Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice

Last week a woman named Naveena Shine garnered worldwide interest by attempting to live on nothing but water, sunlight and the occasional cup of tea, a diet better suited to a tomato plant than a human being. At the time of writing Naveena has flunked on her fast because science was allegedly ‘not ready’ for the earthshattering data she was attempting to produce.

Another reason for the end of the experiment was that Naveena’s internet was about to be cut off for non-payment. Apparently her philosophy that money was ‘just another form of energy’ didn’t cut any ice with her internet service provider.

Still, she shed some unwanted weight, gave everyone a good laugh and reminded everyone of that time David Blaine fasted for forty days while dangling in a perspex box next to the Thames. (Shamefully, my favourite part of that stunt was the bona fide evil genius who set up a remote controlled helicopter to fly boxed cheeseburgers right past Blaine’s nose.)

The world of extreme fasting is a weird one – gruesome and as such fascinating. So it was with a certain kind of shuddersome relish that I took up a book recommendation that had sprung from a conversation about Ms. Shine.

starvation heights

 

The events in Starvation Heights took place about a hundred years ago, when the diet industry was kicking into high gear. This is not to say that quackery, nostrums and even dubious ‘health clinics’ were unheard of before about 1900 (see Roy Porter’s superb Quacks) but in the early 20th Century increasing mass production and advertising were beginning to frame the nebulous concept of ‘health’ itself as a buyable commodity.

Fans of Saki will recognise the satire in which a breakfast cereal with the unappetising name ‘Filboid Studge’ is sold as the last word in health and vitality, which leads to the stuff flying off the shelves as fast as the production lines can keep up. The wild claims of the food manufacturers and the self-appointed health specialists were often little different from the cries of the 18th Century ‘patent medicine’ peddler – they were simply bigger and louder.

And an awful lot of them were also bullshit.

Dora and Claire Williamson were two British women who had fallen hook, line and sinker for the advertiser’s myth of perfect health. They never felt completely well. Thirty seven year old Dora complained of aching knees and swollen glands, while thirty three year old Claire suffered gynecological grumbles that a London osteopath had put down to a retrograde uterus. According to this doctor Claire’s uterus had fallen back against her spine, causing severe inflammation to both ovaries. His prescription was a wad of cotton batting, stiffened with glycerin and soaked in boric acid, which was to be inserted into the vagina to relieve ‘congestion’.

The Williamson sisters had debated going to J. Harvey Kellogg’s famous sanatorium at Battle Creek, Michigan, subject of the criminally under-rated Alan Parker movie The Road to Wellville. Had they done so they probably just would have had yoghurt inserted into places which in poor Claire’s case would have brought some welcome relief (Did I mention ow?) but because the ladies loved to be near the coast and because they were lured by the promise of spectacular natural beauty, they decided to go Olalla, a little town in the Pacific Northwest where a Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard advertised a fasting cure.

A cure for what, you might ask? Well, quite a few things, it would appear. Toothache, psoriasis, heart-trouble, consumption, insanity, seizures. Dr. Hazzard claimed that even cancer had fallen to the sword of her extraordinary fasting treatment.

In actual fact the only two conditions that Dr. Hazzard’s treatment consistently relieved were ‘being too rich’ and ‘being alive’.

The Williamson sisters first met Dr. Hazzard on February 27th 1911. The latter was a striking, square-jawed woman with a loud, clear voice and a wonderful figure. The only food allowed on her treatment programme were watery broths made from asparagus tips or tomatoes, and occasional cups of orange juice. This harsh dietary regimen was supplemented by ‘internal baths’ (enemas) and osteopathic massage, after which time their bodies would be perfectly ‘clean’.

Claire Williamson died on May 19th, less than two months after beginning Dr. Hazzard’s treatment. She may have even died sooner, but nobody can be sure, since the body displayed as Claire’s was not recognised by either her uncle or the loyal family nanny, Margaret Conway, who was all but a foster-mother to the orphaned sisters.

Somehow, despite weighing less than seventy pounds (probably less than fifty at the time of her death) Claire had managed to get a cable to Margaret in Sydney, Australia. The girls’ beloved ‘Tooddy’ suspected something was wrong and set sail for America, where she was greeted by the shocking news that Claire was dead and Dora was insane.

The sisters’ uncle, John Herbert, was in for an even more horrible shock, when Dr. Hazzard opened a cloth bag and displayed Claire’s shrivelled organs. Apparently oblivious to Herbert’s horror, Dr. Hazzard explained that Claire’s intestines had been so small and deformed that she had been unable to take any kind of nourishment. Dora, she said, was expected to die soon of the same hereditary complaint.

When Margaret Conway managed to rescue Dora from Olalla, the latter weighed less than sixty pounds. Despite Dr. Hazzard’s claim, Dora was quite sane. In fact, despite the papers later painting her as a delicate English rose, Dora Williamson showed remarkable strength of mind to have survived not only the cruelty of Dr. Hazzard’s treatment but also to revisit those memories in her search for justice for Claire.

Margaret and Dora appealled to the British Vice-Consul, Lucian Agassiz, and soon the death of Claire Williamson became the subject of a sensational murder trial. Each day brought fresh headlines and gradually a picture began to appear of the woman who ran the sanatorium that the locals called ‘Starvation Heights’.

It was not a pretty picture.

Linda Burfield Hazzard had no real medical degree. Her claims were nothing but bluster. She was a loud, opinionated woman who was fond of playing the victim and complaining that the charges against her were nothing more than lies cooked up by male doctors who were jealous of the efficacy of her methods. While it’s certainly true that Linda’s trial proceedings were often tinged with misogyny, her complaints rang rather hollow in the face of her behaviour. Like many who talk a big, loud feminist game, Linda displayed very little actual sisterhood when it came to getting what she wanted. As the trial unfolded, Linda was not only exposed as a woman who was not only prepared to steal another woman’s husband but also avaricious enough to prise the teeth from Claire Williamson’s skull so that she could sell them to a dentist.

It’s not known exactly how many people died at Linda Hazzard’s hands, but the length of the list of her victims is enough to put her in the rare category of prolific female serial killers. She only served a handful of years for the manslaughter of Claire Williamson and went on to set up the sanatorium she had always fantasised about, a building that would rival Battle Creek both in size and fame.

There were other deaths as a result of Linda’s fasting cure. The State of Washington revoked her medical license during the trial, but it seemed she had learned absolutely nothing. Right to the end she went on starving people and complaining of persecution when the deaths led her into further trouble with the law.

Linda’s sanatorium burned down in 1935, probably the result of a cigarette discarded by her layabout son, Rollie Burfield. She died in the June of 1938, ironically as a result of one of her own fasts. While she was never recognised as the health pioneer she claimed to be, the vainglorious Linda still maintains a curious kind of immortality – the kind that comes with campfire whispers and flashlights strategically placed under chins.

Judiciously seasoned with the spooky, gossipy recollections of elderly locals, Starvation Heights tells the story of a woman who never knew when to quit. Highly recommended, particularly to anyone who’s planning on doing a ‘detox’.

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