The Baltimore Sun

Phyllis Brandt has a different take on the act of civil disobedience performed by the nine men and women who became known as the Catonsville Nine in 1968 after they destroyed and burned draft records with homemade napalm.

Brandt - who was then Phyllis Morsberger - is the last survivor among the three clerks who were working May 17, 1968, when the Catonsville Selective Service Local Board No. 33 was raided by a group led by the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Philip, a Josephite priest.

The Selective Service office was on the second floor of a three-story, white-shingled building on Frederick Road, and also housed the Knights of Columbus.

"I was standing there putting in some information into a manual or ledger. Mary Murphy, who was the chief clerk, had a desk near the door. Alice Phelps - whom we called 'Miss Alice' - was in the back. She was the oldest," Brandt recalled.

"Normally, the screen door would bang when opened, but we didn't hear it or hear them come up the stairs because they were all wearing sneakers," she said in an interview from her Woodbine home the other day.

"They came in screaming, 'You're murderers. You're murderers.' Philip Berrigan then went after the files, which he was trying to put in a basket," she said

In the scuffle, Murphy - who tried to block Philip Berrigan and informed him they were removing no files from the office - got scratched and cut a finger while trying to hold onto the wire basket.

"I went to call the police, and that's when Tom Melville, a priest, grabbed me. He pushed the phone down and Mary into a chair. He called me a murderer, and I said I wasn't a murderer," Brandt said.

"I saw a caretaker out in the yard and threw the phone through the window to get his attention so he'd call the police," she said.

"What really got me was The Sun was tipped off a day before it happened, and there was a reporter there to witness the whole thing. That really irritated me. They should have called the police. What if Alice had suffered a heart attack?" Brandt said.

She said it wasn't long before the police, FBI and military officials raced to the Selective Service office.

"I was told by the FBI not to answer any reporter's questions, and then the police asked me if I'd identify them and I said I would. Mary and I later had to go to court," she said. "The Berrigans later sent flowers that were dying. I guess they were trying to apologize."

Brandt recalled her father, who lived on the Eastern Shore, calling after he heard the news of the raid. He wanted to make sure that she hadn't been hurt.

"Their idea of protesting was fine, but you don't do it that way. No one wanted that war. We all loved those men and tried to help them," Brandt said.

"Actually, they didn't get anything of importance, and I really have no animosity toward them. Someone could have gotten hurt. Anyway, they have to answer for what they did, not me," she said.

The records the Catonsville Nine succeeded in gathering and burning were mainly 4-F (those medically deferred from military service), not 1-A files.

Murphy and Brandt's late husband worked together at Esskay, and the two women remained friends until Murphy's death in 2001.

"What happened that day really did upset Mary," Brandt added.

Until retiring in 1972, Murphy had to endure name-calling from peace groups that gathered outside her office.

"She was a very patriotic lady, and she felt she was doing what she could to help her country. She had worked for Selective Service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam," said her son, John V. Murphy III, a Catonsville attorney and former Baltimore County councilman.

"But what happened that day was something that troubled her for a long time. That she was doing something against her conscience and something that a good Catholic wouldn't do," Murphy said in an interview the other day.

"Maybe that was the intention of the Catonsville Nine, to wake up the world, including my mother. She felt they had the right to protest but that wasn't the right way to do it," he said. "What bothered her was the physical confrontation. They were human beings. They were three ladies."

When The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was produced in 1972, Murphy suffered another indignity.

"She was described as 'the portly Mrs. Murphy,'" her son said, "and she wasn't at all."

Shortly before her death, Murphy and her son attended a screening at the Senator Theater of Lynn Sachs' film, Investigation of a Flame, which opened the 2001 Maryland Film Festival.

Murphy, then ill and reliant on a walker, came face to face with those who had raided her office on that fateful spring morning 33 years earlier.

"At a dinner afterward, they came over and talked to her personally. They said they hoped that they hadn't done any real harm to her," her son said. "While they didn't directly apologize to her, I think it brought some measure of peace and closure to the whole thing."

He added: "She still believed that what she did that day was the right thing, and that what happened there did become a symbol of the war."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad