On the surface, everything looks much as it always has in this timeless town near the Pennsylvania line. The old village square, site of the town's lone traffic light, remains almost deserted. And one block down Main Street is the familiar sight of seven-term town commissioner J. Norman Flax, sitting in his big, maroon Ford LTD, which doubles as his office.
Parked in front of his 100-year-old red brick row house, the squat, self-styled town sage files his correspondence behind the sun visor, his business records in piles along the dash board and, on a recent day, a copy of the $253,000 town budget in his lap. While this may appear odd to outsiders, it's just a quirk of small town life that people up here have come to accept.
But for all the apparent placidity, Emmitsburg is in turmoil, and Flax knows it as well as anyone. The Maryland state prosecutor took possession of two whole years of town records last week on the suspicion that somebody -- nobody here claims to know who or how -- bilked the town's modest treasury of thousands of dollars between 1978 and 1980.
"If I was to be shot at sunrise, I couldn't get to the bottom of it," said the 75-year-old Flax, looking hard at the town budget as if the numbers harbored some sort of clue to the case. "The town has never been up against anything like this. Never!"
The unaccustomed dose of intrigue has sent official Emmitsburg into a tizzy. First came the secret town commission meeting, preceded by a search of the town office for bugs and eavesdroppers. Then came the commission's assertion that no money was missing after all, that it was all just a king-sized mistake. This was followed quickly by the rumor that one commissioner had instructed the town clerk to destroy certain records, which, in turn, brought an indignant denial from the commissioner.
And finally, despite the commission's determined efforts to keep the mess under wraps, came the leaks, including an anonymous letter to a newspaper from someone identifying himself only as "Mr. Mum," urging an investigation.
"It's a mystery. It's more than a mystery," said Regina Rybikowsky, the recently retired town clerk who kept the books for 12 years, including the period under scrutiny. "I never noticed anything funny at all."
The tempest began one day in early May, when town clerk Dee Stover rummaged through the old cast-iron safe in the three-room Town Office and uncovered a savings passbook for a water department account she had never noticed before.
A newcomer to the eight-member town work force, Stover combed through the book, only to find what appeared to her to be thousands of dollars of unexplained withdrawals stretching over the last 2 1/2 years. She mentioned the mystery to town police chief Maurice Kerr, for whom she doubles as a secretary.
Kerr, also a newcomer to town, recalls that Stover also mentioned that town sewer commissioner Jane Bollinger, a retired school teacher who doubles as the town treasurer, had recently told Stover to "destroy" the passbook in question.
Kerr, a former Baltimore detective who has introduced Emmitsburg to such big-city policing techniques as strictly enforced parking fines, said it sounded to him like a case for higher authorities.
"I'm just an old burglary detective, and white-collor crime is beyond my expertise," he observed. So he called the state prosecutor. One thing led to another, and in mid-May, two state police investigators arrived at the Town Office with a subpoena for two years of town ledgers, bank account records and various other documents.
"Needless to say I lost my cigar," said town administrator Lanny Mummert, recalling his reaction upon learning that Kerr had called in outsiders. That is simply not the way things are done in Emmitsburg, he and the town commissioners say. The thing to do is to go to the mayor first, said Mummert, who emphatically denies any connection wih the letter-writing "Mr. Mum."
Not so, says Kerr, citing the lessons of his Baltimore training. "I know from my detective days that if you walk into a room and find a body on the floor and five people standing there, whether you think they're guilty or not, they're automatically suspects."
Local officials are unswayed by this logic. Besides, commissioners now say, their auditors recently inspected the books in question, and accounted for all the withdrawals, down to the last penny. "Somebody just didn't know how to read the books," Mummert says. "Someone was a neophyte or not too damn swift."
Bollinger, for her part, angrily denies telling Stover to "destroy" anything. "I might have told her to 'get rid of' the book since the savings account was closed, but I certainly didn't mean destroy it," she said, folding her arms in a pose of indignation.
But the investigation remains open, and state prosecutors have obtained the Social Security numbers of everyone who had access to the town accounts during the two years in question, according to Flax. Assistant state prosecutor Charles Frey, who is handling the case, refuses to say anything about it.
One reason for all the excitement is that Emmitsburg's 1,600 residents aren't accustomed to crime of any kind -- much less the white-collar sort. The police blotter shows only two cases that merited Uniform Crime Reports in the last two weeks: a $36 theft of five cases of soda from the town softball field's concession stand and the disappearance of 19 junked car batteries from a local garage.
"This is really a unique little town. Its character hasn't changed in my lifetime," said Phil Topper, vice president and branch manager of the Farmers and Mechanics National Bank and an Emmitsburg native. "The town just isn't ready for any major changes. For some reason, if anything destroys their peaceful way of life, they really resist it."
"Issue-wise, our main thing is to come up to the 20th and now the 21st century," said town administrator Mummert.
Emmitsburg wasn't always so stranded from the march of progress. In the 18th centruy, East Coast emigrants to the frontier passed through on their westward journeys, making the town a center of commerce and transit. In 1863, the Union and Confederate armies marched through en route to the battle of Gettysburg. And in the days before U.S. 15 was routed around the town, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower used to drive through the town square on the way back to Washington from their home in Gettysburg.
Most historic of all was the work of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native North American to be cononized a saint, who came here in 1809 to found the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and America's first parochial school.
But things have slowed down considerably since then. "If Mother Seton came back today, she'd know exactly where she was. Things haven't changed much at all, one of the Sisters of Charity nuns said with a wink.
Mother Seton might not even be surprised by Emmitsburg's present-day furor, judging from the rumors and counter-rumors that circulated about her pious community more than a century ago.
"You will hear a thousand reports of nonsense about our community which I beg you not to mind," Seton wrote in a letter from Emmitsburg to a girlhood friend. "The truth is we have the best ingredients of happiness -- order, peace and solitude."