Emmitsburg, Md., once went through three burgesses in four months in 1939.
It began when Burgess Michael J. Thompson died unexpectedly on May 31. He had gone out walking through Emmitsburg, including stopping at the Hotel Slagle, before heading home. He had only been home a few minutes when the heart struck and he died about 12:20 p.m.
“Mr. Thompson had been in ill health for the last two years and the attack this morning was third he has suffered within the last year,” The Frederick Post reported.
He was only 61 years old. He had been born in Waterbury, Conn., in 1877. He loved playing sports, but in 1893 while playing football for Suffield Academy against Taft School, he broke his right leg. He healed, but then broke it again the following spring while sliding into second base during a baseball game.
His playing days were over.
When he attended Holy Cross, he organized the school’s first football team and coached it in 1896 while he was still only a freshman. The following year, he refereed his first game between Boston College and Brown.
He soon became a regular referee for college games.
“His most famous game was the Harvard-Carlisle Indians contest in 1903, when he allowed the ‘hidden-ball’ play. Jimmy Johnson, the Indian quarterback, in a close formation, slipped the ball under the jersey of Dillon, a husky tackle, who lumbered unmolested down the field and across the goal line,” The Frederick Post reported.
He came to Mount St. Mary’s College in 1911 and served as a coach and referee for 23 years before retiring.
He was also a former publisher of the Emmitsburg Chronicle.
Two days before Thompson was buried, John B. Elder became the burgess since he was the head of the town council. Like Thompson, he was also a publisher of the Emmitsburg Chronicle.
With Elder’s move to burgess, Council Member Charles Harner became the head of the town council.
Harner and Elder were the only two members of the town’s governing body at this time. Usually, there was a burgess and three members of the town council. However, the third seat on the council had gone unfilled in the last election. Thompson had been planning on appointing a person to fill the seat, but he had died before it could be done.
On August 21, The Gettysburg Times reported that “Emmitsburg now has its third burgess since the May election as municipal affairs underwent a second unexpected change, occasioned by the sudden resignation last Friday of Guy S. Nunenbaker, retired engineer.”
Elder had unexpectedly resigned from his position as burgess at the beginning of the month. Luckily, Thornton Rogers had been appointed to town council before Elder’s resignation so Harney wasn’t left as the sole member of town government.
Richard Zacharias became the new burgess and served out Thompson’s unexpired term.
This wasn’t the first or last time that Emmitsburg would have trouble finding people to serve in Emmitsburg’s government. Many of its elections lacked contested races and once no one even filed to run for the office of burgess.
“A light vote is anticipated inasmuch as apathy of local citizens to run for office was prevalent during the past week when no one filed his intentions to run for the office of Burgess,” the Emmitsburg Chronicle reported in 1955 just before the election.
The newspaper speculated that most people probably thought that incumbent mayor Thornton Rodgers would run again, but he, too, chose not to seek re-election. When no one had filed for burgess in the election, Rodgers allowed himself to become a write-in candidate.
He was re-elected with 91 votes (out of 438 registered voters) of residents who wrote in his name.
James Edward Houck was elected burgess in 1961, but even then, people referred to the position as mayor. He won the election by only four votes over the incumbent Mayor Clarence Frailey.
Houck wrote in an article for the Greater Emmitsburg Area Historical Society about his time in office, “Being elected Burgess of Emmitsburg in the early 1960’s was quite an eye opening experience for me. The regular duties that you expect to do and the things you want to accomplish are only a small portion of the job.”
Additional charter changers in 1974 made official the change from a burgess to a mayor.
In 2006, the number of commissioners on the board was increased from four members to five. Changes were also made to keep the mayor from voting on issues since he also has veto power.
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