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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.
I’ve heard of her – what a scary story J.H. and as scary is that people are so gullible ..
I think some people will do anything for perfect health and beauty. Even today, so many are suckered by those powerful industries.
What a horrible thing to do to people. It’s a wonder the second sister was still alive at fifty pounds.
It really is, Alex. I wonder how her health was after she recovered, assuming she did.
Hmmm…we need a movie about Hazzard, starring Kathy Bates.
Bates would be perfect!
It is baffling how easily humans with insecurities can be brainwashed. She had them convinced that she was their friend, helping them, and slowly killing them. I can’t imagine being so cruel and heartless. And, her name is oddly fitting! Justice was NOT served in this case. Yikes!
Except she died in the end from her own cure. That’s justice of a sort…
This was totally new to me and I am blown away. Thanks for sharing this — terrifying.
Glad you liked the post, Randee. It is one hell of a creepy story.
I’ve never heard of her – I’m always fascinated by the things people will put their faith in. I can understand it for people who are desperate, who have tried everything else for a terminal condition, but I’m shocked at the two sisters who really had no reason to allow themselves to believe in this “cure”
Health nuts, early 1900s-style.
How many similar stories like this that we don’t know about.
A scary thought. It makes you wonder how cruel humans can be just to profit from their enterprises.
I believe Dr. Hazzard honestly thought her methods could cure people, or she wouldn’t have tried them herself. But for her not to change her mind when her patients kept dying is an indicator of insanity, greed, or a bit of both.
Amazing she got off so lightly, given that she was killing them AND stealing their stuff—makes it seem pretty hard to deny the abuse was intentional. But hey, in some ways, she might have been right—I’ve seen research that suggests that the key to good health and long life is, in fact, eating rather less than most of us consider necessary 🙂
You’re right, Rebecca. Lots of people still believe in fasting, for both health and religious reasons. Hazzard just took it to an extreme, to say the least.
Truth is worse than fiction in may cases.
Agreed, Kimberly. Thanks for commenting!
Another interesting study in the psychopathy of the Svengali personality and those who follow blindly. Personally, I think there are far more women serial killers than believed. They aren’t brought to justice because even when there is good reason to be suspicious,(as in this case) people don’t want to get involved or start trouble. Something along the lines of “evil prevails when good people do nothing.”
Love that quote–so true. And I agree, there are plenty of female serial killers. I had to laugh when I kept seeing Aileen Wuornos described as the first one. She wasn’t even close.
That’s terrible the neighbors never did anything about it.
It is, but I guess since Hazzard’s “patients” signed up willingly, maybe the neighbours were reluctant to interfere.
Scientology must love her. She didn’t look like she took her own medicine and why the people didn’t notice this is beyond me. It shows how cults can be formed especially when the person(s) know what and how to say something to make people gullible. I bet the people who survived had many health issues for the rest of their lives.
Well, she did take her advice at the end. That’s how she died. 😉
Creepy. I never heard of this. So sad that people fell for it. Thanks for telling us.
It is really sad, and to this day, no one knows for sure how many people the “cure” killed.
Fascinating and horrifying. Another great blog!
Thanks, Tamara! It’s great to see you here again.
Jeez. Truth is stranger than fiction. Truly.
Agreed. On one hand, it’s hard to believe anyone could fall for this, but on the other, fasts are still big today.
Wow. Crazy true story. I wonder who (and why) got the message to Conway, if both sisters believed in the “doctor’s” cure and the surviving sister didn’t want to leave. Plus, she made Hazzard her heir… Weird stuff, indeed. Hazzard seems like the right name for this killer!
I believe the surviving sister was the one who got the message to Conway. Some instinct for self-preservation, perhaps?