It seems unlikely that a scrawny, disheveled kid wearing a sailor hat and oversized military coat could actually hold power over one hundred people, let alone convince them he was God. A 1966 Oscar-nominated film called Festival is the closest look at this man we have today. The stark, black and white, cinema-vérité style documentary follows the goings-on at The Newport Folk Festival. It opens with a shot of Mel Lyman, flashing a toothy grin, playing harmonica with The Jim Kweskin Jug Band. He appears happy and sweet, young and sheepish. He looks like he could be the malnourished spokesperson for a brand of fish n’ chips. Many conclude that Charles Manson modeled himself after him.
Three years later Dick Cavett spoke into a television camera. “Will you welcome please Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette!” With that the young couple walked across the stage of The Dick Cavett Show and shook hands with fellow panelists Mel Brooks and Rex Reed. The two young stars of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point didn’t smile. They didn’t wave to the audience. They sat down and stared off camera. It was one of the most awkward interviews Dick Cavett would ever conduct. Each question was greeted with long moments of hesitation. The interview subjects acted as if they were appearing against their will.
Not long after that awkward televised exchange, Frechette watched a close friend go down in a hail of bullets. Frechette himself would die under mysterious circumstances when he was asphyxiated by a barbell in a Massachusetts prison. It was obvious to Mel Brooks, Rex Reed and Cavett’s entire viewing audience that these kids weren’t normal - but nobody could pinpoint why. The world eventually learned that Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette were emotionally captivated players in an unnerving countryside family of young, hippie outsiders, or as Cavett refers to it today, "a cult that didn't kill anyone." In 1970, when Cavett said to his guests, “I understand you two live in a commune,” Frechette responded tersely. “It’s not a commune. It’s a community … and the purpose is to serve [our leader] Mel Lyman.”
The Harvard area had nurtured a nineteen fifties bohemian culture that eventually fostered folk luminaries like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, bands such as The Lovin Spoonful and The Chambers Brothers, and a wealth of other underground notables. In 1961 Fritz Richmond was the focal point of this burgeoning scene, the leader of a small folk band making the rounds of Boston coffeehouses. Richmond was described by his peers, with only the slightest tinge of irony, as “the foremost washtub bassist in the world.” A few years later the obscure musician would join the West Coast hippie movement and leave a lasting influence on the counterculture as a whole. Roger McGuin of The Byrds says it was Richmond who popularized “the granny glasses look,” eventually appropriated by Jerry Garcia, John Lennon and legions of conforming flower children. Richmond’s band The Hoppers also profoundly affected a frequent New England coffeehouse patron named Jim Kweskin.
Jim Kweskin was enthralled by the traditional bluegrass sounds Richmond brought to the stage. Thimbles on a washboard, the washtub bass, hyperventilating into empty jugs, all the Southern hillbilly moves that seem like a Muppet Show cliché today, were still a relatively unknown novelty for a Northern University student in 1960. Kweskin was enchanted by the sight of Frtiz’s fingers dancing up and down a strip of clothesline fastened to a broomstick, embedded in an inverted cistern. This is what he wanted to do. And just as John Lennon would go on to appropriate Richmond’s glasses, Kweskin ran with Fritz’s idea of a coffeehouse jug band. He soon became one of the community’s most respected players, far outshining fellow scenester Bob Dylan. “When Dylan got up,” remembers local folk musician Rolf Cahn, “[Bob] Neuwirth brought him over to the [Club] 47, but he didn’t fare as well as Kweskin.” Folksinger Paula Kelly concurs, “I vividly remember Bob Dylan coming in as a real scrawny, shabby kid. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen with green teeth. Singing in between sets for nothing and then going out and saying he’d [headlined] at the Club 47.” Kweskin was a popular draw, but like the majority of his contemporaries, he was playing for the love of it, not for the money. Not that he had a choice in the matter – there was no money to be had. However, one evening he shared the bill with fellow folkie Geoff Muldaur at a Boston church. It was supposed to be just another gig for the two of them: playing for free, playing for fun. The gig would change their life.
“I went over to his apartment, stoned as usual, and found Geoffrey to be straight, uptight and surly,” Kweskin says. “He said he wasn’t into reefer … I was gigging at the Club 47 a lot. Every time I played there, all kinds of musicians would get up on stage with me and jam … [The night at the church] I was jamming on stage with about a dozen other musicians … I didn’t know it at the time, but Maynard Solomon, the president of Vanguard Records, was in the audience and when the set was over he came up to me and said, ‘How would you like to make a record with that band?’ I said, ‘That’s no band, but give me three months and I’ll put one together. That’s how the [Jim Kweskin] Jug Band got started.”
Initially a jazz label, Maynard Solomon’s Vanguard Records was inspired by a McCarthy era blacklist that kept many of the his favorite artists from working. He purposely enlisted enemies of the state like baritone Paul Robeson and the socialist Pete Segar. Solomon signed them to record contracts when no one else would and from there Vanguard grew into the most respected forum for folk music in America.
Kweskin asked friend Geoff Muldaur and his recent hero Fritz Richmond to help formulate a band to fit the record deal. They were excited by the prospect of national exposure and the potential sustenance it could bring. Their next step was to find a polished banjo player. “We checked out several local pickers and finally found a likely one,” says Fritz. “Mel Lyman … Mel was into astrology and macrobiotic diet and championed them as ways to understand other people better … Jug band music must have seemed raucous and outrageous to Mel, and the lifestyle a bit odd. Who knew what a jug band was supposed to sound like? Not me.” Kweskin liked Lyman’s musical ability and hired him rather blindly, he admits. “Marilyn [Jim’s wife] and I liked him,” he says, “but we thought he was pretty weird, and we didn’t know anything about him.”
Once the group established what they felt was a passable repertoire of songs, they phoned Solomon who brought them to New York. Their first booking was two weeks at The Bitter End, the popular East Village establishment that regularly hosted popular folk groups and the cerebral stand-up comedy of Woody Allen, Dick Gregory and Mort Sahl. The Jug Band once again hobnobbed wih comedians when Solomon got them an appearance on The Steve Allen Show. Allen’s fellow guest that afternoon was Johnny Carson. Kweskin recalls the big break. “When the show started they announced Steve Allen, but [as a gag] Johnny Carson walked out. Even Steve Allen was surprised … They talked and joked for a while, and then it was our turn to go on … we went into this whole patter where [Steve Allen] asked Fritz where he got his glasses and where we came from. Just joking around. Then we said, ‘We’re gonna do this song. Do you want to play it with us?’ Steve Allen had his trumpet. He got Johnny Carson a comb … I dug down in the Jug Band Toy Box and pulled out a kazoo and handed him the kazoo. … There was this whole thing going on where Johnny Carson was deadpanning – What’s going on here? We were innocent and were just being ourselves ... but [Carson] couldn’t figure out how to play the kazoo … [we] played for a minute or two … it was like two entirely different worlds meeting in front of millions of people – like oil and water. We didn’t quite know how to deal with each other.” It’s no surprise that members of the band had trouble relating to a pair of television comedians. The Jim Kweskin Jug Band did after all retain a core member that would, a few months later, announce humorlessly, “I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world and it doesn't trouble me in the least.”
With Solomon’s guidance The Jug Band ascended at a miraculous pace. More mainstream television exposure came with appearances on housewife favorites The Roger Miller Show and The Al Hirt Show. They received an offer to sign with Warner Brothers Records. Big things were happening, but all the while Lyman was acting more remote. He was impressed by none of it. “He was our spiritual leader while Jim was our show business leader,” says Geoff Muldaur. The Jug Band was booked to play the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and it would mark a big turning point for everyone involved.
July 25, 1965 is now an infamous date in music history - the day Bob Dylan “went electric.” Over a chorus of boos, the headlining Dylan would finish his electric set at the prompting of musician Peter Yarrow, trying his best to ignore a sea of people leaving for the parking lot. Once Dylan’s set had ended, leaving the entire festival in a state of anarchy, Mel Lyman received a message from the heavens. He explained that it was “like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross, he said not my will but thine be done and then there was no cross, no death.” He took his harmonica, stood center stage, and played a solo version of Rock of Ages for ten solid minutes as droves of hostile beatniks headed for the hills.
Geoff Muldaur remembers that The Jug Band’s performance was a victim of inner hostilities. “I remember when Mel left the Jug Band. We were at Newport for the first time. We did the afternoon concert. The way we did ‘I’m A Woman’ was that I sang three verses, then Mel played a harp solo, then I sang a fourth verse … there must have been seventeen thousand people out there … Mel Lyman was so into his harp solo that he wanted to blow at least one, if not two more choruses. I was not … aware of this. So after he did a very lovely solo, I came back in and sang the last verse … and that so crimped his musical soul.” That point marked the end of Mel Lyman’s participation in the Jug Band. “I guess he felt we were really going showbiz to the point that he quit the band at the end of that weekend … I guess it meant that we didn’t see God every minute or some bullshit,” says Muldaur. At any rate, Lyman was interested in more humble pursuits. That’s why immediately upon his resignation from the Jug Band he started work on an ambitious new book titled The Autobiography of a World Savior.
Even with a great disdain for modern showbiz, Lyman made sure he used it for personal gain. Through every genre that he passed, he converted legions of new followers to his way of life. As his time with the Jug Band came to a close, he spearheaded an ambitious new movement, taking over a series of dilapidated houses along Fort Avenue Terrace in Boston that surrounded an ancient watchtower, a phallic relic of the American Revolution. Moving in as squatters, Lyman’s group skirted local opposition to their presence by making a concerted effort to completely renovate and turn back the squalor of the mostly abandoned structures. Lyman’s communal family started off small, but it was always expanding. At one point a Lyman family member’s mother visited Fort Hill to partake in the communal living. She was given a bedroom directly above a rehearsal space in which Lyman and fellow musicians played music all night long. After several nights of being kept awake, she was told that they were playing loudly to teach her a lesson. They wanted to keep her from sleeping. Lyman explained that she needed to “realize what reality was.” By now Lyman was increasingly referring to himself as God. And so did everyone that lived with him on Fort Hill. Nobody thought it was weird.
Dave Wilson was the young editor of Broadside magazine, the preeminent publication pertaining to American folk music. He was recruited to spearhead a new venture called Avatar. It was to be an underground newspaper for the Cambridge area, described in Wilson’s terms as “a sort of hip Christian Science Monitor.” It wasn’t unlike countless hippie rags springing up around the country at the time. The staff credits were listed inside the magazine next to their astrological sign. Lyman was listed in issue one as a contributor (Aries). By issue twelve he was “Warlock in Residence,” and by the end of its run his face was on the cover every month.
Lyman never left his perch as ruler of Fort Hill to work on the magazine. Instead he sent his devoted surrogates to work in the Avatar office, aggressively putting forth the Mel Lyman viewpoint. An article that Lyman wrote contained a spelling mistake and editorial assistant Sandi Mandeville corrected it. This caused an incredible uproar from the Lyman faction. How dare she change the writings of God? The Lyman Family demanded the same article be reprinted in the following issue, this time, with typo included. “Now Mel’s writing was nothing to jump up and down about … if he’s that offended, we’ll print a correction, that’s all,” explained Wilson. He added sarcastically, “See, at the time I didn’t understand I was dealing with God’s will.”
Dave Wilson was the staffer that had to deal with the Lyman camp most often. “What was very difficult about working with Avatar was that you were always dealing with Mel in absentia. How do you deal with three persons who have a vote who say, ‘Mel says…’ I’d say, ‘I can’t argue with Mel. He’s not here.’ So we’d go round and round. About the fourth issue we voted them out. They got very penitent and came back, saying that they understood better what it was all about, and in our ebullient brotherhood and camaraderie we not only welcomed them back, but gave them an additional vote! After that it became ‘Mel’ oriented.” As Avatar became “Mel oriented” it became more indulgent and downright disturbing. Mel Lyman had a strange power over those in his commune, all bowing to his every whim. Toward the end of its run, Avatar included two separate, competing sections. One was “Letters to the Editor.” The other: “Letters to Mel.” As the God complex grew stronger, it started to alienate old acquaintances. Geoff and Maria Muldaur were among the first to lose their old friend. “We’d go visit, because Mel really had taught us a lot and we loved him … They invited Geoff to play on a session for their Avatar record and at a certain point he said, ‘Hey, I love Mel because he’s a great guy, not because he’s God.’ A deadly hush fell over the thing, and the next thing he knew he was [kicked] out.”
Avatar achieved enough notoriety to enjoy a profile in Time, which seemed disappointed when they reported, “[Avatar] contains no more erotica than the rest; even its chief contributor, Mel Lyman, who claims to be God, is nothing out of the ordinary.” Even with astrological signs listed below its bylines, Avatar did not endorse every fleeting hippie fad. Lyman editorials often railed against the conformity of hippie culture. “The hip movement is guilt ridden, it represents everything it condemns,” Lyman wrote in one issue. “It totally lacks compassion. There is more truth in a cop directing traffic than in a hippie preaching love, there is more truth in a soldier fighting against Vietnam than a hippie fighting for freedom, there is more truth in President Lyndon Johnson than in all the Learys and Ginsbergs and all the rest of the professional lovers in the world and I hope you hate me for telling you the truth because there is much hate IN you, oh mighty and powerful hippie Generation.” Lyman denouncing “a lack of compassion” would soon strike many as hypocritical.
One Avatar staff member was a pseudonymous street poet named Pebbles. He was not a member of the Lyman Family, but encountered them on a regular basis. Pebbles had a beef. A lot of people not ensconced by the Lyman trance did. Who was this arrogant punk with a superhuman ego? Pebbles went to Fort Hill for an unannounced visit. Pebbles was met by a group of hippies strumming guitars near the entrance. He said he was there to see Mel. The automatic answer was that he couldn’t. Nobody could visit Mel. Only Mel could visit them. Pebbles charged through and found Mel’s boudoir. Storming past Lyman’s yelling wife, he marched forward and started a loud argument with Lyman. The crux of the screaming match was Pebbles’ proclamation, “How dare you call yourself God – when I am God. And a greater God than you – Mel Lyman.”
The unshakable leader had had his superiority questioned, his security breached. Pebbles left without further incident but Lyman sent down a directive. “Build me a wall.” From that moment forward, the entire Fort Hill community went to work on an elaborate stone structure, sealing them in from the outside world. Avatar fell by the wayside. Lyman contributors abandoned their work at the Avatar office to come home and work on Fort Hill’s security fence. No harm must come to God.
Avatar staffer Harry Bikes explains, “At this time they were all going through acid therapy. He was taking them one by one in his private audience and hitting them with 1500 mikes of pure acid. And studying them – filming and recording them … And then when they were absolutely out of their minds, he would plug them into this Lyman Family group sing – love, togetherness, you know. He was playing with these people, programming them.”
The remaining Avatar employees, those not under the hypnotic gaze of Lyman, suddenly found themselves in arrears, unable to finish publishing the latest issue. The indie advertisers that had paid for space were not pleased. Despite the turmoil, many at Avatar were happy to be rid of the unnerving Lymanites and their sleepy, disconnected personas. And Lyman was satisfied with the money Avatar had helped bring in. The Lyman faction pleaded for donations in the pages of the paper… and remarkably received it. Avatar had been one of the most successful underground papers in the country, with a circulation of thirty-five thousand readers. Charles Guiliano and David Wilson finally took control. For the first time in many months an issue of Avatar would not feature a loving portrait of Mel Lyman. It continued with its underground mandate, but for once, it was devoid of any Lyman reverence – indeed, not a mention of the guru’s name at all.
In the early hours of the morning, just after the production work had been completed and the finished paper stacked in piles in the Avatar office, tired staffers watched a truck pull up. Mel's disciples piled out. Every copy of the paper was surrendered to Lyman’s workers. Dave Wilson still remembers the night in disbelief. “They came in the middle of the night and confiscated thirty thousand issues and stored them in the tower on the Hill! Craziness … Then the Fort Hill people regained control. I resigned along with Sandy Mandeville.” The sabotage was successful and the issue never made it out into the world. Instead the Lyman camp took the confiscated issues and sold them for scrap paper; an extra thirty-five dollars for the ever-growing Lyman Family bank account. The action spelled inevitable demise for the publication.
The media was increasingly curious about the Fort Hill community. Simultaneously, the Fort Hill community was increasingly curious about the media. People like Jim Kweskin did their best to quell what he felt were misconceptions, sometimes unsuccessfully. “It's just a family, a bunch of people who live together and share. Being together with a large family, with people … I grew to care about.” He wryly noted, however, that he would never use the word commune to describe it because “the next word after commune could be cult.”
The Family tried to recruit high profile members in the hopes they could be used to further the vague Lyman philosophy. The recruitment campaign brought in notables such as Owen deLong, a former speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, George Peper, an assistant to CBS President Don West, and a recently discovered nobody turned actor named Mark Frechette. Clearly, Lyman could not just captivate a series of conformist dummies, but some highly educated people. In the late sixties Mark Frechette was panhandling and picking up odd jobs around Boston, living the typical life of a late sixties drop-out. He stumbled across a copy of Avatar. Frechette was instantly captivated by the musings of Mel Lyman and wanted to join his controversial community. Frechette contacted Mel enthusiastically hoping to join, but Lyman dismissed him, interpreting Mark as just another run-of-the-mill hippie. Lyman only accepted those into his fold that he felt could advance his own cause and Frechette did not qualify.
Daria Halprin was a flower child spotted by filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni in the documentary Revolution, a profile of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene. Antonioni would cast her in his new film Zabriskie Point after he was seduced by what he called her “earth-child quality.” A casting director spotted Mark Frechette, legend goes, in a heated argument at a bus stop. When Lyman heard through the grapevine that Frechette had been cast in a major motion picture, suddenly his attitude toward the aloof teenager changed. He could now use Frechette to further the goals of The Lyman Family. Frechette explained that when Lyman finally accepted him into the Fort Hill fold, “There was humming in my ears … I mean the whole damn room was humming.” Frechette was smitten with Lyman and an instant convert to the vague Lyman commandments. Frechette did his best to convince co-star Halprin of Mel’s greatness. It appeared to have an effect. Daria Halprin said at the time, “I had a vision about Mel … for about twenty four hours I was just having visions about Fort Hill, all the way in California, and I had never been.” Frechette did not have the same degree of success with Antonioni, whom he was hounding daily to read the teachings of Mel Lyman. Frechette would leave copies of Avatar in Antonioni’s trailer day after day.
Zabriskie Point was highly anticipated thanks to a series of reports about the troubled shoot. Frechette publicly asserted that the director’s depiction of the American counterculture would be “a big lie and totally alien.” Antonioni found himself hounded by both state and federal officials when word got out that the film might be an indictment of “the American way of life.” The government felt that the famous director was preparing a glorification of hippiedom, drug taking and cop killing. They decided he should be stopped. When the wife of leading Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was cast in a scene, the government felt the need to do something about it. They charged Antonioni with violating the Mann Act, claiming he was bringing underage girls across state lines for immoral purposes.
Grand Jury Probes Movie Orgy Scene. That’s what readers of the Los Angeles Times saw glaring out at them on June 23, 1969. Antonioni was brought up on charges that he had violated the Mann Act. The 1910 statute was often used to prosecute men copulating with underage girls – although the majority of the time it was used for trumped-up political means. Charles Chaplin and Chuck Berry had been among the law’s most famous victims. Scholars agree that Chaplin was hounded because of his socialist sympathies while Berry was a victim of sheer racism. Now the set of Zabriskie Point suffered a similar blow. The accusations stemmed from a scene featuring dust-covered actors from The Open Theatre. Antonioni had purchased ad space in the press asking for hundreds of extras to take part in a simulated mass-love-making session - perking the ears of the Justice Department. No actual sex occurred and no state lines were crossed, but it created a convenient way to harass a man they felt was going to have a negative impact on a vulnerable American image, one that was suffering from the public relations disaster of Vietnam. Despite the harassment, the film shoot survived.
Frechette was paid sixty thousand dollars for his work. He and Halprin took their cache of earnings to Fort Hill where it was turned over in full to The Lyman Family. The Lyman Family now consisted of approximately one hundred people, most of whom took gigs in the outside world as waiters, baristas or other odd jobs helping to finance the Lyman Family trust. The money was then invested in real estate or construction ventures that helped create an elaborate empire – a legacy of assets that remains to this day.
Joanna Ney, an MGM staff publicist, had the thankless job of ushering Frechette and Halprin to various promotional junkets for the film. What resulted was a constant clash between the Mel Lyman apothegms and the world of mainstream show business. “I was working at MGM and I had to take these kids around to Vogue magazine and stuff like that. That wasn’t easy with Mark because he thought a lot of this stuff was crap. I tried to make it as easy for them as possible. [I suggested] whatever they were actually doing should be photographed rather than posing for a contrived photos.” Mark Frechette accompanied Abbie Hoffman, eccentric leader of the Yippie movement, for an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in April 1970. It became one of the most famous sequences in talk show history. Griffin wrote in his memoir, “We booked Yippie radical Abbie Hoffman and he showed up for the interview wearing a shirt network censors judged to look too much like Old Glory; by wearing the shirt, they claimed Abbie was defaming the flag. They used an electronic device in the control room, which blacked Abbie’s image right off the television screen. On the air it looked like I was interviewing a black hole in the universe, and the black hole was answering in the voice of Abbie Hoffman. We go to commercial [and] a car advertisement featuring Roy Rogers and Dale Evans [comes on] … Roy is wearing the exact same shirt as Abbie Hoffman.” The incident created a mob scene backstage. An infuriated Frechette punched another guest, future Bush and Reagan speechwriter Tony Dolan, square in the face. It was an incident Daria Halprin appreciated. She told Dick Cavett, “That was about the best thing that happened [from the Hoffman incident]. Something was really created from that.”
“Every interview was [awkward]. I had my hands full there,” says Ney. “I [had] to be sympathetic to them and also understand the point of view of the show – but they didn’t care what kind of show it was. They came in with their expectations.” She adds with a laugh, “Oh! So uncomfortable.” Dick Cavett remembers the painful eight minutes he spent with the couple when they came on his program. “It was clear from their grim-visaged entrance that they were soiling themselves by appearing on a commercial television program,” he says. “When I saw [the interview recently] I got the same chill I undoubtedly got then looking at their faces as they lurched and slunk onto the stage and into their chairs … I wondered if they were zombies of some sort.” Cavett laughs in retrospect, “I’m surprised I didn’t say ‘Are you aware this program is called a talk show? It’s not a sit and stare show.”
Once the crimes of Charles Manson came to light, the media brought new focus to The Lyman Family. Fairly or not, comparisons were increasingly drawn between the two communities. Jim Kweskin joked cryptically with the press, “The only difference between us and the Manson Family is that we don't go around preaching peace and love… and haven't killed anyone yet.” He was kidding, but a lot of people took the quote at face value. The Lyman camp had an aberrant attitude about Manson. Lynette Fromme progressed from a regular on The Lawrence Welk Show to an extended stay at Fort Hill followed by a westward jaunt to join the Spahn Ranch. Lyman Family member Faith Franckenstein remarked that it did not matter whether Charles Manson was innocent or guilty as “He made a gesture against all the things we do not believe in.”
David Felton was a writer at Rolling Stone when he was granted exclusive access to the Lyman world. He was the first member of the media allowed to report on their private affairs. He quickly became the last. Lyman did not expect Fort Hill’s movements to be portrayed as abnormal. People outside Fort Hill were shocked by what they read. Felton learned about “The Vault,” a walled-in area, devoid of light, deep within the Lyman bunker where family members that were “having problems” could be placed. There, the struggling or dissenting family member could “learn about oneself.” Felton observed a climate of paranoia in which the Fort Hill community believed all outsiders were determined to destroy their God. The bizarre portrait told of a mechanic that had his life threatened by a Lyman disciple after he fixed Mel’s Volkswagen in a less than satisfactory manner. Felton observed “bulletins” sent down by Lyman, sets of “remarkably specific” rules, regulating diet, sleeping habits and hygiene. One such Lyman pronouncement was quoted: “To bathe less than once [but] more than twice a week is sick.”
In the summer of 1972, Daria Halrpin abandoned Fort Hill. She moved to California and fell in love with her soon-to-be husband, Dennis Hopper. Most conclude that she had only been involved with Lyman to appease her then boyfriend Frechette. Mark, however, remained Mel Lyman’s loyal servant, adamant as ever about creating Lyman style definitions of honesty and reality. He, with fellow family members Christopher Thein and Terry Bernhard, mapped out a plan. “We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank.” Frechette said that they had been sitting around, watching the Watergate hearings on television, when they decided to pull a bank heist as a protest. “Because banks are federally insured, robbing that bank was a way of robbing Richard Nixon … And besides…standing there with a gun, cleaning out a teller’s cage – that’s about as fuckin’ honest as you can get, man.”
That was the final day Lyman Family member Christopher Thein was seen alive. During their hold-up of Brigham Circle Bank, he was shot several times by Boston police and killed. Mark Frechette was sentenced to five years in Norfolk State Prison. Still motivated to protest Watergate, the two surviving bank robbers mounted an in-prison play called The Whitehouse Transcripts based on a television special of the same name. Terry Bernhard played Richard Nixon and Frechette directed. Joining the inmate population to watch the performance were Massachusetts political notables Michael Dukakis and Ted Kennedy.
The last week of September 1975, Frechette’s body was found lifeless in the prison recreation room. A barbell weighing close to two hundred pounds was sitting on his throat. It was considered a freak accident. Death, financial woes, splitting factions, a tarnished reputation thanks to Rolling Stone and a perceived association with the Manson Family helped tear apart Mel Lyman’s peculiar world. Members continued to wheel and deal in real estate and run a profitable construction company, but they retreated further from public view. After years of drama, The Lyman Family became insular and, in many ways, mainstream. Just another family business.
Mel Lyman died in 1978 after a long, undefined illness. The community released a modest statement, not wanting to attract attention. The media was still their enemy. Today Jim Kweskin heads The Fort Hill Construction Company with offices in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Many members still hold Lyman in godly reverence, although the majority of current and former members politely reject requests to speak about it. Richie Guerin, a long time family member said in retrospect, “There is no doubt in my mind that Mel is the Creator. He is the center of Creation … He makes me feel the Spirit. He is next to God, if not God himself… and although I feel that… I wrestle with it.”
Avatar 1-24, June 1967-April 1968
The Dick Cavett Show, April 1969
Pluto Magazine, 1970
Fuson, April 1971
Rolling Stone, December 1972
Rolling Stone, January 1972
Boston After Dark, Feb 1972
Baby, Let me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1978)
Merv: An Autobiography by Merv Griffin with Peter Barsocchini (1980, Simon & Schuster)
East Bay Express, Feb 2007
Joanna Ney, Interview with author, May 5, 2010
Dick Cavett, Interview with author, May 10, 2010