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.
LEG UP TO SUCCESS
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.
CIVIL WAR DIPLOMAT
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.