This Day in Jewish History

1837: Rabbi's Son Is Born, Will Become Crack Shot, Bodybuilder and Journalist

Irked at criticism in Philo Jacoby's newspaper, a rival editor threatened to horsewhip the 'bullet-headed little Jew,' then saw him twist horseshoes.

San Francisco harbor, at Yerba Buena Cove in 1850 or 1851. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

December 5, 1837, is the birthdate of Philo Jacoby, marksman extraordinaire, body-building strongman and Jewish newspaperman in 19th-century San Francisco.

Philo Jacoby was born in the town of Lauenborg, Pomerania, then part of Prussia, today, Lebork, Poland. Though the son of a rabbi, Philo studied the craft of printing and attended the naval school in Danzig. He served in the merchant marines of England, Prussia and the United States before sailing for North America on the clipper ship Whirlwind.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, in June 1859, Jacoby opened his own printing office at Clay and Sansome streets. One of his earliest clients was Rabbi Julius Eckman, publisher of the Jewish newspaper The Weekly Gleaner.

In 1863, a year after Eckman’s paper closed, Jacoby started publishing his own Jewish newspaper, a weekly called The Hebrew.

World champ at Schuetzen

At the same time, Jacoby, an all-around sportsman of some renown, learned rifle-shooting from Capt. John Sutter, the Swiss pioneer and entrepreneur who is best known for having been the owner of the mill near Sacramento where gold was found in 1848, setting off the California Gold Rush. Sutter is also responsible for introducing the sport of Schuetzen – precision shooting, practice in clubs called Schutzvereins -- to northern California.

Jacoby rapidly became a champion marksman, winning competitions not only locally but in Europe as well. The 2014 film “American Jerusalem: Jews and the Making of San Francisco” quoted a newspaper account by the writer Jack London, in which he noted of Jacoby that, “He is so clever with the rifle that he has almost ceased to be a wonder.”

In 1863, in his first competition at the San Francisco Schuetzen Verein, Jacoby shot 101 bull’s eyes from a distance of 150 yards (137 meters). Later, he formed an all-state shooting club to be able to compete at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, in 1876. There, beating out 200 other marksmen, he was awarded with the title of “Champion Rifle Shot of the World.” In fact, at competitions in Prussia and Vienna, Jacoby was presented with medals from the kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian  emperor, respectively.

Jacoby, a large man, is said to have collected so many medals that he could display only one-third of them at a time on his chest.

And a Lincoln supporter

During the 49 years that Jacoby published The Hebrew, from 1863 until his death, in 1922, the only time he missed an issue was during the week of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, in 1906. During the Civil War, he used it as an organ to express his support of the Union cause, and President Abraham Lincoln specifically.

On one occasion, when the editor of another newspaper had criticized the president severely, Jacoby supposedly took the colleague to task in print. Incensed by Jacoby’s comments, the other editor is said to have boasted that on his next visit to San Francisco, he intended to seek out that “bullet-headed little Jew” and “horsewhip” him.

A short time later, the legend continues, the editor was in town, and a friend took him to an exhibition at the Olympic Club. There, Philo Jacoby appeared, and not only twisted horseshoes with his bare hands, but also held up single-handedly six men arranged in a pyramid formation. According to “American Jerusalem,” the visiting editor, extremely impressed by the show of strength, asked his friend, “Who is that little man?” To which his companion responded, “That's the bullet-headed little Jew whom you are intending to horsewhip.”

According to local historian Marilyn Geary, Jacoby also served as a second to Mark Twain when the writer participated in a boxing match at the same Olympic Club.

In 1890, Jacoby and other members of the California Schuetzen Verein bought a 37-acre plot of land in San Rafael, in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and built a park there. It not only included a shooting range, but also bowling alley, restaurant, a ballroom and a small running track. After the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917, the word “Schuetzen” was dropped from the name of the park.

The San Rafael park burned down in 1923. That was a year after the death of Philo Jacoby, on March 25, 1922.