Spy, Diplomat, Podiatrist and Quack: The Strange Tale of Lincolns Toenail Trimmer

Americans have had little choice but to accept that President Donald Trumps son-in-law and daughter serve as his chief advisors and that his longstanding business partners head up federal departments. But would we rebel finally if he dispatched the man who trimmed his toenails to spy on ISIS or the one who tends to his corns and bunions to negotiate an end to a major war? During the Civil War, thats just what President Abraham Lincoln did.

Exceptionally tall, thin and long-limbed, Lincoln often found his feet were a tough fit for the periods hard-sole boots. According to Johnston & Murphy, the shoe company which has shod Presidents since 1850, Lincoln had a size 14 shoe, the biggest in Presidential history. (Trump reportedly wears size 12 shoes.) Lincolns big, boney feet ached. So did his back. He knew just the man to call upon. Eventually, he turned to the same hands that soothed his aching dogs to calm the dogs of war.

Issachar Zacharie was Civil War Washingtons foot doctor to the stars, despite the fact that he was something of a quack. Born a Jew in Chatham, England, in 1826, he came to the United States in the mid-1840s. Grocery businesses he opened in various cities failed, but he found better success promoting his skills as a surgeon and chiropodist, the 19th centurys title for a podiatrist. He settled in wartime Washington, D.C., in 1862, where he turned solely to treating foot and other bone and joint ailments. To establish his medical credentials, he fabricated a wall of diplomas for nonexistent college and medical degrees and persisted in calling himself doctor and inscribing M.D. after his name. He also plagiarized a textbook on surgery and diseases of the foot, just slapping his name on it.

The 1860 book went along with numerous ginned-up testimonials on his behalf from leading English chiropodists and many prominent Americans he claimed as happy past clients, including Senators John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay (both dead by then), and 160 citizens of Sacramento, Cal., though theres no evidence he ever set foot in the city. He claimed that he could cure foot trouble in five minutes, without pain or blood, so that the boot can be worn immediately after the operation without the least inconvenience to the patient. His posters also boasted fees that were trifling, indeed, compared with the relief and satisfaction he affords the sufferer.

He carried the part of the wise doctor with a stage actors aplomb. According to the New York Herald newspaper, he had a splendid Roman nose, fashionable whiskers, an eloquent tongue, a dazzling diamond breastpinan ingratiating addressand a plentiful supply of social moral courage. The faked M.D. and social graces inspired confidence in his patients who found him genuinely gifted at his chiropodist trade. He worked sufficient magic on the corns, bunions, ingrown toenails and sore feet of the Capital Citys elite to build up a large clientele.

A 1953 article on Zacharie by Charles M. Segal finds, he curried favor among the powerful because he was vain, ambitiousa political opportunist, who constantly sought to be on the winning side. Zacharie sent a newspaper article pointing out the military advantages of proper care for troops feet to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. True enough: foot pain forced many Union soldiers to drop out of ranks during long marches. Soon he applied to serve as Chiropodist-General to the Union Army. But it took the achy bones of the most powerful person in the land to win him a measure of fame, fortune, and eventually notoriety for his greatest incarnation, serving as the Presidents spy and personal peace emissary.

In September 1862, the achy Lincoln invited him to the White House, originally to treat a wrist sprain. Logs of Lincolns daily activities show that Zacharie returned to give the President relief from wrist, feet and back pain just four times in all, yet somehow, as Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shappel recount in Lincoln and the Jews, he managed to parley his intimacy with Lincolns sore feet and achy joints into a close relationshipeven friendshipwith a man known for his uncanny ability to size up others.

So much did Lincoln appreciate his chiropodists work on his feet that in the midst of a vast sectional war spiraling out of control into cataclysmic violence, not long after Zacharies first visit to the White House the President took time to write a public note for him: Dr. Zacharie has operated on my feet with great success, and considerable addition to my comfort. Shortly after that, Lincoln and Seward went further and jointly proclaimed the great skill of Dr. I. Zacharie in operating on corns, bunions, and other troubles of the feet and expressed their desire that the soldiers of our brave army may have the benefit of the doctors surprising skill.

Zacharie knew the value of such an endorsement: A poster he signed proclaims: Soldiers, Attention! All soldiers having corns, bunions or bad nails upon their feet can have them CURED without painunder the authority of the Secretary of War. He treated thousands of soldiers passing through Washington on the long march to war.

In return for these invaluable endorsements, Zacharie sent Lincoln frequent lettersaddressed to Dear friend, rather than more respectful greetings normally due the President of the United Statesand gifts like fresh pineapples, bananas, and hominy grits. His presents, podiatric relief, and ability to ingratiate himself to a weary Lincoln did the trick. Perhaps because Zacharie did not seek political office or a sinecure, the President grew to trust him and enjoy his company. They developed what some reports claimed were among the Presidents closer friendships during his White House years.

Zacharie became a White House regular, independent of the Presidents medical needs. The New York World newspaper concluded that the English foot doctor "enjoyed Mr. Lincoln's confidence more than any other private individual … [and was] perhaps the most favored family visitor at the White House."

Lincoln was so fond of this curious man that when approached in March 1863 by Henry Wentworth Monk, a Canadian-American seeking support for his vision for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Lincoln reputedly told him, 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.

By 1863, Lincoln determined upon dispatching his foot doctor on other healing missions. New Orleans had fallen to Union forces, but the population was in open rebellion against the harsh leader of the occupation forces, General Benjamin F. Butler. Beast Butler was also openly anti-Semitic and regularly jailed and insulted Jews. When the President learned that Zacharie had connections to the 2,000-member Jewish community in New Orleans, he sent his chiropodist as his personal envoy to the city to assess the situation and calm the waters if he could. He also asked him to look into conditions outside the city, basically to spy on rebel forces.

By the time he arrived in New Orleans, General Nathaniel Banks had replaced Butler. Following up on Lincolns instructions, the new commander of the occupied city told the Presidents operative to mingle freely with its people of all classes, especially your countrymen; to ascertain and report as far as possible the nature of its opinions.

Banks also put Zacharies life on the line by instructing him, in a January 1, 1863, letter, to spare no Expense, while traveling out into the rebel-held Mississippi countryside to gather intelligence on enemy troop numbers and organization, supplies and ammunition. If caught as a spy, he would face immediate execution. One can only imagine the bewilderment troops must have felt upon meeting this eccentric English dandy and chiropodist as he poked around their encampments.

While in New Orleans, Zacharie seems also to have taken advantage of his position as confidential agent of the President to set up deals to trade with the enemy. After word reached Washington that he was involved in illicit exchanges of cotton and other commodities, he wrote Lincoln protesting his innocence, insisting he had never been interested in any speculation to the value of one cent. However, documents later surfaced in the war proving he had indeed made illegal dealsthough he may have used trade in contraband as a way to infiltrate Southern circles.

He was never prosecuted. He became personally close to Banks who defended him. Back in Washington, the deeply humane Lincoln seemed to accept his foot doctors foibles. That spring Zacharie returned again to New Orleans, making reports to Banks on improving sentiment toward the occupiers.

None of this would be anything but a quirky footnotepun intendedto Lincolns White House years were it not for Zacharies final and most outrageous mission for the President. While in New Orleans, Zacharie also charmed his many Confederate contacts. Despite the occupation, several remained in regular communication with secessionist leaders in Richmond. Zacharie wrote to Secretary Seward in late June of 1863 that his New Orleans contacts had urged him to go to the Confederate capital where they told him, he claimed, he may be instrumental too [sic] inaugurate some plan which may terminate the war. Zacharies charismatic magic convinced Banks to endorse his farfetched peace mission.

Lincolns Cabinet officers, led by Secretary of War Seward, recognized the folly of sending a freelancer to negotiate a peace treaty with the rebel chieftains. Eager to find a way to bring the bloody war to a just close, Lincoln ignored their objections. He personally arranged for safe passage for Zacharie through the battle lines, to the capital of the would-be Southern nation. By September 23, 1863, Issachar Zacharie, quack, charlatan, charmer, friend of the President, and spy, reached the Capitol of the Confederacy where he met with several Confederate leaders to discuss ways to end the rebellion.

In one of the more ironic circumstances of the Civil War, the English Jew met with the Jewish Confederate leader Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State for the Confederacy, to discuss Zacharies proposals for a peaceful settlement of the vast national war. The Confederates reaction isnt clear, but afterwards Zacharie returned to the White House and spent two hours briefing Lincoln on what he had learned, declaring that their meeting was of the most friendly nature.

Whatever the Presidents view, his Cabinet adamantly opposed Zacharies peace plan. Even then, press leaks were potent political tools. The New York Herald reported enthusiastically that the White House was considering proposals for a Peaceful termination of our troubles. The Herald then reported the seemingly insane plan under consideration, apparently put forth by Zacharie during his Richmond meetings, for the Confederate leadership to leave the country willingly, at the head of a 150,000-man army bound south to conquer Mexico. There they would establish a new Confederate nation while the warring states of the North and South would reunite.

Although many Americans, particularly in the South, had long eyed expansionand the spread of slaverydeeper into Mexico, the idea that peace might be made with the rebels after so much blood had already been spilled was politically inconceivable. The idea of a peace based on Zacharies imperialistic proposals died. Zacharie blamed political jealousy and infighting for the refusal to follow his lead. He wrote to General Banks, I am afraid they wish to steal my thunder from me, and you know twas I that concocted the plan.

By late 1863, Lincoln suggested Zacharie return to New York and cease speaking about his peace plan. Miffed that he would not go down in history as the man who singlehandedly ended the Civil War, Zacharie remarked that his friend lacks stability. He has it in his powers to stop all fighting in twenty-four hours if he would follow out my program. A few weeks later, he would say of Lincoln and Seward that he had no confidence in them.

Despite his resentments, Zacharie acted as a liaison to Jewish voters in Lincolns 1864 campaign for re-election. However, in September 1864, a former Philadelphia business partner, angered over a financial dispute with Zacharie, shot him through the nose. Zacharie survived the bullet and returned to the hustings little worse for it. A week before Election Day 1864, Zacharie bragged that he had accomplished one of the Largest things that has been done in the campaign. Given that the tiny northern Jewish electorate amounted to a few tens of thousands of voters, that was quite the claim.

Eventually, Zacharie abandoned his political activities and went back to work as a chiropodist. After Savannah fell to the Union Army in December 1864, Zacharie wrote to Stanton seeking a pass through the lines to that city. Stanton refused. Zacharie asked Lincoln, who rebuked the Secretary of War in a January 25, 1865, memo under the heading About Jews. His foot doctor got his pass from Stanton that same day. As prepared to sail, Zacharie wrote his Dear friend to let him know he was departing for Savannah and offered, if you have any matters that you would have properly attended tolet me attend to it for you.

This seems to have been the last written communication between Zacharie and Lincoln. A little more than two months later an assassins bullet struck the President down.

Although no longer the power elites favored foot doctor, Zacharie still sought to capitalize on his Civil War podiatry work. In 1872, he petitioned Congress for the immense sum of $45,000 for having treated the feet of 15,000 Union soldiers. The press lambasted Zacharie as President Lincolns toenail trimmer, charging him with seeking to enrich himself by creating a corps of corn doctors, or foot soldiers to put the army in marching order. A congressional claims committee rejected his petition.

After a brief effort to promote his friend General Bankss political ambitions, Issachar Zacharie mostly dropped from view. He returned to England sometime in 1874, where he resided until his death in 1897. However, the quirky quack and charming friend of President Abraham Lincoln parlayed that relationship into a bit of fame even in the afterlife. The real Zacharie is buried today near the graves of Karl Marx, novelist George Eliot, Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, and other notables in North Londons famous Highgate Cemetery. Thanks to the success of Steven Spielbergs movie Lincoln, his chiropodists previously ignored grave became something of an off-the-beaten-track tourist destination, at least for those whose feet were not too sore already.

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