The house stands on the ground, initially purchased in 1749 by Quaker merchant Thomas Poultney and later sold to Dr. Christian Neff. John Passmore eventually took ownership of the property. Passmore is famous for becoming the first mayor of Lancaster after the city was chartered in 1818. He was appointed by the governor and then re-elected twice, serving until 1820.
Before Lancaster became an official city, it 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.
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, fined himself twenty shillings as a punishment which he cheerfully paid as he puffed away.
‘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 he called to him, “Jim, come back here.” When he returned, Buchanan told him to put the book where he had found it.
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.”
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.
The building has several other elements of historical interest. Can you find all five?
First is the carriage stepping stone. These served as mounting blocks to help passengers climb in and out of carriages. Lancaster City has few carriage steps left today. After the transition to automobiles, most were removed.
There is also a hitching post next to the carriage stepping stone. Posts like these were used for tethering a horse to prevent it from straying.
The East Orange Street home also boasts a sundial mounted on the outside wall of the house above the front door.
A unique feature is the second-story busybody mirror. The device is a collection of three mirrors hung from a window with a metal rod, arranged so that a person inside the house can see who is at the door without being seen.
Some historians claim that Benjamin Franklin invented the busybody. Others believe that Franklin “invented” the busybody after seeing one in the red light district of Paris while serving as ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War. Legend also holds that Franklin used his busybody to slip out the back door when he saw his mother-in-law on his stoop.
Finally, there’s a colonial fire mark on the North Shippen Street side of the building. It is one of the oldest in the city. This was a type of early fire insurance. Insured homes affixed the fire mark to their house, and fire brigades were charged with protecting those buildings. If you zoom in to the left of the white lamp post, you can spot the fire mark on the corner of the building.
Initially, these companies only provided money for the restoration or reconstruction of fire-damaged buildings. Soon fire insurance companies realized that it was cheaper to put fires out than merely pay to have homes rebuilt. This decision led to the creation of in-house fire brigades and fire marks. Insured homes affixed the fire mark to their house, and fire brigades were charged with protecting those buildings.
Benjamin Franklin pioneered the idea here in the United States in 1752 after a devastating fire in Philadelphia destroyed stores and homes near Fishbourn’s wharf. He named the insurance company The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire insurance company. The firm eventually sold 143 policies the first year. This paved the way for other insurance companies and earned Franklin the moniker of “the father of American insurance.”
Accounts vary concerning fire marks. Some historians have stated that private fire brigades would not put out a fire unless a fire mark was on the building. In some cases, they only put out fires for structures containing their specific fire mark and not competitors. Experts have doubts about this belief or at least the regularity at which this happened.
Others have stated that fire insurance companies awarded monetary rewards to the fire company who arrived at a fire first. Such practices undoubtedly fostered deep rivalries between neighboring fire brigades. This scene from The Gangs of New York gives an idea of what these early fire fighting rivalries might have looked like.