Published by Broadway Books on January 1, 1997
Genres/Lists: Non-Fiction, True Crime
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“Overeating is the vice of the whole human race.”
– Dr. Linda B. Hazzard
Wow. Just wow. I honestly tried to think of a better word to describe this book, but ‘wow’ is still the one that comes to mind. You just can’t make this stuff up. Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen is a book that will keep you reading into the wee hours of the morning because you’re equally fascinated and horrified. I, for one, was horrified by a great many things: politics and the justice system in the early 1900’s, the doctor’s actions, the people who sought her help, and the zealousness of her followers. But I was also fascinated. Why did the doctor practice what she did? And why did people go to her? And moreover, why did they stay with her? You see, Starvation Heights is a true story. It’s a story about murder, theft, coercion, corruption, conspiracy, botched medical treatments, bigamy, and more. It starts out with the admirable goal of helping people and ends with more than a dozen deaths.
In the early 1900’s, Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard’s only goal in life was to build a sanitarium in small-town Olalla, WA, where she could practice her unconventional (and non-medically certified) cure for the ailing. She had grand dreams, a large piece of land, and a compliant husband. Her belief was that, by fasting, problems such as rheumatoid arthritis, stomach ailments, and other organic diseases could be eliminated. The problem, aside from only taking on wealthy patients she could coerce into handing over their estates, was that they kept dying. One of these patients was Claire Williamson, a wealthy Briton who chased faddist cures and, along with her sister Dora, stumbled into Dr. Hazzard‘s care. The silver lining is that while Claire died (although the body shown to her family members was probably someone else’s), her sister Dora survived and brought the doctor to trial. But going to trial wasn’t enough and the story doesn’t end there.
“They won’t hang me. The muscles in my neck are too strong!”
– Dr. Hazzard commenting on the jury at her trial
To be honest, I don’t know what is more horrifying: the fact that Dr. Hazzard did what she did or the things I learned about how things worked in the early 1900’s. The county was so poor that the victim’s family had to foot the bill to go to trial because the prosecutors didn’t want to proceed. They were, in fact, so poor that the jury pooled its money to buy the court bailiff new shoes during the trial because his were so old. Then, there’s the fact that the fasting cure was approved by the State of Washington and that they gave Dr. Hazzard a license to practice medicine in the first place when she had zero schooling in the subject. On top of that, coroners didn’t need medical experience, either! What’s even more shocking is that this is actually still true in a lot of places, but that’s a whole other subject. And that’s not all! Despite the accusations, people still came to her for treatment.
The book is more or less several different stories that are weaved together very eloquently. Each chapter ends with a memory from someone who was around while this was going on, which only adds to its eeriness. The last third of the book follows the trial itself, but rather than being tedious, it makes for great reading. In an effort to separate the main characters (but not give too much away because there are some real doozies in this book), I’ve broken them down into the following:
- The Williamson sisters: Wealthy and single, the two sisters traveled often and frequently pursued osteopathic remedies to their ailments. Being rich, they were able to pursue cures to everyday problems that a person of lesser means would have taken an aspirin for. Under the care of Dr. Hazzard, they were starved, given daily enemas, and “massaged” (meaning savagely beaten). On top of that, the doctor forged documents and used their weakened states to gain access to their funds. After Claire’s death, Dr. Hazzard would don the wealthy woman’s dresses and a good bit of expensive jewelry went missing.
Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard and her husband, Sam: One of the most interesting parts about this book was the relationship between the married couple, which to the public appeared to be pretty unpleasant. Sam was a drunk and Dr. Burfield was a formidable wife. Sam Hazzard was, at one point, quite the promising man. But then he met Dr. Burfield, did a stint in jail, and became a drunk that did her bidding. If he wasn’t a creep in the first place, I might have felt bad for him.
- Margaret Conway: Margaret was the Williamson sisters’ nanny when they were children. After receiving word about the girls’ conditions, she went to Starvation Heights (Wilderness Heights was the official name) to rescue them. Unfortunately, by the time she arrived Claire was dead, jewelry was missing, money was gone, and Dora was too weak to walk. Despite her lesser means and lower education, she nursed Dora back to health and was one of the primary reasons the case went to trial.
- British vice-consul Lucian Agassiz: Mr. Agassiz was the reason the case went to trial at all. The location of the crime was so rural and poor that they lacked the proper resources to pursue such a case. Mr. Agassiz not only procured the funds to move forward, but also footed some of the bills himself. Plus, he put Dora and Margaret up in his own lake house as he pursued every possible lead. All-in-all, he’s a likable guy.
So do I recommend this book? Absolutely. All of it is riveting. All of it is sensational. And all of it will leave you with your mouth hanging open throughout a good portion of the book. It’s conspiracy at its finest and I don’t know that we’ll ever have all of the answers or know the true number of those who died. But perhaps it’s this uncertainty that makes the story all the more gripping.