‘Hizzoner’ John Passmore the larger than life first mayor of Lancaster

1818 was a good year not just for Lancaster but also for long-time Lancastrian and lawyer John Passmore. It was in this year—March 10, to be exact—that the Borough of Lancaster was incorporated into a city. Like all cities, Lancaster now needed a mayor. Pennsylvania Governor Simon Snyder appointed Passmore to the history-making position.

John Passmore taking the oath of office. Drawing by Charles X. Carlson

Before this, Lancaster had burgesses. The Chief Burgesses and the burgesses were a group of elected officials that helped to govern the community. In Lancaster, these had been unpaid positions. The term burgess comes from the old French word “burgeis,” meaning inhabitant and freeman of a fortified town, especially one with municipal rights and duties.

As mayor, Passmore was paid $200 per year (That’s about $4,000 in today’s money). Lancaster’s current mayor, Danene Sorace, earns about $85,000.

Lancaster Court House. Drawing by Charles X. Carlson.

Passmore proved skilled enough in the position to be re-elected twice, serving as mayor discharging the duties of the office for three years until 1820. Being Lancaster’s first mayor wasn’t Passmore’s only distinction. He was a colorful and eccentric character who was literally larger than life.

Old City Hall

Early Years

Passmore was born on January 12, 1774, in Newcastle, Delaware. At a young age, he left home and moved to Lancaster. A few years later, he entered the office of the Honorable James Hopkins as a law student.

Passmore married twice. The first time was on December 18, 1809, to Elizabeth Alexander, who died on March 1, 1814. He remarried three years later, on January 2, 1817, to Mary Clark, who was 16 years his junior.

In 1809 Governor Snyder appointed Passmore the Prothonotary (principal clerk of a court) of the Lancaster District of the Supreme Court. The District comprised of Lancaster, Berks, York, and Dauphin County. Before becoming Lancaster’s first mayor, Passmore served as city aldermen. In 1818, he also became the treasurer of St. James Episcopal Church.

No Smoking

There was a law at this time that prohibited smoking on public streets. One day a resident accused Passmore of breaking the law as he was walking down the street smoking. Passmore agreed, and fined himself twenty shillings as a punishment which he cheerfully paid as he puffed away.

Drawing by Charles X. Carlson

‘Jim, come back here’

Many people considered Passmore an eccentric man. It is related that James Buchanan, before becoming President of the United States, came into Mr. Passmore’s law office one day and took down a book from a shelf.

When he had finished reading it, Buchanan laid it on the table and departed. Passmore waited until the future President had started up the street, then called out, “Jim, come back here.” When he returned, he told Buchanan to put the book where he had found it.

James Buchanan
15th President of the United States James Buchanan

Larger than Life

Passmore was not only Lancaster’s first mayor but also the heaviest. It is said that he weighed about 480 pounds. His enormous size and weight caused many anecdotes about him, including the impressive title of “Hizzoner.”

Passmore lived on the corner of East Orange and North Shippen Street in a Georgian-style colonial mansion. His home still stands today at 247 East Orange Street, appearing much as it did during the 1800s. Click here to read more about the house and the mysterious shield adorning the side of the building.


When Passmore died on October 20, 1827, at the age of 53, there wasn’t a hearse in the city large enough to hold the nearly 500-pound man and his supersized wooden coffin, so a large wagon was used to transport Passmore from his 247 East Orange Street home to his grave at St. James Episcopal Church cemetery.


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