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

10/15/2015 12:00 PM |


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.

Photo Caption: George Stackpole poses with a family dog in an undated photo likely taken in the final years of his life. He lived on Court Street in Riverhead and practiced law from an office in the Riverhead Savings Bank building on Main Street. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society)