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Episode 1: What the hell happened to Marsha Mudd?

What the hell happened to Marsha Mudd Ferber?

Meet Marsha “Mudd” Ferber

I Was Never There launches with the range of theories swirling around the disappearance of Marsha “Mudd” Ferber. We meet our hosts, Jamie and Karen Zelermyer and learn who they are in relation to Marsha’s story, and why they’ve decided to try to find out what really happened to her now.


““You’re watching WBOY-TV, Clarksburg, Fairmont. This is News 12 at 11.”

Marsha was last seen April 25th. All that was missing was her backpack. Her car was left at a parking meter, belongings left in an apartment above the bar.

The popular theory now among her friends is that 47-year-old Marsha Ferber decided to leave her life behind.
Thanks for watching.

I can only guess that she’s okay somewhere.

I hope.

It’s been 34 years. Nothing, no body, no witnesses, no further clues. What happened to Marsha is still a cold case, open for investigation.

And all of us who have loved her have lived our lives without her, without closure. But this story is much bigger than one day in 1988.

I always thought I knew Marsha, because in many ways, our stories were the same. But it turns out I was wrong.

I’m Jamie Zelermyer, and that’s my mom, Karen. This is I Was Never There, Episode 1.

On May 19th, 1973, when I was 10 days old, my parents moved us back to the land, to Braxton County, West Virginia. That was the beginning of a journey that would help shape me, a journey that would lead me to value community and hope, a journey that would also show me even good people are flawed. For the first 11 years of my life, my family and I lived in a variety of communal households.

When I described my childhood to other people, they think it was so wild. But to me, that was normal. People were constantly playing music, having fun and doing drugs.

They were fearless. They lived totally without thinking about consequences. They had tapped into something that felt magical.

When I think back to that time, there’s one woman who stood at the center of it all. Her name was Marsha

Mudd Ferber. Can you describe her breath?

Short and fat, wild, de-fro, just incredibly attractive, pure energy.

Oh, God, her curly gray hair. She had gray hair before anybody had gray hair. Beautiful eyes.

I just remember Marsha’s eyes and her gruff voice.

More than anything else, she absolutely looked like a hippie.

“She was the one that had this vision, and she was unstoppable in being able to realize it.”

I walked in one day drinking a Welch’s grape soda, and she looked at me and said, that’s Welch’s. They supported the war. And she grabbed it out of my hand, she poured it down the sink.

It was all about redistribution of wealth.

She’d share her panties, I mean, it didn’t matter, she would.

She was a revolutionary.

Hedonistic in the best possible ways.

She was luminous, man, just illuminating all the time.

I loved her.

I loved her.

So I’m gonna ask you, Mom, what do you remember about Marsha?

Her laugh and her sense of irony. I just always felt really drawn to her. And I don’t even know if I can put that into words, except I felt like she was a soul sister.

She was my friend. She was someone who shared a sense of adventure, of risk taking, and she was funny as hell. I mean, she was just so funny that it was hard not to be drawn to her.

Was there ever a moment where you felt like this is going to be an important person in my life?

I think from the minute I met her, I knew that this is someone that was going to be a part of my life. And that she would be able to make that life really exciting and adventurous and fun and someone I wanted to share my life with.

Well, mostly she was just always around.

She was, yeah, she was there. We lived together and worked together and go back home together at 3 o’clock in the morning after the bar was closed and wake up in the morning bleary-eyed and go drink coffee together. It’s like an intimate relationship when you’re living with someone and sharing a daily life with someone.

I was just a kid when Marsha was around, so my most prominent memories of her are more general than specific. She was a constant in our lives. She was one of my mom’s best friends, and we lived with her in the

Earth House in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The Earth House was a communal living space, meaning we lived in a house with a lot of different people who weren’t part of our family. The adults pitched in on household chores, everyone had a night to cook, the food was shared, there was no meat. When I remember Marsha now, she’s kind of a symbol for that whole time period, for lots of people living together, for the Morgantown music scene based at the bars she owned, and for radical politics.

“This is an honest election. Let’s hear it from Ronald Reagan.”

And now, given the choice, would you vote for Harriet Tubman?

I remember her in kitchens, the kitchen at Earth House, the kitchens at big events. And I just remember her laughing and being loud and boisterous and organizing people and telling them what to do. I have these moments of, I can almost feel them in the Earth House.

There was a sunroom that was off of her bedroom and that she had this electric typewriter because for years, she earned a living typing. It was a university town. She was typing papers for students and she could type over a hundred words a minute.

So she would just be sitting there typing and talking to people. And I’d come and just sit with her and we’d sit for hours sometimes talking politics, talking kids, just gossiping about stuff. And other people would come in and she didn’t just type, of course.

She always sold weed, which is how she supplemented her business. And she had this knitting bag and she was a knitter. And that’s where she always kept the baggies of pot.“And so there was always this stream of people coming in to buy weed. And they would sit and talk. So there was this constant sense of community and laughter, whether it’s kids getting their papers typed or coming in to buy pot.”

It was fabulous.

Our lives overlapped with Marsha’s the most in Morgantown in the early 80s at the Earth House. But Marsha and my mom were kindred spirits way before that, before they even met. In the 70s, my parents and Marsha both moved from New Jersey to neighboring counties in West Virginia to chase a dream.

I was living in Detroit, but I was getting married in New York. My friend Lisa was taking me to the airport and we had time to kill. And we had this experience.

It was this absolutely miraculous, magical moment. I’m sure we’d smoked a bunch of weed, so we were high. But we sat in this airport and we went into this other worldly place where we totally visualized going back to the land.

We were going to live completely self-sufficiently. We’d grow all our own food. I remember we were going to have sheep.

Shear them and weave wool and make all our own clothes. I mean, we were just in a zone, and it has lived on in my memory forever. And it was probably a year later when we began to put it in place.

How old were you? “I was 20 years old, and I did get married. I was a complete baby.”

But, oh God, the world was so fucked up. I’d been an activist protesting the war for years. We’d been doing all kinds of actions, and it was just starting to feel really pointless.

Like nothing was changing. There was a whole wing of the activist community that was leaning towards taking up arms. And to me, that felt really crazy.

“I just started feeling more and more like the only solution was to pull out, to just say this is all too fucked up. We were going to show the world there was a different way to live. And so that moment in the Detroit airport was the beginning of realizing that dream.”

And we did it. I mean, we fucking did it. We didn’t know how we were going to do it.
We didn’t know where we were going to do it. We didn’t know anything, except that that was the path we had to go down.

That part has always impressed me, just how willing my mom and her friends were to take the risk of pursuing their dreams.

We just went for it. We had no idea about all the complexities of what we were trying to do and what it would actually take to live off the land and all the contradictions we would have to untangle trying to do it. I mean, man, we really did some stupid shit.

The Back to the Land movement was all about magic and music and marijuana. Those were the three M’s that made our life the wonder that it was down there.

I would say it was the same for Marsha.

It was.

Marsha was a nice Jewish girl. She was born in Massachusetts in the 40s and raised with her older brother in a house full of women, her mother, her grandmother and her aunt. When her mother remarried in the 50s, they moved to New Jersey.

“And because of all that stereotypical gender bullshit of the time, her brother was sent to college and Marsha was sent to secretarial school.”

In 1960, she married Sam Ferber. Sam was a house painter and they had two kids, Michael and then David.

She was engaged in her community of West Orange, New Jersey.

She was active in local democratic politics and in her synagogue.

But things were changing. Pot and psychedelics came on to the scene. The anti-Vietnam War movement was raging.

And Marsha was into all of it. She wanted to expand her consciousness. We all did.

And she loved to think of herself as a revolutionary. She started a cooperative bookstore called Make Up Your Mind in Madison, New Jersey.

She organized political actions and study groups, and she threw big parties. She was a gatherer of people.
New Jersey was where she had her political awakening. But like me, she was an Aries. Both of us were always needing to make change, do something different, or we’d get bored.

It was those qualities that separately led us to the same conclusion. We needed to live our values, and we couldn’t do that in mainstream culture. So we left.

We moved off the grid and back to the land to start again in West By God, Virginia.

Here, all these people were in a constant state of self-examination, individually and collectively. Oh, my God.

I mean, when you walk up to HINOP and you just look out at the world, you know you’re in a spectacular place.

There was magic going on in the hills.

I love the Appalachian Mountains. They are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and they have been worn down by time. So they feel very feminine to me, soft and curvy and embracing.

When I got there, I just felt peaceful in my gut.

I can understand why my parents and Marsha moved there. It smells like green and dirt and flowers and mountains, like textured and nuanced and layered and historical. Marsha and my parents separately chose

West Virginia, but their motivation was the same.

They were fueled by a desire to do creative political work, but underneath their ideals was the place itself. It’s magic. They were drawn to it.

That’s the same feeling my sister and I still get when we go down there. It’s just a really special place. But homesteading had its challenges, and after a few years of living communally in the country, Marsha and my parents both started over yet again, still in West Virginia, but this time in a city, Morgantown
Marsha went a few years ahead of us and got started on new projects right away.

By the time we arrived in 1980, she was running communal houses, starting a food co-op, and volunteering at the local prison. A few years later, she opened a bar where my mom bartended to put herself through graduate school. Marsha called it the Underground Railroad, inspired by the one and only Harriet Tubman.

The first thing you saw when you walked into the bar was a big, beautiful mural of Harriet.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery in approximately 1820, denied the rudiments of a formal education, reared in a harsh social environment, and was early enveloped by a simple, albeit compulsive religious faith.

She escaped alone to the north in 1849 and established her Underground Railroad, from which she never lost a single passenger.

“The Underground quickly became a stop touring musicians did not want to miss. West Virginia is a small state, but the bands that played at Marsha’s Bar were big. The Butthole Surfers, the Dead Kennedys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Flaming Lips, Wynton Marsalis, Bo Diddley.”

People knew Marsha’s Bar. They knew it was an important place to play music. And they knew she programmed all of it.

The music was her thing.

“Yeah, but music wasn’t her only thing. There were many Marshas. There was Feminist Marsha and Outlaw Marsha, Serial Entrepreneur Marsha, Drug Dealer Marsha, Mother Figure Marsha.”

The list goes on.

I remember Marsha had all her little ounces all made up in her bags, in her knitting.

And it wasn’t just about drugs, it was just pushing the edge, and in that time, drugs was the thing that you used to push the edge.

You know, I found her to be, on one hand, incredibly generous, and on the other hand, she was super crafty.

Ultimately, it came down to getting high and getting late.

She had the egotistical side.

Marsha would be holding court in the room, sitting on the floor, preaching socialism. Yet, the whole time, she’s practicing capitalism.

I’ve known a lot of people who were manipulators even. She was, in a way.

Yes, Marsha had the earth house and was vegetarian, but Marsha ate cheeseburger and smoked cigarettes.

Marsha and I both wanted our bodies to be our temples, but we didn’t treat them as such.

She was really into cocaine. She was a folk hero.

I thought you said coke, because that would be totally wrong.

To me, she is.

I remember asking her, isn’t anybody else telling you how dangerous this is?

Nobody said she wasn’t doing good things.

Just this little dark side, just the side, you know?

Good and bad, light and dark, she was always there. Then, in 1988, she disappeared.

The weeks before her disappearance, she had talked about leaving, even starting a type of hippie retirement village in Florida. Longtime friend DL. Hamilton agrees Marsha was ready to move on, but she has doubts.
She left behind the bar she created, where live music, from punk to reggae to rock and roll, is the center, and where patrons discuss politics as much as the music. Ferber left two sons in Kentucky, a brother in Maryland. She’d just subscribed to a magazine the week before, but a huge mortgage on the buildings was owed, and there is talk that Marsha may have learned some incriminating information about the local drug trade and may have been targeted.

She walked out of the bar, her office in the bar, and said, I’ll be back in a little bit. She left her coat hanging on the coat rack. She left her car keys on her desk, and she ran out of the office.

Ran out of the office?

I mean, left the office, clearly to go meet someone. I mean, we don’t know, but she wasn’t planning on being gone. Again, she didn’t take her coat, she didn’t take her car keys, her car was parked at a meter in a parking lot across the street from the bar and was never seen again.

So much time has passed. I found myself thinking it might be possible to actually find out what happened to Marsha. Maybe now the people involved are ready to talk.

To start, we got back in touch with the people who knew Marsha best, to ask a very basic question. What the hell happened?

Everyone has a theory, and the thing is, they all sound plausible.

Well, there’s two basic theories. One is that she was possibly murdered by some drug dealer types. The other is that she decided to go underground to get away from any possible prosecution or drug people.

She would look at me very seriously and go, no, listen, one of these days, I’m not going to be here anymore. And don’t worry about me, because I’m in Jamaica.

But I don’t think that’s what happened.

I just have a gut feeling that it had something to do with drugs and money and all that nastiness that comes from people that only think about materialistic stuff.

Let’s get real about it. When you’re facing time, most people rat.

I don’t think for one second she was working with the cops.

She was naive in certain things. She was honest.

She was trusting.

She probably trusted the wrong people.

I thought the KKK or something had gotten her.

And I guess you said there’s a lot of mine shafts and things like that in West Virginia.

She ain’t around, nowhere.

I mean, hey, what’s fucking 32-year shit?

She’s underground, deep.

Marsha was just a free spirit, you know? I mean, she had other locations to go to.

“I always thought if she was dead, they would have found the body. You know what I mean? That’s why I thought I always was positive she was alive, because if she’s dead, they’re going to find her.”

If she’s alive, that’s harder, because she’s… So what do you think now? I think she’s dead.

That’s what I think now, but how can I be sure? That I don’t think we’ll ever know.

I’ve always wanted to tell the story of that time and place, of the back-to-the-land movement and the wild lifestyle my parents and Marsha lived. Over the years, I’ve often found myself psychoanalyzing what they did with a sense of both shock and awe. As we started to tell the story, Marsha’s life and her disappearance became central to understanding so much about those years.

She is the vortex. She is the center of the orbit. And, you know, they were fabulous years.

And some of that is about youth. You know, they were my 20s and 30s. And the back-to-the-land story is this fabulous story of resistance and hope, believing that we could really show the world there was a better way to live.

Except sometimes those ways take left and right turns and don’t go exactly the way you think they’re going to go.

Thank you.

So to me, there are two mysteries. The first is where the hell did she go? The second is what happened to her before she disappeared?

What drew her down that dark path? Because this is not just her story. Lots of people of my generation, that hippie, peace, love and understanding generation, also lost their way.

Marsha and I were aligned on so many things. We were sisters. We were revolutionary outlaws and soul friends.

When did our paths diverge? Why am I still here and she’s not? The more I think about it, the more I know that we have what it takes to solve this case.

To start, let me tell you about Jamie. She has a really strong engine. She’s motivated, proactive, smart and incredibly organized

When she sees a problem, or in this case, a mystery, she takes action. And if anyone can run a successful investigation, it’s her. And for the past 25 years, Jamie has worked in film and television.

She knows how to tell a good story. So to everyone listening, sit back, take your favorite consciousness-altering substance and enjoy. You’re in good hands.

In a lot of ways, my mom is my foil. She’s fluid and bold. She’s entirely unafraid of change.

She’s in her 70s, and these days, she’s got purple hair. In the course of her life, my mom has never hesitated to say, fuck this, it’s time to make a change. My mom’s also incredibly competent.

She always says, give her a cleared table and a how-to manual, and she could perform brain surgery. The fact that we’re not professional detectives does not phase her.

So we decided to go for it, to re-enter Marsha’s vast world.

Pot smokers, former drug dealers, old hippies with fuzzy memories, people on the edges of society, people suspicious of anyone asking questions, and old friends of Marsha’s who want to protect her legacy as a folk hero.

We talked to them all, and to do that, we traveled back to where it all started, wild and wonderful West Virginia.

I really want to know what happened to Marsha. Maybe even more than that, I want to know what happened to that time and place. Back then, they took risks without fear.

They had hope. They stood up for what they believed in and really thought they could change the world. So what went wrong?

What’s wrong?

I can pull over. I’ll pull over.

6:44 a.m. Oh, I’m gonna lock the door.

I brought bananas.

Oh, I brought bananas, too.

I brought bananas, too.

Peaches and a couple of seltzers.

Anything else you want to say on the mic before we go?

Are we running? Yes. We’re gonna solve this mystery.

I Was Never There is a Wonder Media Network production. It’s hosted by me, Karen Zelermyer, and my daughter, Jamie. And it’s based on our lives.

“t’s produced by Ally Wallner, Lindsey Cradwell, Adesua Agbenaile and Liz Smith. It’s edited by Jenny Kaplan and Liz Smith.”

Our executive producers are Jenny Kaplan, Jamie Zelermyer and Karen Zelermyer. Production assistance by Alessandra Tejeda. Our music supervisor is Sarah Tambechian.

The theme music is Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver, performed by Brandi Carlile.
Special thanks to Larry Dowling for allowing us to use his interviews with Marco Lorano and Michelle Walford. And a special shout out to DL. Hamilton for always being a willing participant and a collector of all things Marsha.


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