Some time in the evening of Monday, April 25, 1988,
Gary Perkins dropped his friend Marsha Ferber off in front of
her Underground Railroad nightclub on Pleasant Street.
At least, he said he did.
Anyway, they’d had lunch somewhere
north of Pittsburgh—that’s known.
Or maybe not.
Maybe the last place Ferber was definitely seen was in
Fort Lauderdale, Florida on the 23rd.
In any case, the following Sunday, May 1, her tenant Jack Herbert
contacted the Morgantown Police Department to report her missing.
She hasn’t been seen since.
How long would it take you to be certain someone you love has gone missing? Maybe it would come quickly: She would be absent from a job or a class, or he wouldn’t come home to cook dinner. But what if it’s an adult with grown children, no spouse, and a fluid work life? Certainty could take days.
That’s how it was with Marsha Ferber.
The chance of finding out what really happened in April 1988 now seems very slim. But the contradictions in Ferber’s last days and the not-yet-healed wound left by her disappearance keep speculation alive.
Jewish Earth Mother
Marsha Carol Bodin grew up in Massachusetts, then New Jersey. She and her husband, Sam Ferber, had two boys in the 1960s and ran a politically progressive bookstore in Madison, New Jersey, in the early ’70s called Make Up Your Mind. At some point, they came to West Virginia with another couple from New Jersey, to Calhoun County, and started a commune called Mudd Farm. Then the Ferbers split up.
“And that’s what caused her to move to Morgantown,” says D.L. Hamilton, who thinks Ferber made the move, with one of the boys, in the mid-’70s.
“I first knew her as someone who had a communal living space and was the ‘Jewish Earth Mother’ of Morgantown,” Hamilton says of Ferber—a woman whose memory conjures words like “witty,” “short,” “funny,” “energetic,” and “organized,” but, most often, “mother.” Hamilton was in law school at the time, and she didn’t live at Ferber’s Earth House on College Avenue but ate her meals there. The two women got involved in the formation of the Mountain People’s Co-op and, for years, co-edited The Lovin’ FORCful, the newspaper of the Federation of Ohio River Co-ops—“a very political, food-centered paper with rampant copyright infringements of any good cartoon we could find.”
About 1981, Hamilton left Morgantown for Charleston and distant destinations of political activism. And Ferber decided to “go into the bar business,” Hamilton says. “She really didn’t like the alcohol part of it, but the music and communal part she totally liked.” Ferber started the Underground Railroad at 123 and 125 Pleasant Street in 1982.
It’s hard to overstate the hotbed the Underground ’80s was for Morgantown’s music and politics crowds. Part of that grew out of the range and caliber of acts Ferber brought in, performers like the up-and-coming Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bo Diddley, and Wynton Marsalis—an eclectic mix that drew an eclectic community. Part of it was right place–right time: With the campus radio station U92 also taking to the airwaves around then, town crackled. And part of it was ideas, through political fundraisers at the bar and talks by counterculture provocateurs like psychedelic drug researcher Timothy Leary and activist Abbie Hoffman.
But the largest part of the vitality of the scene at the Underground, and at the all-ages Dry House Ferber later started next door at 121, came from Ferber herself. “She was a real mother figure to so many young people,” recalls Todd Burge, then a WVU student and member of the bands The Larries and 63 Eyes, and since a full-time professional musician. “When I was stuck, wasn’t writing songs, going through a dry spell, Marsha said, ‘You need to get out there on the road, tour, see some of the world—you’ll start writing like crazy.’ Nobody else said things like that to me. She was one of those kind of sparkplug people who could get the fire going and it seemed like a controlled burn.”
Ferber did the same with people from all camps: college dropouts, prison inmates, a single pregnant woman in need of support. “She was a hub in a wheel that, the spokes might have been very distinct, but she made the bigger circle where we could embrace one another, because that’s how much you trusted Marsha’s instincts,” Hamilton says. “She had a gift for making people feel loved and listened to. She had this little hobbit office, because she was only 5 foot. You’d be coming up the stairs and she’d say, ‘Ah, there you are, the love of my life!’ And you felt like you were.”
When a Friend Goes Missing
Easter and Passover coincided on the first weekend of April in 1988. Hamilton had moved to Baltimore, and Ferber and another old friend gathered at her place for the holidays. In a phone conversation on Saturday the 23rd, Ferber enthused over the idea of buying the Metropolitan Theatre on High Street.
“Then I got a call on, I’ll say, Tuesday, in Baltimore, asking if I knew where Marsha was,” Hamilton says. “She made a point of being at the bar if it was a band that had not played there before, and that was going to happen on Wednesday. When she still hadn’t shown up on Wednesday, I knew.”
A lot of people’s lives intersected Ferber’s intensely: Underground Office Manager Michelle Wolford, Ferber’s right hand; Randy Williams, her partner at the bar; Jack Herbert, who lived on the second floor, below Ferber, at 121 Pleasant Street. And others. Hamilton came to Morgantown on Friday and they all hashed it out.
“The Morgantown police would not do anything about an adult until they’d been missing for a week,” Hamilton says. “And some people said, ‘You don’t get the police involved in Marsha’s life.’ Some were sure Marsha was just out doing something. Some were convinced she’d gone into witness protection or went underground for whatever reason. I knew that wasn’t it, because her leather jacket was on the coat rack and it had some hundreds of dollars in it.”
Ferber’s purse lay in her apartment. Her Toyota Tercel sat in a pay lot. People kept feeding the meter.
On Sunday afternoon, May 1, Herbert called the Morgantown Police Department (MPD) to report her missing.
Not All the Love and the Light
Deborah Cohen knew Ferber as a fun, loving aunt. “When our family would visit Marsha in Morgantown, we’d go to Maxwell’s, and she knew everybody and their stories,” recalls Cohen of visits to the iconic vegetarian-friendly diner downtown. “She gave me a dream pillow and incense when I graduated from high school—that was the kind of thing she did.”
Cohen, daughter of Ferber’s older brother, was a student at the University of Michigan when her aunt went missing. “Everybody just assumed she’d gone on a road trip or something like that, which I don’t think was completely unusual for her,” she says. “It took a while for us to realize that she was truly gone. Then my parents went into almost ‘detective’ mode. There were constant phone calls with the police over the course of that summer, and I believe with the FBI. It was like every day there was a different scenario as to what might have happened.”
Most scenarios acknowledged that Ferber’s motherly inclusiveness had become a little too inclusive. “I could tell things had gotten dark,” Hamilton remembers. “Marsha started smoking cigarettes, which she would have never done before. When she would come out in the light of day, she’d joke and act like a vampire having to be out in the sun, because her world did become very nighttime–bar scene. It wasn’t all the love and the light of days gone past.”
There were drugs—and not just cheap, social marijuana, Hamilton says. “It was cocaine, the opposite of all that. It was Contra war. It was expensive, it was stingy, it was exclusionary.” The MPD found that Ferber was “heavily involved in the narcotics trade,” according to the case file, and Hamilton doesn’t dispute that. “Cocaine was something she wouldn’t be open about with me, because she knew I hated it. But she was in a position to have it made available to her a lot.”
Cohen doesn’t dispute it either. In the late ’90s, she chased down leads in the police file that she felt needed more attention. “The understanding I came to was that some of her friends knew she was getting herself into things that maybe she shouldn’t, but they were kind of staying away from it. She was essentially a good person and if she made mistakes, I think it was because she either had a financial issue or was trying to help somebody.” Cohen stopped her investigation short of tracking down Perkins, the ex-convict who said he’d dropped Ferber off that Monday, at the concerned urging of her husband and parents. “Also, if Marsha had decided to disappear and wasn’t getting in touch with people—there was still a feeling that that was what was happening—we didn’t want to find her anyway because that was what she wanted.”
What happened next was slow-motion wrenching. Wolford and an associate kept the Underground going for a while. Hamilton’s family had helped Ferber buy the buildings and, when they ended up buying them outright at auction to avoid losing their investment, “that was the beginning of 10 years of hell of me trying to hold it together as an absentee landlord,” Hamilton says. Best among the club tenants was the fondly remembered Nyabinghi Dance Hall.
The city condemned the properties in the late ’90s. Morgantown native L.J. Giuliani offered to buy them from Hamilton, and he now operates the popular 123 Pleasant Street nightclub. Although Giuliani never met Ferber, he says he’s heard countless stories. “The biggest impact for me is the foundation she laid down back in the ’80s when she opened the Underground Railroad. More than anything, we have tried to hold to the spirit and vibe that she helped cultivate on Pleasant Street.”
Ferber would now be 75. The MPD’s case remains open—cold in the sense of “old and unsolved” but not in the sense of “inactive.” It’s lodged with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, so potentially related evidence that turns up anywhere is shared with the MPD. During an August 2016 interview about the case, Chief Ed Preston pulled out information about evidence found elsewhere in 1996, 1997, and 1999 that turned out to be unrelated to Ferber. And there have been other instances.
Contradictions in Ferber’s last known location furrow eyebrows. Preston says the police file has it as Fort Lauderdale, on April 23. But a newspaper account from the time said she told co-workers on the 25th she was taking the afternoon off and would be back in the evening, and that’s consistent with Perkins’ story. Asked about the discrepancy, Preston says the authorities found no independent confirmation of Ferber’s location after the 23rd—no credit card receipts, no multiple eyewitnesses. No proof she and Perkins had dinner north of Pittsburgh or came back from there together. No proof, it seems, she ever came home from Florida. And, as Preston says, “Florida, that was synonymous with cocaine in the ’80s.”
Hamilton doesn’t recall Ferber having been in Florida at that time. And the MPD is keeping the Fort Lauderdale evidence from the public because the details could confirm a future informant’s true knowledge of the case.
Witness protection is still a possibility. If the FBI constructs a new identity for a witness, Preston says, it doesn’t spare the family a heartbreaking missing persons search by cluing them in, even if the search goes on for decades. Only when the person leaves witness protection voluntarily or dies in the program is anyone ever notified.
Closure is Hard to Come By
“It was like an epiphany one winter night,” Hamilton says—this was early 2013. “‘The 25th anniversary is coming up. If I don’t do it now it might never happen.’” With a group of organizers putting key pieces in place for Memorial Day weekend—music at 123 Pleasant Street on Friday and Saturday nights, a Saturday exhibit of memorabilia at Arts Monongahela, and a Sunday picnic by the river at Twin Spruce Marina including Ferber’s favorite, barbecue tofu—a reunion came together almost organically, she says.
“Once the band Gene Pool jumped on the bill—a Morgantown band that hadn’t played for 20-some years—it was like everybody wanted to play,” says Burge of organizing Saturday’s rock ’n’ roll line-up. Th’Inbred, also popular and long disbanded, signed on, as did Burge’s The Larries and 63 Eyes and a full evening of local bands with Underground histories. “Those tickets went online and it was like, seven minutes, they sold out.” Some of the musicians had been performing through the years. “They were good back in the ’80s, but it was mind-blowing how good they were at the reunion,” he says. “You really can go back. Maybe just once. But we went back.”
As many as 500 people may have been part of the weekend, Hamilton guesses.
Still, the questions smolder under the good feelings.
It was great to see all the people who still were remembering Marsha 25 years afterwards,” Cohen says. “I think people sort of knew that it was somewhat of a closing ceremony kind of thing.” In her heart of hearts, she now doubts Ferber was or is hiding out. “We all knew she didn’t blend into a crowd that easily. She was not a person who could really stay out of contact. I think she got caught up in something that she wasn’t able to handle and that somebody did something to her, probably.”
Burge thinks about Ferber all the time but doesn’t speculate on what happened to her. “It was gratifying to see everybody at the reunion, and it was great to feel Marsha’s presence there,” he says. “But closure? I don’t really feel that. Something would have to happen. There would have to be new information—they’d have to find something out.”
Hamilton blames cocaine. “She’s gone because of it. I don’t know that as fact, just as my truth.” She, like Burge, feels closure is hard to come by. But she seems to have found some measure of peace. “The 25-year reunion kind of brought us full circle. A big circle that, on some levels, will never be broken. Full of love—for Marsha, for the music, for Morgantown.”