Featured Story

The final case of Judge George Stackpole, first person treated with anthrax serum

As he lay in Ward 32 at Bellevue Hospital, Judge George F. Stackpole was studied by a stream of physicians and surgeons who had gathered from around New York City.

It was Oct. 11, 1915, three days after the former Riverhead Town justice was first hospitalized for treatment of anthrax. 

His case was beginning to attract worldwide interest. That morning, news of his predicament made the front page of The New York Times. Running down the center of the broadsheet, it appeared just below a story detailing new developments in plans to dredge the Panama Canal.

Mr. Stackpole asked a hospital attendant to pick up a copy of that afternoon’s late edition of the Times. He skipped right past the news of his own imminent death to an inside page featuring coverage of the World Series.

A native New Englander, he was curious to see how the Red Sox had fared against the Phillies in that day’s Game 3. Boston had gotten the best of the Phillies by a score of 2-1 at Braves Field.

Two days later, the Red Sox would clinch the title. And on that same day, after he became the first human being ever treated with a newly developed anthrax serum, Mr. Stackpole’s condition began to improve. The serum had previously been used only on cattle, but with a high rate of success. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rushed the serum to Bellevue as part of a last-ditch effort to save the esteemed Riverhead judge. The treatment was effective, but the 71-year-old’s body had already worn down.

He died Oct. 15.

“It was not anthrax, the sinister cattle scourge but rarely a human visitant, which killed Judge Stackpole,” said George O’Hanlon, then medical superintendent at Bellevue Hospital. “It was an old heart and a general exhaustion which left the system so weakened that it was unable to throw off the combined poisons of the original infection and the serum. In this connection he suffered at the end from a hypostatic congestion.”

Born Nov. 29, 1843, George Franklin Stackpole was the eldest of six children raised by Isaac and Cyrena Stackpole in Lebanon, Maine. He worked on the family farm as a boy, but showed considerable aptitude in the classroom and would later earn a college degree with honors from Dartmouth.

In 1875, Mr. Stackpole moved to Riverhead to take a job as principal of the Riverhead Union School. He was the school’s first college-educated principal.

During his years there, he also read law at the office of Miller & Tuthill in Riverhead and was admitted to the bar in February 1880. When James Tuthill was elected judge in the Suffolk County Surrogate Court that year, Mr. Stackpole resigned from the school to serve as his clerk.

He left that job in 1885, when he himself was elected to public office. He served the Riverhead Town Board as a Justice of the Peace, which is how he earned the title judge, for 16 years.

In one of his more notable cases, Judge Stackpole served as arbiter in a matter involving a Riverhead ice cream shop owner and a customer who was arrested after refusing to pay for a treat. To decide the case, the judge had plates of the ice cream in question produced for himself and the arresting officer. After both declared it the best ice cream they’d ever eaten, the judge ordered the man to pay the shopkeeper and dismissed the charges.

Mr. Stackpole, who stood tall at 6 feet with a sturdy 200-pound frame, earned a reputation as a man of honor during his 40 years in Riverhead.

“He was one of the most hospitable of men, as the editor of this newspaper and scores of others, yes hundreds, can truly testify,” read an editorial in the Southold Traveler newspaper. “He was generous to a fault, helping the needy, regardless of condition or creed, with his means and advice.”

When an unknown thief once stole a coil from his automobile and another from a motor launch on his property, the judge wrote a letter to a local newspaper stating he would accept the thief returning one coil and keeping the other for himself.

As secretary and treasurer of the county Republican committee and the Suffolk County Historical Society, Mr. Stackpole remained active in public service long after he left office. He served as president of the Chautauqua and Literary societies of Riverhead and the local Lecture Association. He was also superintendent of the Sunday school at Riverhead’s First Congregational Church.

Mr. Stackpole also served on the boards of Suffolk County National Bank and Riverhead Savings Bank. It was outside the latter’s location at Main Street and Peconic Avenue, where he maintained a law office, that Mr. Stackpole was believed to have fallen ill.

COURTESY PHOTO George Stackpole
Mr. Stackpole rides horses with an unidentified man in a photo dated Oct. 5, 1906. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society)

Exactly how and where he contracted anthrax was never officially reported, but he was known to lean on a hitching post outside the bank while eating his daily snack of fruit and chatting with neighbors passing by. Hundreds of horses had been tied to the post and it’s thought one of them might have been infected and passed anthrax to Mr. Stackpole through an open wound on his hand or face. The hitching post was removed within days of his diagnosis.

“I really fear for the safety of others in Riverhead,” said Dr. Allan Terrell, who was then Riverhead’s health officer.

Mr. Stackpole’s home and law office were fumigated, his clothing was burned and all the woodwork in his home was painted with bichloride of lime.

That same week, at least one other Riverhead resident, 58-year-old laborer Martin Bradsky, was taken to Bellevue for suspicion of anthrax. He was ultimately diagnosed with a neck abscess.

However, two confirmed anthrax infections were reported in New Jersey four days after Mr. Stackpole’s diagnosis. Both of those cases involved employees at a leather factory; another involving a doctor in Illinois was reported later that week.

What is anthrax?

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by a gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. Although it is rare in the United States, people can contract anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. Bacillus anthracis is also used in bioterrorism and is one of the most likely agents to be used in a biological attack.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At the time, anthrax in humans was more common in the South, particularly among black laborers, but there was little doubt that’s what Mr. Stackpole was suffering from. A sample of his infected blood was injected into a guinea pig at the Bellevue laboratory, quickly killing the animal.

While many anthrax sufferers die of blood poisoning, Mr. Stackpole suffered from swelling in his larynx, known as edema of the glottis, causing him to choke. His face and neck swelled so much in his final days that he was said to be nearly unrecognizable to many who visited him.

While the doctors at Bellevue, including Mr. Stackpole’s Dartmouth classmate and family physician H.M. Silver, worked to save him, his best chance at survival awaited him in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Adolph Eichhorn was chief of the Division of Pathology in the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry. For several months, he had been developing a serum that was both preventive and curative in the treatment of anthrax.

“It is prepared by injecting into a horse small doses of anthrax bacilli weakened by high temperatures,” Dr. Eichhorn said. Injections were administered four times over a matter of days, with an increased dosage each time. “Then our serum is prepared from the horse’s blood,” he added.

Before the serum was administered to Mr. Stackpole on Oct. 13, 1915, it had been given by the USDA to more than 500 animals with anthrax. Only 17 died.

Mr. Stackpole received six injections of the serum: one in each arm and two on each side of his chest and abdomen.

“Although this is the first time the serum is being given to a human being, I have great faith in its efficacy,” USDA spokesperson J.D. Henderson said.

The following day, Mr. Stackpole reportedly felt better. His wife, Mary, daughter, Syrena, and son Philip were at his side.

“He was conscious during the night and answered all our questions,” Syrena said. “He always welcomed us with a smile and had a cheerful word for us.”

Mr. Stackpole even joked with the media covering his illness.

“Well, you see I’m still here. I said I’d live to write my own obituary,” he said. “Last night the doctors looked as if they had given me up, but I didn’t give myself up. Maybe that’s because I don’t know much about medicine and didn’t realize how bad off I was — but anyhow, I was right.”

That wasn’t the case for long.

The next day Mr. Stackpole’s condition worsened and he began to sense the end was near. He told Syrena he was not well. He then leaned toward his son and told him, “I feel that I’m going to lose the good fight, Philip — but I’m not afraid of what is to come. I hope you will live such a life, my boy, that you can face death bravely when it comes. All of us have to die sometime and we never know when.”

Five minutes before he died, Mr. Stackpole raised his hand feebly, mustering just enough strength to utter his final words: “This is the end.”

His body was sent home to Riverhead in a sealed metal casket to mitigate the risk of further infection. That Sunday, more than 300 people attended his funeral at First Congregational Church, where the Rev. William Harmon delivered the eulogy.

“He carried [on] unflinchingly through three score and eleven years, through all the vicissitudes and trials and sorrows of life, and through the heroic fight of last week; and he carried that torch, its light still shining, up to the very goal; and that is the greatest possible human victory,” the reverend said.

On Oct. 19, 1915, four days after Mr. Stackpole’s death, farmer William Barnett of Moira, N.Y., was searching for a missing cow and found it dead in his pasture. Soon after the 60-year-old moved the animal’s remains, his hand and arm began to swell. He had a cut on his hand.

Mr. Barnett was rushed to St. John’s Hospital in Ogdensburg, N.Y. That Friday, he was given Dr. Eichhorn’s serum. He made a full recovery and lived another 13 years.

Mr. Stackpole and Mr. Barnett were among 47 patients in New York State treated for anthrax between 1915 and 1919. It wasn’t until 1920 that the serum they’d each received five years earlier was used regularly to treat the infection. In the first six months of that year, a dozen cases of anthrax were reported, with only one fatality. The improved odds of survival were attributed to the serum.

Death, however, was not something Mr. Stackpole ever feared.

“I am 71 years old, and at such a time in a man’s life he must expect death at any moment,” he told reporters in his final days. “Let me say to the young to whom death may also come at any time like a lightning stroke, to be prepared. Then death can have no terrors.”

About this story

More than two dozen newspaper stories were used as sources for our reporting of this story. Some of those articles came from the archives of The County Review and The Riverhead News, the two newspapers that later merged to form this paper. Other articles were published by The New York Times, the Southold Traveler and the Brooklyn Eagle. Many of those stories were located through the New York State Historic Newspapers website.

The reporting of this article would also not have been possible without the help of the Suffolk County Historical Society, of which Mr. Stackpole was a founding board member. Many of the details you just read were found in the Stackpole family archive at the historical society’s library in Riverhead. The book “Riverhead: The Halcyon Years” by Thomas Stark was also used as a source. Lastly, contemporary statistics on anthrax treatment were located in a volume of the Journal of the American Medical Association published in December 1920.