Mary E. Murphy, 92, Selective Service office clerk during 1968 raid


Mary E. Murphy, who was chief clerk of the Catonsville Selective Service office in 1968 when the Catonsville Nine raided and burned draft records in one of the best-known acts of civil disobedience during the Vietnam War era, died Sunday of heart failure at Heartlands Senior Living Village in Ellicott City. She was 92.

It was early in the afternoon of May 17, 1968, when the protesters, led by two Roman Catholic priests, brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered the second-floor room of the three-story, white-shingled building on Frederick Road that housed Selective Service Local Board No. 33 and the Knights of Columbus in Catonsville.

The Catonsville Nine group gathered and burned Selective Service records of an estimated 600 draft-age men.

Phyllis S. Morsberger of Woodbine, the last survivor among the three clerks who worked in the office, recalled the raid: "There was a screen door that always banged when it was opened, but what they did was carefully close the door. And because they were wearing sneakers, they softly ran up the steps.

"Mary's desk was near the door, and they came in shouting, 'You're murderers. You're murderers.' It was all so sudden. She went after those who were trying to get the records, and they shoved her around. It was a tug of war," said Mrs. Morsberger.

Mrs. Murphy cut her finger while trying to wrest from the protesters a wire basket into which they were dumping the records that were to be burned in a parking lot with homemade napalm.

"The records they got were mainly 4-F [those medically deferred from military service]. They never got any 1-A people," said her son, John V. Murphy III, an attorney and former Baltimore County councilman.

"They came over and told her they were going to take the files, and she said no one was taking anything. My mother is a short lady and not a particularly imposing figure, but she managed to block Phil Berrigan's path," he said.

"She was really upset. She really had no way to defend herself. What happened there really became a milestone in her life," said Mr. Murphy, who lives in Catonsville.

Until retiring in 1972, Mrs. Murphy endured name-calling and peace rallies outside the draft board building.

"She really suffered. She was very proud of what she was doing, and she was very patriotic," Mr. Murphy said.

"Mary was a very kind person, and she tried to give good advice to the young men who came to the board," Mrs. Morsberger said.

In May, Mrs. Murphy's experiences and the activities of the Catonsville Nine were back in public view after 33 years. She and the surviving protesters were featured in Lynn Sachs' film, Investigation of a Flame, a documentary that opened the third annual Maryland Film Festival at the Senator Theatre.

It was the first time that all participants had gathered since 1968. Mrs. Murphy, using a walker to get around, said she didn't regret her actions of that day.

"I was for my country then, and I'm for my country now," she told The Sun. "I'm not against protesting. The American people have the right to protest. It's the way they did it. They were violent, and that shouldn't be allowed."

Stephen H. Sachs, who was the U.S. attorney for Maryland at the time and whose office prosecuted the Berrigans, said, "She was a devout Catholic lady who was proud of her job. She was performing a patriotic duty and the idea that clergy would invade such a place and wrestle and assault people bothered her greatly."

Mr. Murphy said he told the former protesters at a reception after the documentary's showing how their actions had affected his mother, and afterward they came over to speak with her.

"They found out that she wasn't a horrible person, and they were sorry they had hurt her. This gave her peace," said the son.

Born Mary E. Nolan, she was raised in Southwest Baltimore and was a 1926 graduate of St. Agnes High School. She worked as a secretary for McCubbin, Legg & Co., and was married in 1938 to John Victor Murphy Jr., who died in 1980.

She went to work for Selective Service in 1942 as a clerk in the Irvington office and remained with that draft board until moving to Catonsville in 1957, when she joined Local Board 33.

She had been an active communicant for many years of St. Joseph's Passionist Monastery Roman Catholic Church, and later St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville, where she earned a reputation for organizing and producing lavish parish dinners.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Mark's, 27 Melvin Ave.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Mary Lou Quaid of Catonsville; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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