schebesta, 58, who calls himself a humanist and freethinker and who knew Johnson for about 25 years.

James Hervey Johnson was born in Ohio in 1901 and as a child moved to San Diego. For many years he ran a downtown bookstore that dispensed atheist books and literature and led to contacts with people such as Schebesta and Bonnie Lange, the woman who today publishes the Truth Seeker and who remains his biggest supporter and praises him as a staunch individualist.

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Elected Assessor

Johnson trumpeted his prejudices and beliefs in several ways. He posted hand-painted signs in his Hillcrest yard and staged seminars devoted to rationalists such as Voltaire, Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll.

In the early 1930s, Johnson was elected San Diego County assessor, and later stunned those with Establishment views when he advocated taxing church property. He was removed as assessor after he was convicted on a charge of misusing public funds because he had exceeded his authority in giving back tax refunds.

In 1952, Johnson’s sick mother, then 79, took him to court on charges that he had assumed control of her money, cutting off her access to $31,000, and had failed to pay her $2,000 hospital bill. A hospital administrator testified that Johnson hadn’t responded to numerous requests to pay the bill. In typical fashion, Johnson refused to discuss the case with acquaintances, telling them it was none of their business. Others say he took over because his mother was senile.

Johnson, a vegetarian, was also a vehement booster of natural foods and holistic health concepts, but even here, he went to the extreme. Some of his associates said his excessiveness was part of a “Loony Tunes” diet.

He fasted often, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for longer, to remove, he said, toxins from his body. He would go for long periods consuming nothing more than orange juice and condensed milk. He distrusted modern medicine and refused to take even the mildest of drugs, such as aspirin, because he believed he was a better master of his health.

Had Skin Cancer

Johnson had skin cancer, and it led to his left ear simply crumbling away. It was common for him to stick a paper towel in his ear hole. About three years ago, his condition became severe and he was hospitalized with bacterial meningitis.

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He died alone in an austere Hillcrest apartment last August, felled by a heart attack as he soaked for hours in his bathtub, a practice he found eased his pains.

While still healthy, Johnson remained a bitter and hostile opponent of religion.

In the early 1960s, he took over publication of the Truth Seeker and assumed control of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Atheism (AAAA) and the National League for the Separation of Church and State, two old-line atheist organizations.

The magazine’s former publisher had used it to rail against blacks and Jews, and under Johnson’s reign the attacks against a broad range of purported enemies continued, ranging from those on welfare to those critical of South Africa. Through the Truth Seeker, Johnson offered publications such as “Racial Loyalty Pro White Paper,” “White American Resistance” and wrote articles abusing Catholics and communists. He wrote statements such as “The Negro-breeding do-gooder does not understand geometrical increase of human beings,” and “If gorillas could speak, equalists would denounce as racists whoever would refuse to accept them as brothers.”

Small Circulation

It was vile and it was revolting and drove many people away, including those who tried to befriend him, according to several longtime associates. At his death, circulation of the magazine, an amateurish publication filled with typographical errors, was no more than a few hundred.

According to his lawyers, Johnson amassed his fortune by selling property his family owned in San Diego and using the money to invest in the stock market. O’Hair and her supporters contend that he “stole” the money from wills left in his name by dead atheists. The accusation, however, has not been proven, and O’Hair’s critics make the same charge about her.

There is no dispute that when he died, he left behind a $16.5-million estate, most all of it consisting of tens of thousands of shares of blue-chip stocks.

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At least since 1983, O’Hair had been trying to get Johnson to relinquish control of his estate and the two atheist organizations. But in typical O’Hair fashion, her tact was bombastic.

“You are a dying, defunct, discredited, old man who will grow moldy in an unmarked grave, having squandered atheist funds on the stock market,” she wrote him six years ago. “In the interests of a movement which you have injured by your presence in it, it appears to me that you should be now making arrangements to turn everything over to American Atheists, which can do something since it is a viable, militant organization of excellent leadership, organization and elan.”

Lawsuit Filed

In 1987, Johnson wrote a will giving control of the Truth Seeker to the AAAA. O’Hair was sent a copy of the document anonymously. In the fall of that year, O’Hair and her associates filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Diego, claiming that they were members of AAAA and held stock in the Truth Seeker’s parent company. Additionally, the suit alleged that Johnson had commingled funds from the atheist organizations with his own personal bank accounts.

The suit asked the court to recognize O’Hair and her supporters as the true owners of the corporations and the magazine, and O’Hair launched a duplicate of the Truth Seeker.

And because there was a dispute over who owned stock in the Truth Seeker corporation, O’Hair allegedly printed up her own stock certificates, held a board meeting attended by her and her supporters and voted Johnson out of power.

He might have been ill, but Johnson immediately launched a counterattack. O’Hair and the others, he said, were trying to take his money away, and they wanted to make sure that his non-atheist executor had nothing to do with the estate.

Johnson did one more thing: he filed a hand-written, one-paragraph codicil to his will that took control of the Truth Seeker from the AAAA and essentially left it in control of the executor of his estate, Lawrence Y. True. And now, Johnson’s lawyers have accused O’Hair in a civil lawsuit of racketeering for her alleged manipulations to take control of Johnson’s organizations.

Will Challenged

A month after Johnson’s death, O’Hair broadened her legal attack, formally challenging the will in probate court, disputing among other things the fees being paid to lawyers to defend the estate and the $10,000 a month being spent to produce the Truth Seeker, an amount she called “grotesquely large.”

Last Wednesday, O’Hair and other atheists received a crushing setback when Superior Court Judge Peter E. Riddle ruled against their probate lawsuit, a judgment punctuated when a disgruntled atheist in the audience rose and asked the judge what religion he was and whether he attended church on Sundays. A lawyer for O’Hair, Georgine Brave of San Diego, said it’s likely there will be an appeal.

The ruling allows True to begin spending money from the estate for, among other things, publishing the Truth Seeker and defending against O’Hair’s other lawsuit in federal court, in which she is seeking control of the magazine and the two atheist organizations operated by Johnson.

The fact that True is executor of the estate riles atheists almost as much as religion. “We can’t stand by and watch this given away to a Christian,” said atheist Stephen Thorne, 34, a mental health worker for San Diego County who briefly worked with Johnson. “That’s like giving B’nai B’rith to Yasser Arafat.”

Although his salary for handling the estate has yet to be determined by the court, it’s likely that True will receive about $80,000 a year for his services. His salary, plus payments to attorneys, accountants and others, will likely consume several hundred thousand dollars from the estate, a prospect that enrages atheists.

Business Relationship

For True, the entire episode has been disconcerting and has caused him grief in his own church. A lawyer by training, he spent much of his working life as a trust officer at Security Pacific Bank in San Diego. True knew Johnson for 25 years because True had tried to get some of Johnson’s business. “He did open a small trust account . . . but it was very difficult to get his business,” True said.

The two were never close, talking only a few times a year, with Johnson, who changed lawyers as often as most people change socks, calling him for advice.

True, 66, retired last year to work full time on the estate. He says Johnson was well aware of his religious background when Johnson asked him to be executor in 1986.

“I don’t think he trusted atheists, and especially Mrs. O’Hair,” True said. Even so, True says he and his wife agonized between his role as the trustee of a multimillion-dollar fund created to “expose religion” and his being an Episcopalian who is active in his congregation and regularly attends church on Sundays.

“We had a lot of thinking about that. My family at one point early on said, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t accept.’ So we went to see our parish priest and in a private meeting told him about (the dilemma). He said it was our moral obligation to carry out this edict,” True said.

‘That Hurt Me’

But that didn’t stop some pillars of the church from open skepticism. “They’d see me and ask, ‘What are you doing down there?’ That hurt me to the quick.”

Atheists aren’t the only threat to Johnson’s estate. True and Johnson’s last lawyer, Roy R. Withers of San Diego, say that, because of Johnson’s obstinateness, nearly $9 million of the $16.5 million may be eaten away by taxes.

“We used to fight like cats and dogs,” Withers says of his former client, who wrote articles damning lawyers. Some of those fights centered on Johnson’s vociferous refusal to shelter his estate from taxes by creating, for example, a tax-exempt foundation. “He just didn’t want to listen,” True says.

O’Hair says she would rather have all the money consumed by taxes than have what’s left of the estate be “run by anybody religious.”

Under the tutelage of True and Lange, who was appointed president of the Truth Seeker company by True, the Truth Seeker bears little resemblance to the magazine published by Johnson.

New Look

The latest issue, produced at a cost of $10,000, is printed on high-quality stock and slick paper, runs 36 pages and is heavy with articles such as “Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect,” “Can More Touching Lead to Less Violence in Our Society?” “GAIA: The Goddess of Science and Poetry,” and “Invoking the Spirit of Eco-Feminism.”

Only near the last page is there any sign of Johnson or his beliefs, and that is in the form of a first installment of the serialization of “Superior Men,” a book written by Johnson in 1949. The book apparently contains none of the racism and anti-Semitism that were to mark the author a little more than a decade later.

Some atheists and others--including those who have no allegiance to O’Hair and are alienated by her tactics--believe the revitalized publication has nothing at all to do with fulfilling Johnson’s intentions.

“It’s dreadful to say the least,” said Schebesta, a retired pianist who says he is repulsed by what he calls O’Hair’s vulgarity. “This is the most garbled, muddled metaphysical mush . . . that emphasizes the abolition of everything that is controversial. It’s verbal nonsense. There is no reflection of (Johnson’s) thought. Zero. Mr. Johnson might have been a bigot and a racist but at least he was clear.”

True and Lange say they have attempted to remove the racism and anti-Semitism from the Truth Seeker and want it to reflect a broader range of philosophy and promote more mainstream holistic health. True says he is even considering using some of the money from the estate for scholarships so students can study religion.

Lange Not an Atheist

Lange, who is being paid $3,000 a month as president of the Truth Seeker company, maintains that Johnson was no longer a strict atheist when he died. Johnson, she says, had changed into a freethinker, a philosophy she said includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, “all kinds of people,” and it is the intent of the new Truth Seeker to reflect that. Lange, who says she knew Johnson better than anyone and that he never made derogatory statements about blacks or Jews in her presence, is not an atheist.


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