Thursday, February 26, 2015

Starvation Heights

Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen is a narrative non-fiction  thriller (i.e., reads like a novel, based on a true story--you know, the genre Truman Capote invented with In Cold Blood) and was a chilling account of quack medicine that kills, circa 1911.

The book is about the arrest and trial of Linda Burfield Hazzard, a woman who called herself a doctor although she had no medical degrees but was issued a license by the state of Washington to practice osteopathy.  Her specialty was fasting her patients to health at her sanitarium in Ollala, WA, which she dubbed Wilderness Heights, but which became known as Starvation Heights.

Many of her patients fasted for 40 or more days, only taking asparagus or tomato-based liquids. Many of these patients died--more than 40, in fact.  Among these was a young Australian woman, Claire Williamson, who also happened to be an heiress. Claire's sister, Dora, survived the fasting treatment with the help of her former nanny, and together the two got the British consul to pressure the local authorities in Washington state to prosecute Hazzard for Claire's murder.

The subject was absolutely fascinating--I love learning about historical cases and since I have visited the Puget Sound area quite a bit over the past four years, I felt somewhat familiar with the landscape.  The book portrayed a wonderfully complex set of characters, from the wacko "Dr." Hazzard to her alcoholic lapdog of a husband, Sam, a variety of nurses and handymen who worked for her, the Williamson sisters, the British Vice Consul Lucien Agassiz, and a host of others.

The book was a pretty fast read, with the focus on the Williamson case interrupted occasionally for some backstory on the Hazzards--Sam was a bigamist, for which he spent time in prison--and some recollections of Ollala residents about the infamous fasting doctor who lived up the hill from them.

I confess I struggled a bit with Olsen's style--he is a true crime writer and tends to overuse metaphors and similes, and resorts to sensationalism more than I care for.  I won't say it's the best-written book I've ever read, but it was certainly interesting and the narrative related to the trial itself was riveting.

For more on the book, visit and be sure to take a look at the pictures.  Just incredible!

I read this book with the GoodReads TuesBookTalkRead-a-Longs group.  The next book we're reading is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.


  1. This story sounds so very interesting. Obviously the lack of information about medicine and health at the time when this occurred was a factor, it is still amazing how people are quick to put their faith in dangerous and destructive individuals.

    I think that I also would find the writing style that you describe annoying.

  2. What a weirdly fascinating book...but the cover's a little creepy. :) I've never heard of anyone starving someone back to health. It's even crazier than bleeding them with leeches. I'm glad we don't do either of those things any more.

  3. I believe in intermittent fasting, but this starvation diet sounds deadly. Terrific review!