Incendiary Etchings: Tom Lewis and the Catonsville Nine

Tom Lewis, Draft records are for burning from The Trial and Prison (1969), color etching, image 29.6 x 44.6 cm, sheet 39.2 x 55.8 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Faye A. Houston and Michael A. Lowry, in Honor of William B. Lowry, Jr., BMA 2014.10.2. Photo: Mitro Hood.

Why should an artist get so involved in protest that he lands in jail? In such a case, is protest an integral part of his art, or is it an expression of personal life, which has no relation to his art? I prefer to think the first; I prefer to think that his art tests his view of life, and that in turn, his art is tested by his public life.
—Tom Lewis, February 19691

On May 17, 1968, as opposition was growing to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and unrest was sweeping American campuses, a group of Catholic peace activists entered the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, removed draft records and set them alight in an adjacent parking lot using homemade napalm.2 While awaiting arrest, the nine held hands, prayed and addressed a small gathering with prepared statements against the war.

The burning of draft cards—the physical records the government used to keep track of and notify young men legally obliged to serve in the armed forces—had been a form of protest against the American engagement in the war as early as 1963.3 Though the majority of Americans approved of the draft, by 1965 there was enough resistance that Congress passed a law making draft card destruction punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.4 The Catonsville incident, though, was one of the first in what became a movement targeting Selective Service offices across the country.5 The destruction of records en masse was not simply a symbolic gesture; in many cases, there were no duplicate copies and the Selective Service was unable to serve notice on the young men in question.

Corita Kent, phil and dan (1969), screenprint, image 60.4 x 32.5 cm, sheet 60.9 x 33 cm. Cover for the portfolio The Trial and Prison., The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Faye A. Houston and Michael A. Lowry, in Honor of William B. Lowry, Jr. Courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.

The Catonsville Nine, as they came to be known, included the priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and seven laypeople: David Darst, John Hogan, Marjorie and Tom Melville, George Mische, Mary Moylan, and the artist Tom Lewis. Widely reported, the action and subsequent trial drew broad public interest and inspired further protests. Daniel Berrigan wrote a play about these events,6 while Lewis, in between his imprisonment awaiting and after the trial, created a portfolio of etchings, The Trial and Prison (1969), now in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in March 1940, Lewis was a Baltimore resident by his senior year, attending the Catholic Mount Saint Joseph High School. During his time there he developed an interest in painting and studied informally under the Baltimore realist painter Earl Hofmann and later with Joe Sheppard. As an adult he took courses at universities in and around Baltimore, including Maryland Institute of Art, Johns Hopkins University, Loyola College and Georgetown University. He also traveled to Italy, visiting friends who had become priests and going to Florence to see works in the Uffizi Gallery. In the early 1960s, he developed an interest in printmaking, attending Pratt Center for Contemporary Printmaking in New York.7

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  1. Tom Lewis, “The Artist as Prophetic Activist,” motive, February (1969): 39. []
  2. Napalm is a flammable gelling substance that clings to human skin, causing severe burns, asphyxiation and death. It was used extensively by American forces in Vietnam. The Catonsville Nine apparently obtained a recipe for napalm from a United States Special Forces handbook. []
  3. In 1963, Eugene Keyes burned his draft card on Christmas day in Champaign, IL. That same year the U.S. military inducted 119,265 men, an annual draw that would increase to 382,010 in 1966. “Induction Statistics,” Resistance and Revolution: The Anti-Vietnam War Movement at the University of Michigan, 1965–1972, accessed 30 June 2017, http://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/items/show/73. []
  4. Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), 28–29. []
  5. For more on the Catonsville Nine and the draft board actions they inspired, see Joe Tropea’s documentary Hit and Stay (2014), 97 min., distributed by Brink Vision, Baltimore. Also, Lynn Sachs’s Investigation of a Flame (2013, Lynn Sachs): 50 min. []
  6. Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970). A film of the same title based on Berrigan’s text and directed by Gordon Davidson was released in 1972. []
  7. The details of his involvement are not clear. In his introductory text, Lewis says he studied printmaking at Pratt Center for Contemporary Printmaking,” and his sister, Paula Scheye, remembers that an etching entitled Ghetto (1966) was one of his first prints. He did not receive a degree and Pratt Institute does not have records of who attended the Graphic Art Center. []