Publication date: 1997
Claire and Dora Williamson are wealthy British women using their inheritance to travel the world in the early 1900s. Like many people of the time they are convinced that they could be in better health and like many women, with so little understanding of their own bodies, they believed that the slightest discomfort was indicative of a greater disorder. To that end they abandoned traditional medicine (which was still in its infancy) and embraced holistic medicine and non-traditional cures. While visiting the Pacific Northwest they learned of a doctor promoting fasting as a cure for virtually every disease.
According to Dr. Linda Hazzard her protocol of prolonged fasting combined with enemas and vigorous massage would clear the body of all its toxins and allow a return to optimal health. In response to Dora Williamson’s questions about her own condition Hazzard replies that her treatment will cure both she and her sister. The women sign-up and after a stay of some weeks in an apartment in Seattle they are moved to Hazzard’s home in Olalla, a small isolated town. By this time both women are severely malnourished but refuse to quit fasting, continuing to believe Hazzard’s claims. It is only when their childhood nurse, Margaret Conway, arrives from Australia to discover Claire is dead that Dora is removed from Hazzard’s home. Soon, Hazzard is under scrutiny not just for her so-called cure and a patient’s death but for financial improprieties that come to light both in her present life and past.
Journalist Gregg Olsen captures the plight of the gullible Williamsons and the resulting furor when one of the sisters dies from the treatment in Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest. Despite the death of Claire and rescue of Dora occurring early in the book, he keeps readers reeled in with the details of Hazzard’s life, the life of her dashing but untrustworthy husband, and the resultant trial after Claire’s death. What is most surprising in the book is how long it takes to prosecute Hazzard and the end result of the trial. At the very least, readers get a clear cut portrait of a woman (not even a medical doctor after all) who, using a combination of charisma and bullying, manages to thwart all attempts to bring her to justice. Given modern day technology in the medical and criminal investigative world it is difficult to believe this was not an open and shut case but there was no such technology in 1911—there was no way to even track a person’s crimes from state to state. It is this fact and Hazzard’s ability to twist the truth to suit her own purposes that make Starvation Heights a filling read.