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How much would you pay someone to starve you to death? As strange as it seems, in the early 1900s many people did just that, and they paid a lot–often with their lives, along with their wealth and worldly possessions.
Health has been an obsession for people with means since, oh, about forever. When a self-proclaimed doctor named Linda Hazzard claimed to have discovered a miracle cure for all manner of diseases and ailments, the wealthy flocked to her institute in Olalla, Washington.
To Hazzard, food–or rather, too much food–was the devil. Once patients arrived in her care, they were limited to small servings of watered-down vegetable broth each day. At first, the fasting caused feelings of euphoria, enough for Hazzard’s clientele to believe their health was improving. By the time they realized what was happening, they were usually too weak to escape. In addition to the starvation diet, Hazzard’s patients were forced to undergo enemas that could last for hours, brutal massages that appeared more like beatings, and scalding baths, all in the name of good health.
Sometimes those living close to the institute would catch a glimpse of Hazzard’s emaciated wards, who scrambled to eat whatever they could get their hands on, including wild berries. Though the neighbours were horrified at what they saw, there’s no indication anyone acted to put an end to the atrocities.
Until Hazzard tortured the wrong women.
Claire and Dorothea Williamson were British sisters who didn’t suffer from serious health problems, though Claire had been told she had a dropped uterus, and her sister had swollen glands and rheumatic pain. Established proponents of alternative health, the sisters thought Hazzard’s Wilderness Heights sounded idyllic. To avoid ridicule, they decided not to tell their families where they were headed, but silently packed a bag and set off for the institute.
One can only imagine their terror when the sisters realized they were not Hazzard’s patients, but her prisoners. By the time they managed to get a message to a trusted family servant named Margaret Conway, Claire was already dead–killed by Hazzard’s medical cure. Although of course the good “doctor” blamed a pre-existing, undiagnosed condition.
When Conway arrived in Olalla, she was horrified to discover Dorothea was down to fifty pounds, with her bones protruding so much she couldn’t sit without pain. But despite the fact she was starving to death, and her sister was dead, Dorothea still fervently believed in Hazzard’s cure. She didn’t want to leave.
The so-called miracle cure was a gold mine for Hazzard and her husband. Like many other patients before her, Claire had named Hazzard the executor of her estate. The “doctor” was also Dorothea’s guardian for life, and the surviving sister had appointed Hazzard’s husband her power of attorney. Claire’s bed was still warm when Hazzard helped herself to the hapless woman’s clothes, jewelry, and other belongings.
Though convinced Hazzard was a killer, Conway was afraid to confront her directly. It took the intervention of Dorothea’s uncle John Herbert and a generous bribe to rescue the surviving sister.
Once the extent of Hazzard’s crimes were exposed, she was arrested in 1911 and charged with first-degree murder for starving Claire Williamson. Several doctors of natural health rushed to her defence, and in the end, she was convicted of manslaughter and served only two years in prison.
Hazzard is known to have starved at least a dozen people to death, though the actual number is probably much higher.
In 1938, Hazzard fell ill herself, and decided to put her cure to the ultimate test.
If you’d like to learn more about “Dr.” Hazzard and her ultimate cure, I highly recommend Gregg Olsen’s exhaustive book on the case, Starvation Heights.
With files from the Smithsonian. Photo of Linda Hazzard courtesy of the Washington Archives.