Catonsville 9: “Living humanly in the midst of death”

The term Catonsville 9 represents the burning of draft files in Maryland by 9 Catholic people. The primary event that lead to this was Baltimore Four—the anti-war demonstration of four Christians (two Catholics and two Pro

Figure 1. From left to right Philip Berrigan and Daniel Berrigan burning draft files in Catonsville.

testants) on October 27, 1967 in which human blood was poured on the draft records located in Baltimore Customs House[1]. The doers of this violent anti-Vietnam War protest were convicted. Despite the eventual sentences they were facing, the two Catholics Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis joined a later anti-war act on May 17, 1968 with the following seven people: Daniel Berrigan, David Darst, Marjorie Melville, Thomas Melville, George Mische, Mary Moylan, and John Hogan. The ages of the people in this Catholic group range between 26-49 (Berrigan).

Collectively, the group listed above, walked into Knights of Columbus Hall, Local Board 33 in Catonsville, Maryland where the draft files of local men were kept. Through using self-made napalm, they burned the 378 files outside of the Hall; the act was recorded on camera by reporters[2][3]. In the recording as well as in a press release, the 9 states that the purposes of the act were the following: denouncing the Vietnam War, urging Americans and people of faith to “sustain justice at home and promote peace abroad” (Peters 4).

In their trial, the participants of the act pleaded not guilty. Their charges were:

“The defendants did willfully injure and commit depredation against property of the United States; And willfully and unlawfully obliterate records of the Selective Service System, Local Board No. 33, located in Catonsville, Maryland; And did willfully and knowingly interfere with the administration of the Military Selective Service Act of 1967, by removing and burning the records of Local Board No. 33 located in Catonsville, Maryland, And by disrupting the official activities at the location of the Local Board No. 33. The indictment further charges that the defendants aided and abetted one another in committing these alleged offenses.” (Berrigan 2)

A witness stated that the 9 did not have any intentions of hurting the people who were there at the time—they wanted to save the lives of the boys who were going to be sent away to Vietnam. Lewis also states the aforementioned intention in his plea. In addition, Daniel Berrigan references Camus during the trial:

“The world expects that Christians will get away from abstractions and confront the bloodstained face which history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak up clearly and pay up personally.” (Berrigan 13)

Both comments are striked by the Judge as being irrelevant to the charges that were against the 9. Philip Berrigan further pleads:

“We cannot ravage the ecology of Indochina, kill ten civilians for every soldier, and expect anything but do-or-die opposition. We cannot fight the abstraction of Communism by killing the people who believe in it. We cannot talk peace, while our deeds give the lie to our words. We can’t have it both ways.” (Berrigan 15)

Nonetheless, all of the nine Catholic people are found guilty. Daniel Berrigan continued his life as a fugitive from upon the trial. He was detected at anti-war rallies and religious services sporadically (Vesely-Flad). Concomitantly, the court decision was not welcomed in the US: demonstrations in the streets of Baltimore against the charges continued for weeks, support for the 9 came even as far away from Hawaii.

Predicated on Cathcart’s analysis, the use of napalm tells that this act utilizes a rhetoric of confrontation. The chemical creates violent consequences and is typically part of war equipment. As such, Catonsville 9 was not a peaceful and non-violent act against war. The other portion of the act, however, illustrates the rhetoric of guilt. In the press release[4] the 9 displayed a collective sense of guilt due to being citizens of a “war-waging country” and being followers of a Church that is an “accomplice” of the country. Consequently, through the burning of the draft files, the nine Catholics were attempting to both reveal and resolve the wrongdoings of the Vietnam War.

The particular use of napalm as opposed to any other inflammatory substance also carries a heavy meaning which can be divided into two broad categories: (1) portrayal of how the boys die (2) promotion of renewal from the ashes. The first item encourages the citizens to see a little bit of the violence the boys face abroad at home. The second item is hopeful in that it tells that turning back, withdrawing from the war and jeopardizing lives of young men, is still an option, and that the nation will heal—only if this mad fire is put away (Cathcart 243-4).

This event is significant in that it caused an awakening in the religious world about passivism. Anti-war acts started to emerge elsewhere in the US. With the death of Daniel Berrigan in 2016, his ideology and Catonsville 9 are commemorated positively. Usability and particularity of this site of memory inspired many. As James Carrol posits, D. Berrigan’s passivism and poetry was the hope to those who are scared and despairing in a violent environment. Although the Berrigan brothers are memorialized as decent human beings (Carrol). The seven people who were also part of Catonsville 9, are not very much remembered. One reason might be that the brothers were the leaders of the act; their faces are the instruments of today’s commemoration.

[1] As a symbol of life

[2] Recipe of the napalm is from the Green Beret Handbook.

[3] The 378 files include necessary information to draft the local men.

[4]“We, American citizens, have worked with the poor in the ghetto and abroad. In the course of our Christian ministry we have watched our country produce more victims than an army of us could console or restore.  … . All of us identify with the victims of American oppression all over the world. We use napalm on these records because napalm has burned people to death in Vietnam, Guatemala and Peru; and because it may be used on America’s ghettos. We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men, but because these records represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America. . .. We are Catholic Christians who take the Gospel of our Faith seriously . . . we confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”


Cathcart, Robert S. “Movements: Confrontation as rhetorical form.” (1978): 233-247.

Peters, Shawn Francis. The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Vesely-Flad, Ethan. “Surveillance= Security?.” Fellowship71.9-10 (2005): 4.

Berrigan, Daniel. The trial of the Catonsville Nine. Fordham Univ Press, 1970.

Carrol, James. Daniel Berrigan, My Dangerous Friend. The New Yorker, 2016.

Lewis, Daniel. Figure 1. The New York Times, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Catonsville 9: “Living humanly in the midst of death””

  1. A very well-written post! I loved how you were able to compare the remembrance of the Berrigan brothers versus the seven people who were also part of Catonsville 9 towards the end, and also give a reason as to why you think this is the case! Well done!

  2. I found your post very interesting because it relates to my article but it is almost the opposite of topics. I wrote about how the Vietnam War was commemorated and remembered in 1993 (the 25th anniversary of the Tet Offensive) so I wonder if there were more anti-war protests such as this one in 1993 or even through out the last 50 years. It is also interesting as this is an act for people to see while the 25th anniversary was an opening to public memory but it also was mostly personal memories of those who were in Vietnam in January of 1968.

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