Catonsville Nine

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Catonsville Nine
LeadersPhilip Berrigan
George Mische
Dates of operation1968
Active regionsBaltimore (Catonsville, Maryland)
IdeologyAnti-war Catholic leftism
OpponentsU.S. Selective Service System

The Catonsville Nine were nine Catholic activists who burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1968, they went to the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland,[1] took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured over them homemade napalm (an incendiary used extensively by the US military in Vietnam), and set them on fire.[2]

List of the Nine[edit]

Catonsville Nine Incident
Part of the Opposition to the Vietnam War
DateMay 17, 1968 (1968-05-17)
39°16′15″N 76°44′21″W / 39.270886°N 76.739219°W / 39.270886; -76.739219
Caused byVietnam War
GoalsDestruction of conscription cards
MethodsArson, theft, protest
StatusEnded, movement still active.
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
Injuries and arrests
Injuries1 (minor)
ChargedPhilip Berrigan & Tom Lewis (3.5 years)1
Daniel Berrigan, Tom Melville, and George Mische (3 years)
Mary Moylan, Marjorie Bradford Melville, David Darst, and John Hogan (2 years)2
1Phil Berrigan & Tom Lewis were sentenced for both the Catonsville incident and the 1967 Custom House raid
2Sentenced to two years only since they were not considered leaders of the group

The Nine were:


George Mische and Father Phil Berrigan were prime organizers of the Catonsville Nine. The organizing process was very democratic, with interminable meetings and "who's in, who's out" handraisings.

1967 Custom House raid[edit]

On October 17, 1967, Fr. Philip Berrigan and Tom Lewis raided the Baltimore City Custom House and poured blood on draft records as part of "The Baltimore Four" (with David Eberhardt and James Mengel) and were out on bail when they burned the records at Catonsville.[3] (The first documented action against draft files is reputed to have been by Barry Bondhus in Minnesota, who, along with other family members, carried human waste into a draft board and defaced draft records.[4])

1968 Catonsville incident[edit]

On May 17, 1968, the Nine went to the Catonsville office of the Selective Service System located at the Knights of Columbus building on Frederick Road. The group entered the second floor office of the SSS and proceeded to throw hundreds of draft records into wire bins.[5] One SSS employee, Mary Murphy, attempted to save the draft records but was restrained by one of the Nine.[6] After collecting the records, the Nine set fire to the records with homemade napalm in the parking lot of the building.[5] While the records were ablaze, the Nine recited the Lord's Prayer and explained their reasoning for protesting the War in Vietnam. In the end, 378 draft records were destroyed by fire; it is unknown whether or not the destruction of these files saved any lives of young men being drafted into the Vietnam War.[7]

Five Baltimore County police officers arrested the nine on site. While they were in jail, the group sent an apologetic letter and a basket of flowers to the one clerk, Mary Murphy, who was restrained during the event.[8]

The Catonsville Nine were tried in federal court October 5–9, 1968. The lead defense attorney was counterculture legal icon William Kunstler. They were found guilty of destruction of U.S. property, destruction of Selective Service files, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967.[9] They were also sentenced to a total of 18 years' jail time and a fine of $22,000. Several of the nine—Mary Moylan, Phil Berrigan, Dan Berrigan and George Mische—went "underground" when it came time to show up for prison—in other words, the FBI had to try to find them. Father Dan Berrigan caused considerable embarrassment to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by popping up and giving sermons and then fading back into the "underground".

Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote, of the Catonsville incident: "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children..." The whole of his statement is in The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.

Large demonstrations occurred outside the Federal Courthouse on Calvert Street during the trial. The trial came soon after the events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where considerable violence took place. The Nine's trial, with religious people involved, made the overall peace movement a bit harder to dismiss since protesters in Chicago consisted of younger, student and SDS, and the Weather Underground.[citation needed]

Both the judge, Roszel C. Thomsen, and the prosecutor, Stephen H. Sachs, realized the historic proportions of the event but allowed little leeway to the defendants' arguments. In these early trials of such actions the government always overcharged and always tried to keep the trials to "nothing but the facts", i.e., did the Nine destroy files or did they not? The Nine, on the other hand, often referred to a higher law that they were following—God's moral law—as well as such precedents as the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II. They called several expert witnesses. At one point, prosecutor Sachs quipped that "the government is not a balloon attached to the consciences of the Nine."[citation needed]


Tom Lewis had been sentenced to six years for a prior protest one week after Catonsville, and had three and a half years added to be served concurrently.[10] Fr. Daniel Berrigan was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison to begin on April 9, 1970. According to Anke Wessels, director of Cornell's Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy, "On the very day he was scheduled to begin his prison term, he left his office keys on a secretary's desk in Anabel Taylor Hall and disappeared."[11] Cornell marked Berrigan's impending imprisonment by conducting a weekend-long "America Is Hard to Find" event April 17–19, 1970,[12] which included a public appearance by the then-fugitive Berrigan before a crowd of 15,000 in Barton Hall.[13] On August 11, 1970, the FBI found and arrested Berrigan at the home of William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne.[14] He was released from prison in 1972.[citation needed] Lewis was released in 1971.[10]

The "Nine" inspired many other anti-draft and anti-military actions in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Milwaukee 14, D.C. 9, Silver Spring 3, Chicago 8, Harrisburg 7, Camden 28. Participants sometimes remained at the scene to be arrested, sometimes they departed in order to avoid arrest. It is unknown how many persons were not drafted because of these actions.

External video
video icon Q&A interview with Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk on their documentary Hit & Stay, June 17, 2018, C-SPAN

As of 2009 the movement had morphed into a continuing movement with an emphasis on nuclear weapons. The so-called "Plowshares" actions, along with the Catonsville Nine and earlier actions, have been detailed online by Jonah House.

In popular culture[edit]

  • A book A Chronology of Plowshares Disarmament Actions (1980–2003) was compiled by Arthur Laffin.
  • The Catonsville Nine and Baltimore Four were the subject of the 2013 documentary Hit & Stay by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk.
  • The 1971 play The Trial of The Catonsville Nine—Gordon Davidson, Director
  • The 1972 film The Trial of The Catonsville Nine—Gordon Davidson, Director; Gregory Peck, Producer.
  • A documentary film, Holy Outlaw, about Daniel Berrigan—exists only on 16 mm
  • A Documentary about the "Plowshares 8"—In the King of Prussia by Emile d'Antonio
  • A documentary film about the event, Investigation of a Flame, was produced in 2001 by the filmmaker Lynne Sachs.
  • Dar Williams's song, "I Had No Right", from her album The Green World, is about the trial of the Catonsville Nine.
  • Adrienne Rich's poem "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children" makes numerous references to the Catonsville Nine and includes an epigraph from Daniel Berrigan during the trial ("I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence").
  • The song 'War No More' describes the draft action of the Catonsville Nine. It was composed by Joe DeFilippo and recorded and performed by the R.J. Phillips Band.[15]
  • The Chip Taylor song ‘Nine Soldiers In Baltimore’ is an inspirational account of the nine Catholic activists who, in 1968, burned 378 draft files in a parking lot to protest the Vietnam War[16]

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (play)[edit]

Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote a play in free verse, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about the trial. The version performed is usually an adaptation into regular dialogue by Saul Levitt. The play is based on a partial transcript of the trial.

In 1972 a film version of the play was produced by Gregory Peck. It cost $300,000 and Peck "lost every penny".[17]

In 2009, it was presented on a tour by a company called "the Actors' Gang" of Culver City, California, founded by film star Tim Robbins.[18]

The Trial and Prison (portfolio)[edit]

In 1969, while briefly released on appeal, Tom Lewis published a portfolio of etchings he made while imprisoned at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. It contains ten etchings, in a run of fifty copies, some printed with ink he had to scrounge together from ashes, coffee or cocoa powder. He wrote accompanying text and the cover was printed by fellow Catholic activist Corita Kent. The etchings depict the psychic torment of his fellow prisoners by suicidal thoughts, boredom or isolation, as well as scenes of police brutality.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 39°16′14″N 76°44′20″W / 39.2705°N 76.7390°W / 39.2705; -76.7390 Catonsville draft board,, 2nd floor at the Knights of Columbus
  2. ^ There exists news footage of this action, shot by Baltimore's WBAL-TV.
  3. ^ "The Catonsville Nine File : Resistance". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  4. ^ "Selective Service Fight". Retrieved September 3, 2012.
  5. ^ a b "The Catonsville Nine File : The Action". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  6. ^ Quaid, Mary Lou Murphy. "My mother was the antagonist to the 'Catonsville Nine'". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  7. ^ "Catonsville Nine – 50th Anniversary Commemoration". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  8. ^ "The Catonsville Nine File : The Catonsville Nine File : Collection". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  9. ^ "United States v. Moylan, 417 F.2d 1002 (4th Cir. 1969)". Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  10. ^ a b c Dowty, Morgan. "Incendiary Etchings: Tom Lewis and the Catonsville Nine", Art in Print, Vol. 7 No. 3 (September–October 2017).
  11. ^ Aloi, Daniel (4 April 2006). "Legacy of Activism at Cornell". Cornell Chronicle. Cornell University. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  12. ^ Stuart Lipton and Joseph Masci (April 16, 1970). "Weekend Activity Schedule Set". Cornell Daily Sun. 86 (120). Retrieved 2010-10-12.
  13. ^ Solowey, Fred (April 20, 1970). "Thousands Hail Berrigan and Peace". Cornell Daily Sun. 86 (122). p. 1. Retrieved 2010-10-12.
  14. ^ "Grand jury indicts two for hiding Dan Berrigan". Cornell Daily Sun. 87 (63). Associated Press. December 18, 1970. p. 3. Retrieved May 8, 2017.
  15. ^ Listen to War No More on SoundCloud.
  16. ^ folkmaster, Author (2015-02-13). "CHIP TAYLOR – The Little Prayers Trilogy (Trainwreck)". Retrieved 2021-07-06.
  17. ^ Mills, Bart (June 9, 1974). "Peck's gamble". Chicago Tribune. p. h64.
  18. ^ David Eberhardt The Play—The Trial of the Catonsville 9 at the writer's personal website

Further reading[edit]

  • Berrigan, Daniel. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.
  • Harrison, Dorothy Lilja (2010). Peace, Be Still. ISBN 978-1-4515-3745-1
  • Peters, Shawn Francis. The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Polner, Murray -Disarmed and Dangerous
  • Lynd, Straughton; & Lynd, Alice (Eds.) (1995). Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.
  • Zinn, Howard – A People's History of the United States
  • Mische, George (May 10–23, 2013). "'The Catonsville Nine' -- Righting distortion". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 8 November 2013.

External links[edit]