Karen Zelermyer is the co-host and creator of I Was Never There, a podcast made in collaboration with Wonder Media Network, about the mystery surrounding the 34-year-old disappearance of her best friend, Marsha “Mudd” Ferber. Ferber had been a larger-than-life character, the owner of a West Virginia rock club, and a loving friend whose charm and gregarious nature covered up a mysterious dark side. The podcast — which Zelermyer, 73, produced with her daughter Jamie — has had a great reception, even being picked as an official selection by the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. But it’s also been a journey. “When my daughter, Jamie, asked me if I wanted to make this podcast, I immediately and enthusiastically said yes,” Zelermyer tells Rolling Stone. “I had absolutely no clue what I was signing up for.”
In this essay, Zelermyer remembers her friend, their lives in West Virginia — and the sudden shock of losing her overnight.
In 1988, my friend, Marsha “Mudd” Ferber disappeared, never to be seen again. Was she dead? Alive? Murdered? On the lam? For the past 34 years, it’s been a cold case.
In Morgantown, West Virginia, where Marsha lived from 1978 until her disappearance a decade later, her reputation is legendary. Known for the two live music venues she owned and operated — a bar called The Underground Railroad and an alcohol-free space called The Dry House — she put a small college town in the hills of West Virginia on the map, creating a scene that attracted some of the biggest bands and musicians of the times. The Dead Kennedys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Flaming Lips, Wynton Marsalis, and Bo Diddley played there — to name just a few. She also mentored the teens who found a safe space in The Dry House and who called her “Ma”. For those young folks and the larger community who all found a home at her bars, she is remembered as a folk hero.
For me, Marsha was a soul sister. We shared a love of speaking truth to power and being silly. We could spend hours together smoking pot, drinking coffee, talking politics, gossiping about relationships, and dreaming of the future. We were going to grow old together in the hippie retirement community she was going to start in Florida.
Our life paths were also remarkably similar. We were both married with kids and living in suburban New Jersey when, in the mid-1970s, we both moved with our families to rural West Virginia to become hippie, back-to-the-land homesteaders, big on dreams of living self-sufficiently and in harmony with the natural world. We both ended up separating from our husbands and landing in Morgantown. My two young daughters and I lived with Marsha in the Earth House, the communal home she created, and I supported my family bartending at The Underground Railroad until 1983, when me and my girls moved to New York City.
Marsha embodied all that was fun and crazy, beautiful and hopeful about those times. She was bold and irreverent, funny, kind, and generous. She loved rock and roll, especially the Grateful Dead, and she loved Ram Dass and lived by his “Be Here Now” philosophy of life. She was an entrepreneur who hated capitalism. She always said that her businesses were cooperatives and was always frustrated that everyone else thought she was the boss. She printed her own Underground Railroad money and got other businesses in town to accept it as a form of exchange, a kind of bartering system.
She took the phrase “question authority” to heart and liked to think of herself as an “outlaw.” She also always sold pot — which not only helped establish her outlaw bonafides but underwrote her business ventures, which were never fully self-sustaining.
There was, however, a dark side to Marsha’s story that started innocently enough with smoking and selling weed and taking psychedelics, a hallmark of those years, but ended with the use and sale of heavier drugs and relationships with some not very nice people. I was lucky, my drug of choice was always weed, but Marsha loved cocaine and she loved pushing boundaries and she was much too trusting of people not always deserving of her trust.
And she thought she was invincible. She wasn’t.
On April 25, 1988, Marsha left her office at the Underground Railroad to run an errand with one of her dealer connections. She left her keys, wallet, the jacket she always wore, and $32,000 in cash and half a loaf of hash in her safe. She was never seen or heard from again.
Several theories emerged about what happened to her: Some people think that she was caught by the FBI and agreed to snitch about her drug connections in exchange for witness protection. Others believe she intentionally decided to disappear rather than snitch on people (as per the outlaw code), while others think she got in over her head and was killed by the mafia or a local motorcycle gang. Others speculate that she had OD’d and her body was secretly disposed of. Some believe that she was running a real underground railroad, helping to move undocumented people to Canada and women who were being abused to safety.
Those who believe in the first two theories were sure that one day she would resurface; perhaps she would be seen at a Grateful Dead concert or she would send a message to her sons or some of us who were closest to her. She never did.
Those who believe she’s dead are equally sure that Marsha would never willingly leave without letting someone know. We knew that she was constitutionally unable to pass a phone booth without stopping to check in with someone and would sooner or later reach out. She never did.
Some still believe that she is alive, that her privacy needs to be respected, and that nothing should be done to expose her since she has chosen not to expose herself. She would be 80 today.
For the past 34 years, Marsha’s case has remained unsolved and those of us who have loved her have had no closure. My daughter, Jamie, and I decided it was time to find some answers. And, so, we re-entered Marsha’s world to discover what happened.