Lincoln’s chiropodist – Issachar Zacharie

Isachar Zacharie’s ambitions  were flying high as the wind  whistled through the masts of his  trans-Atlantic steamer. Some  time, in about 5605/1845, he was  strolling the decks of the ship,  navigating its way from England  to New York, his brain in ferment  with dreams of fame and  fortune in the New World. America  has long been the land of endless  opportunity, and then things  were no different.

Zacharie’s goal was to stride to  fame and fortune, slicing and  sanding the bunions, ingrown  toenails and sundry excrescences  impeding the locomotion of  America’s leading citizenry. His  profession of chiropody is an  ancient one; mankind has suffered  from corns and calluses  ever since the first person  thought of squeezing his feet into  ill-fitting shoes. This is testified  by a bas-relief depicting feet doctors  at the tomb entrance of  Ankmahor, a king of ancient  Egypt, and even Hippocrates, the  doctor of antiquity, invested time  designing special skin scrapers to  remove calluses.

Although chiropody started off  as a despised street profession, by  the eighteenth century, it had  transformed into a respectable  business and fashionable corncutters  were demanding hefty  fees. Zacharie was one of these.  Despite never having attended a  medical school or college, he had  appended the title of “doctor” to  his name. It is only in our day  that American law requires chiropodists,  or podiatrists as they  are now known, to be qualified  medical professionals.


After setting foot in America,  Zacharie rapidly gained an  enthusiastic following. His trade  secret was to treat distinguished  public figures gratis, and then  utilize their glowing testimonials  to attract clients willing to pay  for his skills in cold cash. People  were impressed not only by his  skills but also by his imposing  presence.

Zacharie’s reputation soared.  The famed and titled limping to  his door included such household  names as Secretary of War, Edwin  M. Stanton, Secretary of State,  William Henry Seward and even  the President of the United  States, Abraham Lincoln, who  penned the foot doctor a glowing  testimonial – “Dr. Zacharie has  operated on my feet with great  success, and considerable addition  to my comfort.”

The New York Herald  enthused at the time: “Dr.  Zacharie trimmed the feet of  President Lincoln and all his  Cabinet. He is a wit, gourmet  and eccentric, with a splendid  Roman nose, fashionable  whiskers and an eloquent  tongue, a dazzling diamond  breast-pin, great skill in his profession,  ingratiating address, a  perfect knowledge of his business,  and a plentiful supply of  social moral courage.”

Soothing the feet of rulers was  by no means a unique achievement.  In earlier times, personal  chiropodists had attended to the  aches and pains of kings of  France and Napoleon.

Abraham Lincoln’s feet bothered  him a lot. Such a close  friendship developed between  him and his chiropodist that The  New York World reported that  Zacharie “enjoyed Mr. Lincoln’s  confidence more than any other  private individual… [and was]  perhaps the most favored family  visitor at the White House.” The  President valued his foot-soother  not only for his warm personality  but also as a sounding board for  the feelings and opinions of his  Jewish constituency. This was  vitally important since American  anti-Semitism kept on rising as  more and more Jews decided to  make America their home.

The trust between the two men  developed to such a pitch that  Lincoln appointed Zacharie as his  agent during the blood soaked  days of the Civil War. After the  Union seized New Orleans early  in the Civil War, during  5622/1862, General Benjamin  Butler, operating on the assumption  that New Orleans was a conquered  rebel city that must be  made to pay for its crimes, subjected  the city to such strict martial  law that he became known as  “the Beast.” After Butler was  replaced, Lincoln sent Zacharie  along to mix unobtrusively with  the city’s populace and size up its  attitude of the new governor.  While there, Zacharie did all he  could to supply the local Jewish  community with extra food and  medicine.

In addition, Zacharie  ran a spy ring using a  team of peddlers to sniff  out information about  the South. Unfortunately,  this operation was not  a rousing success as most  of the information he dug  up turned out to be incorrect.  Zacharie also helped  persuade Lincoln to  rescind the most anti-  Semitic decree of American  history. The original  decree happened in  December 5642/1862,  when Union General  Ulysses S. Grant issued  General Orders no. 11,  announcing: “The Jews,  as a class violating every  regulation of trade established  by the Treasury  Department and also  department orders, are hereby  expelled from the [Tennessee]  department within twenty-four  hours.” Grant’s gripe was that certain  Jewish peddlers were contravening  the Union’s trade boycott  against the South.

But Zacharie’s greatest claim to  fame was his attempt to bring an  end to the Civil War, three years  before its final conclusion. Armed  with a special pass from Lincoln,  he passed through the Union lines  and met with Confederate contacts  in Richmond. Later, he met  with his co-religionist, Confederate  Secretary of State Judah P.  Benjamin and other Cabinet figures  and supposedly hammered  out a tentative agreement.

What were its specifics? A version  publicized by The New York  Herald is too incredible to believe  – the North would overrun the  whole USA, and then give the  Confederate leader, Jefferson  Davis, the go-ahead to depose  Emperor Maximillian of Mexico  with Davis’ 150,000 troops, and  set up a new Southern government  in his place. Whatever the  plan was, it was vetoed by Washington’s  decision makers, and  Zacharie moved his nail-clipping  business to Philadelphia.

Thanks to the influence of  Zacharie and others, by the time  Lincoln was assassinated, he had  developed such closeness to the  Jews that one rabbi claimed in his  eulogy, “The lamented Abraham  Lincoln believed himself to be  bone from our bone and flesh  from our flesh. He supposed himself  to be a descendant of Hebrew  parentage. He said so in my presence.”

Although it is more than likely  that this statement is true more  in symbol than in substance,  Zacharie stoked the President’s  Semitic sympathies to such a  pitch that it is reported that Lincoln  even became sympathetic to  the idea of an independent Jewish  homeland. The story goes that,  when a friend discussed this idea  with Lincoln at the height of the  Civil War, the President commented,  “I myself have regard for  the Jews. My chiropodist is a Jew,  and he has so many times ‘put me  on my feet,’ that I would have no  objection to giving his countrymen  ‘a leg up.’”

Although Napoleon claimed  that an army marches on its stomach,  Zacharie was well aware  that, in reality, soldiers move on  their feet. Besides suffering from  battle wounds, measles, small  pox, malaria, typhoid and a skin  infection lovingly known as  “camp itch,” the Union soldiers’  ill-fitting boots and forced marches  made havoc of their feet.

Throughout the war, Zacharie had  been attending to the feet of the  Union Army, and after the war he  presented his bill – $45,000 for  treating the pedal digits of 15,000  soldiers. Newspapers condemned  the man who wanted to feather  his nest by creating “a corps of  corn doctors, or foot soldiers, to  put the army in marching order,”  and the claim was booted out.

Soon after this, Zacharie disappeared  from the stage of history.  He eventually shipped himself  back to England, where he passed  away in 5657/1897. Yet he was a  portent of the influence the growing  Jewish community would  yield over America’s future.

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