Starving to Death or Fasting for a Cure? The Curious Case of "Starvation Heights"
By Sarah Czarnecki
"Eating without Hunger, or pandering to Appetite at the expense of Digestion, makes Disease inevitable."
The front page of the Seattle Post Intelligencer on August 7, 1911 reads, “Woman who is under arrest charged with starving her patient to death."It was a grim headline packaged in a cheerful rhyme. Beneath the headline is a stern-looking, smartly dressed woman with severe features. Her hair is pinned up and she stares down the camera as one would a lesser opponent in a duel; confident that she is in control. Her name is Linda Burfield Hazzard, and she murdered the unsuspecting heiress Claire Williamson by starving her to death.
A heart-wrenching tale of wealthy cure-seekers, a charismatic “doctor,” and fasting to the point of starvation—fans of true crime, brace yourselves, because this week we dive into one of our most ghostly collections to bring you the Curious Case of Starvation Heights.
In 2017, we received a donation from bestselling true crime writer Gregg Olsen, who wrote a novel about the murder of Claire Williamson titled Starvation Heights. Intricately researched and compellingly written, the book narrates the story of sisters Claire and Dorothea (Dora) Williamson and their ill-fated journey to Olalla, Washington, to receive what were purported to be miraculous health treatments from one Dr. Linda B. Hazzard.
The collection contains folder upon folder of official documents, copies of correspondence and notes that Olsen used in his research for the book. Olsen was able to take these scattered documents and construct the complex outline of a story. Through these documents, we become privy to his meticulous research process and the depth of his story-building. Of course, not all pieces of the information he collected could have made it into the novel. The research process is a funnel: it starts broad, then tapers off, and superfluous pieces of that research must be squeezed out. Today, however, we take you on a tour of the collection and an examination of some compelling, yet likely lesser-known parts of this tale.
The Story of Starvation Heights
Linda Burfield Hazzard, originally from Minnesota, built a sanitarium at her home in Olalla, Washington, with her husband, Samuel Hazzard. She commuted by ferry to Seattle where she held offices to meet with and treat patients.
While the Hazard name fails to appear on this 1909 plat map or apparently those that came later, we do know that the property Linda and Sam held had been part of the Rader holdings—released to them after the death of L.E. Rader whom Linda had treated. He died in 1910 in a Seattle hotel after nearly 40 days of "treatment."
It was in Seattle that she presented herself as a licensed doctor and osteopath and preached her doctrine of “fasting for the cure of disease”; a methodology about which she had written a book with the same title. Although she had no medical degree, a loophole in Washington licensing law allowed some practitioners of “alternative medicine” to be allowed to practice, thus allowing Linda to carry out her “work." She advocated for intense fasts, some lasting more than 40 days, supplemented by a diet of mostly vegetable broth, accompanied by frequent enemas and rigorous “massages” which, according to her, would rid the body of any ailment, including cancer.
The Williamson sisters, as we learn in Olsen's book, were fairly solitary and preferred the company of one another to anyone else. They were what may now be known as hypochondriacs and got in touch with Hazzard in the hopes of curing their various ailments. During their time at the sanitarium, it appears that Hazzard had coerced Claire and Dora into signing over power of attorney to her as well as giving her large sums of money for their treatment. As their conditions declined, so did the autonomy of the girls. Linda Hazzard even went so far as to apply for appointment as guardian and executor of Claire’s will.
At the end of the whole affair, mere months after the sisters arrived in Washington for treatment, Claire Williamson, weighing 50 pounds, was dead from starvation. Dorothea was able to escape thanks to the efforts of her old governess from Australia and an uncle. She weighed 48 pounds at the time of her rescue.
The "mugshot" of Linda B. Hazzard after her conviction for manslaughter. Courtesy Washington State Archives.
Hazzard was convicted of Claire’s murder in 1912 and served two years in the Walla Walla penitentiary before being pardoned by Governor Lister. She continued to practice – in Olalla and elsewhere – without a license, making the news at least one more time for the death of another patient. Today, it is believed that at least 14 others died in her care.
If you’d like to learn all of the twists and turns of this gruesome tale, and just how Dora Williamson was able to make it out alive, we suggest you order a copy of Starvation Heights from your local bookstore. Or, for those of you who may prefer a podcast to reading a novel, we were recently interviewed by Scene of the Crime podcast about this case.
A brief history of the fad of sanitariums.
To the modern reader, the idea of paying someone to deny you food and administer daily enemas may seem outrageous. Yet, believe it or not, Hazzard’s sanitarium was not at all unique in its existence. The 20th century brought with it the quest for improved health and wellness. Doctors were pushing hygiene more than ever and the cleanliness of the food industry had been thrust into question with the publication of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle. People were suddenly taking their health into their own hands, exercising more and searching for the best practices to maintain a long and healthy life.
Of course, as with any burgeoning societal interest, health faddists popped up everywhere to advertise various means of achieving this much-sought-after wellness. One of those people was Dr. Kellogg, a name we nowadays may associate more with a box of cereal than health and wellness trends. Just take a look at this article about Dr. Kellogg that sits in Olsen’s collection:
Today Kellogg may be known primarily for his inventions of peanut butter and cornflakes, but Dr. Kellogg also played to people’s desire to be well and offered a solution to their wellness woes through his sanitarium. As you can see from the article in our collection, his institution was no fledgling operation. Many prominent figures visited his establishment, including the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford.
Knowing the widespread frenzy of wellness in the early 20th century, it suddenly becomes less odd that Claire and Dora Williamson would have been attracted to an institution such as Hazzard’s, not to mention how easily they were swayed by the charismatic and convincing nature with which she promoted her ideas. It’s easy to see how Olsen may have found this information useful to understand exactly how the Williamson sisters ended up way out in Olalla in 1911.
Sure, fasting and enemas have been unequivocally disproven as cures to any sort of greater affliction, however, so have many other methods for wellness throughout history. We used to believe bloodletting was an effective cure for illness, ingesting tapeworms was once advertised as a safe and efficient dieting tool, and at one point before the renaissance, it was believed that bathing too often could be detrimental to your health. What wellness trends are popular today that people in 100 years may look upon with similar confusion as that with which we look upon sanitariums and fasting?
Fasting for the Cure of Disease
Perhaps one of the most charged pieces in the collection, Linda Hazzard’s book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease, lays the groundwork for her so-called methods of healing.
In her book, Hazzard lays out her ideas on the modern medical system and the “indiscriminate cutting of the human body” through the innovation of surgery. She appears to conceptualize of modern medicine as a noble profession, yet one that “embodies a departure from the strict sense of honor” upon which the health system was built. In the image below of a page copied from the book, you can read an excerpt of her breakdown of modern surgery.
Upon reading her book, what stands out is the clear and concise nature with which she presents her ideas and refutes medical practices of the time. She calls forth seemingly concrete examples of misdiagnoses which lead to surgery which lead to death and decries the eagerness of surgeons looking to make some money by hastily recommending “bodily mutilation,” thus further harming their patients. She argues that surgery disrupts important avenues of digestion that the body could have used to rid itself of the ailment at hand. She is steadfast in her conviction and convincing in her presentation of the “facts.” What’s more, one can tell that she herself seemed utterly convinced of her own dogma. The book is compelling because, to the layman, it is believable. At a time with so much distrust of the governing systems of health—something we can likely all relate to at this moment—a well-spoken promoter of a gentler approach of “alternative medicine” may have seemed all the more credible.
Who Was Samuel Hazzard?
“Birds of a feather flock together...”
Although the Hazzards were respected, and even liked by some, in Olalla, it seems that they were not always the well-to-do, morally correct people they passed themselves off to be. This much is clear for Linda, but what about her husband, Sam?
Samuel Hazzard was a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was serving at West Point before his father fell ill, forcing Sam to take a leave of absence. According to the copies of records we have as part of our collection, it was after this initial leave that Sam’s behavior started to take a turn for the worse. After his initial leave was almost up, he applied again for leave and was denied.
Sam apparently decided that official army orders to return to his post were of no consequence, as he then went AWOL, telling no one where he went. There is even a letter from his wife (of the time) to the Adjutant General stating that she cannot help in their search for him because even she is unaware of his whereabouts.
On top of his apparent desertion, it seems that Sam had a knack for racking up debt. There are folders of documents with business owners, friends, and banks writing to the army to notify them that Sam had failed to pay an outstanding balance. There is $9.00 to a blacksmith, $77.50 to a friend who fronted him some money, and even a $500 balance— quite a hefty amount in those days—on a loan from a bank which he failed to pay back. Many people struggle to pay back their debts, and yet our collection shows that Sam seemed to make a habit of it, disregarding the impact these lost funds could have had on the livelihood of those from whom he stole. Perhaps the most sobering of these accusations of money not paid is this short letter written to the Adjutant General by a bicycle painter Sam had hired to do some work for him. The letter reads:
“I write to inform you that 1st Lieut S.C Hazzard last August ’99 just before he left West Point, N.Y. has me to do some Bicycle Repairing for him. he [sic] left and did not pay me. I have sent him the bill three times but he has not made any reply as yet. the [sic] amount is very small but I am poor and I need it. the [sic] amount is $1.30 cents. I trust a reply.”
Sam couldn’t even be bothered to pay a poor laborer for services rendered, leaving him likely to struggle to make up for what was clearly a vital part of his income.
Sam was married at least twice prior to Linda's determination to win him over, for he was handsome and clever at business. In addition to handling business affairs such as drawing up illegal documents, Sam was steadfast in his devotion to Linda. He not only escorted her to and from the ferry each day, he let her run the show, dulling any scruples he may have had with an addiction to alcohol-based vanilla extracts. Even after Linda died in 1938, Sam was often seen walking down the hill to the store with a briefcase. The store owner knew what it was for, even if others only wondered—for he kept an abundant supply of extracts on hand.
A Charismatic Leader
Sent to Claire Williamson from Linda Hazzard, this letter is one of a series of letters that lead to the Williamson sisters travelling to Seattle for treatment.
At the time that this letter was sent, the sisters had been communicating with Linda for some time and were by then fully convinced of her methods. The letter further reveals her ability to present herself with confidence and intellect, as well as a personable manner that would have made her even more likeable. She walks through every one of the Williamson’s ailments and provides a seemingly reasonable solution for them, assuring them all the while that they are doing right by following her orders.
We cannot be sure if she was planning to enact her sinister crime at the time that this letter was written, but one thing is for sure: Linda Hazzard was charm and conviction rolled into a prim package. On top of this, she herself was convinced of her methods—going on various fasts throughout her time practicing. She is exactly the kind of person one may look towards when seeking aid, which is ultimately what made her so dangerous.
After she was released from prison in Washington State, Linda moved with Sam to New Zealand, where she continued to practice until 1920. She returned to Olalla that year and opened a new “school of health," since her medical license had been revoked and she could no longer legally practice. Her dream sanitarium burned down in 1935 and was never rebuilt.
She died of pneumonia in 1938 after attempting a fasting cure on herself. Linda Hazzard was clearly a rotten apple. Her unwavering, overestimated confidence in herself put the lives of her patients at risk, and even ended up in her demise.
In her own mind, she was a woman of conviction who stood up for her beliefs. For the families of the nearly 20 people who starved to death at her hand, she was a demon and a thief. She was survived by Sam, her son Rollin, and a daughter from her first marriage who had disowned her mother decades before.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into the Harbor History Museum collection where every artifact and document is a story just waiting to be told....
Fasting for the Cure of Disease, by Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard. Harbor History Museum collection.
Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen
HistoryLink: Hazzard, Linda Burfield (1867-1938)
Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/doctor-who-starved-her-patients-death-180953158/
Talk Murder With Me: List of Hazzard's victims: https://www.talkmurderwithme.com/blog/2019/9/21/linda-hazzard