The 13th Floor

The Bizarre and Gruesome Saga of Linda Hazzard: “The Starvation Doctor”

Doctor Linda Burfield Hazzard was many things to many people: A wealthy socialite. A female doctor in a time when there were almost none. A pioneer in alternative medicine before the term had even been invented. And one of the deadliest female serial killers in history.

Her murder method was as unique as her life — she convinced as many as 40 victims to starve themselves to death, and robbed them blind while they were dying.

“An Inferno of Fear and Horror”

When Claire and Dora Williamson set off for the health farm in the tiny rural village of Olalla, Washington, the two sisters were hoping for an adventure. Independently wealthy spinsters from Australia, the Williamson sisters were eccentric seekers after spiritual enlightenment and bizarre nutritional advice. If the term had existed at the turn of the 20th century, they would have been called “new age”… or maybe “kooks.”

There’s nothing new about flaky holistic types adopting extreme diets for healing, “detoxification,” or to attain some kind of enlightenment; the vegans, raw foodists, and juice-cleansers at the local farmer’s market today are the latest expression of a kind of spiritualist food fad-ism that dates back to at least the mid-19th Century, when society first encountered the novel health problems that sprang from our sedentary, post-Industrial-Revolution lifestyles.

Cynical, self-proclaimed experts selling quack diets, supplements, and cure-alls to earnest seekers is nothing new either. By the turn of the 20th Century, men like John Harvey Kellogg — inventor of the cornflake — were getting filthy rich with sanitariums where wealthy clients would pay out the nose for bizarre food and exercise regimes guaranteed to bring them health and happiness. Lower on the totem pole, countless sharks and fly-by-nighters hocked pills, powders and diet plans to the desperate, the diseased, and the gullible.

Into this milieu stepped Doctor Linda Hazzard, an independent, passionate proponent of nutrition as the key to curing sickness. She was the first person in the United States to hold a medical degree as a “fasting specialist,” and in 1908, she published Fasting For the Cure of Disease, a booklet extolling the virtues of eating very, very little.

Hazzard wrote about hunger in near-religious terms, saying “Appetite is Craving; Hunger is Desire. Craving is never satisfied; but Desire is relieved when Want is Supplied.” She approached her peculiar calling with a preacher’s zeal, proselytizing to all about the benefits of her no-eating health plan.

With the dream of creating a health farm to rival Kellogg’s, and monetary help from some of her true believers, Hazzard purchased property in the primeval forests of Olalla, Washington, across the Puget Sound from Seattle.

She was a perfect match for Claire and Dora Williamson — they were drawn by an advertisement Hazzard had placed in a newspaper promising better health through nutrition at the “Institute of Natural Therapeutics.” Seeking treatment for a “tilted uterus” and other esoteric, imaginary ailments, the sisters were impressed enough with the letters Dr. Hazzard wrote them that they set off from Australia to Washington to meet her.

Seemingly from their first meeting, Claire and Dora fell under the thrall of the doctor; she seemed to have the answers they’d been seeking for so long. No-nonsense Hazzard wasted no time diagnosing the sisters and preparing a treatment: They would follow her strict routine of limited food intake, regular enemas, and therapeutic massages, and finally attain the good health they’d sought. Promising to move them to her rural farm soon, Dr. Hazzard put the sisters up in an apartment in Seattle and started their treatment.


A History of Murder

The Williamson sisters had no way of knowing it, but Hazzard had been under the suspicion of Washington authorities for years. Her patients had a habit of dying on her — and often their families took notice and became suspicious of the weirdly intense doctor. Not only did her patients seem to regularly perish under her care, they usually signed over their worldly goods to her before their ends came.

Daisy Haglund died in 1908 after 50 days of fasting under Hazzard’s care, and though authorities looked into her death, there was nothing they could do. The “medical establishment” was in its infancy at the time, and the law generally seemed to assume doctors had their patients’ best interests at heart — even if the doctor’s credentials were a tad shady. So, when Dr. Hazzard said Haglund had died of stomach cancer instead of starvation, she was off the hook.

According to the diary of Earl Edward Erdman, a City of Seattle Civil Engineer who died during Hazzard’s treatment, food was limited to strained tomato soup and an occasional orange every few days.

Erdman’s journal contains heartbreaking entries like: “February 26 — Did not sleep so very well Friday night. Pain in right side just below ribs in back. Pain quit in night. Ate 1 and a half cups tomato broth at 10:45 a.m. Ate two and a half small oranges at 4:30 p.m. Felt better afternoon than for the last week…”

In spite of his careful record keeping, Erdman seemingly never connected the times he “felt better” to the times he ate some small amount of food.

There were other cases too. Viola Heaton, Ida Wilcox, Washington state representative L.E. Rader, and 12 others were confirmed dead, but the true count of Hazzard’s victims is likely much higher. The corpse of Eugene Stanley Wakelin was found on Hazzard’s property with a bullet in his skull. Hazzard said it was a suicide, although many speculate that the real cause of his death was murder.


Claire and Dora Endure “The Treatment”

For the first few days in Seattle, the Williamson sisters found their treatment difficult but beneficial. They gradually cut back their food intake as the doctor ordered, and submitted to violent massages and enemas that were deemed essential to their good health. The doctor was so attentive and took such good care of them!

Dr. Hazzard promised the sisters her strict regime could cure cancer, cirrhosis, depression, and just about everything else. To cure disease and live in good health, Hazzard believed, one should only eat a small cup of strained soup a day, and maybe a small piece of fruit every few days… so that is all the sisters ate.

And then there were the enemas. Every day, Claire and Dora were given a purgative from Hazzard. They moaned in pain as the doctor irrigated their colons with gallons of water — these enemas often lasted for hours. Then it was time for their massages. Weakened from lack of food, Claire and Dora endured daily, strenuous massages where they would be struck about the face and stomach by Doctor Hazzard, while she shrieked “Eliminate!” as she beat the rapidly-weakening women with her bare fists.

A sane person might have booked passage back to Queensland… but something about the austere treatment appealed to the sisters. Something this painful had to be good for you, they likely reasoned. Hazzard seemed to have a strange power over her patients — maybe it was simply charisma and drive, but some thought Hazzard’s interest in spiritualism, theosophy, and the occult had given a kind of supernatural power of persuasion. Perhaps she was hypnotizing her patients?

For whatever reason, Claire and Dora eventually agreed to go with Hazzard to her rural property to finish their treatment. Apparently, their gaunt skeletal appearance and constant fainting were alarming everyone who saw them in Seattle. Because they could no longer walk, the Williamson sisters were taken by stretcher to an ambulance and driven deep into the Northwestern woods.

Starvation Heights

Hazzard called her estate “Wilderness Heights.” Remote, rustic, and surrounded by old growth Pacific Northwest forest, Wilderness Heights allowed Hazzard to practice medicine without interruption or prying eyes. Hazzard and her alcoholic, womanizing husband Sam had a small cottage built on the property, and constructed rough cabins to house the patients.

From the start, the simple loggers and fishermen of the small Washington village of Olalla gave wide berth to Hazzard — the odd, intense woman didn’t fit in into their close-knit community. Their unease only grew when they started seeing her patients: hunters in the woods were startled by emaciated figures wandering slowly through the forest, like skeletons searching for their graves. Delirious wretches begging for food, their bones clearly visible through their paper-thin skin, disconcerted local shopkeepers. The locals said Hazzard planted a tree for each person she killed, and pointed to groves of new growth on her property. They said she threw their bodies into the canyons, so the animals could eat their bones. They nicknamed her property “Starvation Heights.”

No matter its name, the rough-hewn cabins and rural setting were a far cry from the accommodations the moneyed Williamson sisters were used to. Not that they were in much of position to complain — by the time they’d moved to Starvation Heights, the sisters couldn’t walk without fainting, and weighed only 70 pounds each.

“A Period of Horror on Horror”

At the time, the Williamson sisters were the only patients at Starvation Heights. Dr. Hazzard and her husband lived on the property’s one suitable house, while Dora and Claire shared one of the small, rough cabins. As they wasted away on their meager diets, Hazzard convinced the sisters the treatment was working. Even as their bodies became covered in sores and they could no longer leave their beds, Dora and Claire believed good health and vitality were right around the corner.

As Claire came closer to death, Hazzard separated the two women, moving Claire into her cottage to look after her more intently. When Sam Hazzard asked Claire to sign some documents, she had total faith that the money was a small loan.

Following the Money

Prolonged hunger results in extreme fatigue and profound confusion, and it seems Hazzard and her husband waited until patients were nearly delirious before bilking them of their life savings. As many had done before, the weakened, confused Williamson sisters granted Mr. and Mrs. Hazzard complete control of their affairs.

Investigators later found a number of clear cases of patients tricked out of their money and starved to death. One patient, Seattle state legislator Lewis E. Radar, who died under Hazzard’s care, purchased the Wilderness Heights property itself.

British patient John Flux had come to America to buy a ranch, but he died with only $70 to his name — the rest having been funneled to the Hazzards. Eugene Wakelin supposedly shot himself while fasting under Hazzard’s care, but only after Hazzard convinced him to name her administer of his estate.

The Arrival of Margaret Conway

The two sisters might have ended up as rotting corpses in the Washington woods if not for their childhood nurse, Margaret Conway. She received a bizarre cable purporting to be from Claire, so Conway booked passage from Australia to Seattle. She arrived in the nick of time.

When she reached Washington, Conway was greeted with sad news. As they traveled to Starvation Heights, Dr. Hazzard’s husband said that Claire had died, and that Dora had gone hopelessly insane. It seems the Hazzards’ plan was to have Dora declared incompetent, so that they might have full control of their fortune. Sam Hazzard took Margaret to see Claire’s body at a Seattle mortuary, but Margaret didn’t recognize the corpse; she believed it was actually someone else’s cadaver.

Once she arrived at Olalla, the horror unfolded slowly, shock by shock. First, Margaret talked to Dr. Hazzard, and noticed that the doctor was wearing one of Claire’s robes, and writing in one of Claire’s notebooks. Before she died, explained Dr. Hazzard, Claire had named the Hazzards administrators of her estate, so the couple had helped themselves to her clothing, jewelry, and household goods. The Hazzards even sold the gold fillings from Claire’s teeth after her death.

When she was finally allowed to visit Dora in her tiny cabin, Margaret was nearly paralyzed with horror. The once vibrant woman weighed only 50 pounds. Her bones protruded so sharply, she couldn’t sit without pain. According to the nurse, you could feel Dora’s backbone through her stomach. Her lips were so drawn, she couldn’t close them over her teeth.  Maybe most horrible of all, Dora told her nurse she wanted to stay and finish the treatment.

Nothing Conway could say would convince the Hazzards to release Dora, so she reluctantly left, vowing to somehow save her friend.

“It was a nightmare,” Conway later said of her visit to Olalla. “A period of horror on horror. Of starving emaciated bodies drawing themselves about, an inferno of fear and horror.”

Dora is Rescued

Luckily for Dora, Margaret didn’t give up on her; she summoned one of the Williamsons’ relatives to Washington. John Herbert was a lawyer, and after his own disturbing visit to the “sanitarium,” he agreed to pay the Hazzards a thousand dollars to release Dora. She returned to Australia, a husk of her former self. She was never able to live independently, and was cared for by relatives until her death.

With Dora safe, Herbert convinced the local authorities to look into the case, and the investigation revealed a number of suspicious deaths and strange financial manipulations of patients. Dr. Hazzard was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Claire Williamson.

The difference between this case and previous charges were the witnesses. At a sensational trial, Dora Williamson, Margaret Conway, and John Herbert all testified against Hazzard. It was alleged that she stole from patients, starved them, and dissected their bodies in her bathtub. It was said she worked with the local mortuary to dispose of the bodies of her victims, and to provide “un-starved” corpses to show nosy relatives.

Hazzard’s defense — that she was an innocent health practitioner being persecuted for her unorthodox techniques, and because she was a woman — did not convince the jury. Dr. Linda Hazzard was stripped of her medical credentials and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to two-to-twenty years hard labor. After losing legal appeals she took all the way to the state Supreme Court, Hazzard was taken to Walla Walla prison to serve out her sentence.


Dr. Hazzard Takes Her Own Medicine

Dr. Hazzard served two years at Walla Walla, doing hard labor and fasting to prove the worth of her cure. After her release, Hazzard was pardoned by the governor, in exchange for agreeing that she would leave the United States… an agreement she later broke.

The Hazzards moved to New Zealand, where official records become a bit murky. The Hazzards lived there for a few years, and Linda apparently earned (or stole) enough money practicing alternative medicine to return to Washington and actually build the sanitarium she had always dreamed of in Olalla.

A state-of-the-art health facility, Hazzard’s sanitarium was called the most impressive building in Olalla at the time, but it was not destined to be the success she craved. Hazzard was haunted by her reputation as a quack, and patients didn’t flock to the new sanitarium in the numbers she had wanted.  Which isn’t to say there were no patients –Hazzard was arrested again in connection with the death of patient Leonard Ritter, who died of starvation at Olalla after an 84-day fast. She was eventually fined $100.

A few years later, the Hazzard sanitarium went up in flames. Rumors flew that the building was burned for the insurance, but nothing was ever proven.

By the late 1930s, Hazzard was a guru with few followers. She still lived in the little cottage in the woods, but she didn’t share the grounds with any patients — just her husband. Now in her 70s, Hazzard set out to prove, once and for all, the validity of her starvation cure. She lay in bed for weeks, drinking only a thin broth, in the same house where she’d starved Claire Williamson to death… and in 1938, Linda Hazzard died of hunger, the final victim of her starvation cure.

Dr. Hazzard’s strange story was passed down through whispered stories among locals, who remembered the starving skeletal wretches who once roamed the woods around Olalla. Some swore they could still hear screaming from the woods — long after the sanitarium had burned to the ground. Psychics and ghost hunters visiting the property have reported the haggard spirits of Hazzard’s victims were trapped in the attic… afraid to move, even in death.


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