When we think about the history of cults and communes in the United States, we often jump to the big names: The Manson Family, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, the Ragjneeshpurams. What we may not consider is that one was operating in our own backyard.
In 1966, musician and writer Mel Lyman founded the Fort Hill Community, a commune centered on what Lyman referred to as neo-transcendentalist spirituality. The community was based around a few homes clustered together in Roxbury, about 5.5 miles from us at John J. Burns Library. It housed as many as sixty members at a time. In its early days, tension between the Fort Hill Community–mostly comprised of white artists and intellectuals from Cambridge–and the neighborhood’s African American residents escalated until Fort Hill Community members could be seen patrolling the perimeter of their property.
From 1967-1968, Lyman, local friends, and commune members ran The Avatar, an underground newspaper geared toward people of like-minded beliefs in the Boston area. The newspaper focused on the power of the Zodiac chart and highlighted counter-cultural activity throughout Boston.
Avatar, much like the Fort Hill Community itself, encouraged spiritual freedoms and socio-political liberties common to late 1960s counter-cultural movements, but also localized much of its focus on Lyman as a spiritual leader. While early issues of Avatar seemed to focus on the Boston community and the importance of the Zodiac, by the end of its first year, the newspaper transitioned into almost exclusively radical anti-war content and Lyman’s own thoughts on obtaining the correct kind of spiritual enlightenment. Later issues of Avatar contained several-page spreads of “Letters to Mel,” in which Lyman responded directly to a mixture of devotion to and criticism of his beliefs and practices. One note in the October 13th, 1967 issue declares, “Your cant is singularly repulsive and curiously naive for one who is regarded by his fellows as an ‘Avartar'[sic]–having the evasiveness of a politician and the equivocation of a Greek oracle. I can only surmise that the anti-intellectual climate of your paper is indicative of your movement, and that you, as a self-styled equal of the Buddha, Jesus, and Emerson, leave more to be desired than do a great number of “straight” artists.”
Pluto almost exclusively deals with the significance of the Zodiac in charting our behaviors and choices, and dedicates several pages to exploring Charles Mason’s behavior through his astrological alignment, specifically, fixed Scorpio signs that dictated what the writers’ believed showed he was a man with “debts owed.” The newspaper shifted from local political and cultural highlights and instead focused on supposed “Plutonian” figures of the day, such as Manson and Iggy Pop.
However, Avatar’s political presence allows us glimpses into significant counter-cultural moments in both Boston and the United States in the late 1960s. The June 9, 1967 issue features an interview with activist Bill Baird following his arrest in April of that same year due to his speech at Boston University condemning Massachusetts’s Crimes Against Chastity, Decency, Morality and Good Order law. Baird’s distribution of birth control at the rally led to him being tried as a felon and facing ten years in prison at the time of the interview.
By the end of 1967 and early 1968, Avatar almost exclusively detailed radical political sentiments. “Letters from Vietnam,” all of which highlighted atrocities experienced and perpetrated by drafted U.S. soldiers, were featured in the October 13, 1967 issue. The January 19, 1968 issue predominantly featured criticism of Massachusetts Governor John Volpe, with several pages of write-in poetry and thoughts about Volpe’s politics, as well as a feature on a local book stand containing LGBTQ+ paperbacks with the caption, “Hey Governor Volpe, LOOK!”
Though the Fort Hill Community never deteriorated into the violent end as many cults of the era, Lyman’s tight hold on its members created a leader-centric community based around his teachings and beliefs. In 1971, Rolling Stone did an expose on the Fort Hill Community, calling Lyman the “East Coast Charles Manson.” Journalist Guinevere Turner detailed her time in the Fort Hill Community as a child before her mother left, recalling the conservative dress and behaviors expected of women in the commune despite what is recorded in Avatar as a group advocating for “free love”. Lyman died in 1978 at age 40, but the Fort Hill Community didn’t disappear. Into the 1980s, the remaining Lymans amassed incredible wealth, managing several multi-million dollar residences and construction businesses while continuing the legacy of the Roxbury commune founded two decades earlier.
While little is written today about the Lyman “extended family” after their rise to financial success in the 1980s, the legacy of the Fort Hill Community tells a story that goes beyond the sensationalist cult narratives we’ve become accustomed to. Avatar, for all its Lyman-centric mania, found itself in the middle of major cultural and political moments of the late 1960s. Its reports of the rapidly changing tide of American counterculture give us glimpses of Boston at a time of extreme national instability, unrest, and disillusionment.
- Annie Malady, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of English
- “My Childhood in a Cult,” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/06/my-childhood-in-a-cult
- “The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America: Inside the cult led by Mel Lyman, the East Coast Charles Manson,” https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/the-lyman-familys-holy-siege-of-america-235776/
- “The Life and Death and Rebirth of Boston’s Counterculture,” https://www.bostonmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/2017/02/19/counterculture/3/
- “Once-Notorious ‘60s Commune Evolves Into Respectability: After 19 Years the Lyman Family Prospers as Craftsmen and Farmers,” https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-08-04-vw-4546-story.html