Starvation Heights

A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest

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In this true story–a haunting saga of medical murder set in an era of steamships and gaslights–Gregg Olsen reveals one of the most unusual and disturbing criminal cases in American history.

In 1911 two wealthy British heiresses, Claire and Dora Williamson, arrived at a sanitorium in the forests of the Pacific Northwest to undergo the revolutionary “fasting treatment” of Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard. It was supposed to be a holiday for the two sisters, but within a month of arriving at what the locals called Starvation Heights, the women underwent brutal treatments and were emaciated shadows of their former selves.

Claire and Dora were not the first victims of Linda Hazzard, a quack doctor of extraordinary evil and greed. But as their jewelry disappeared and forged bank drafts began transferring their wealth to Hazzard’s accounts, the sisters came to learn that Hazzard would stop at nothing short of murder to achieve her ambitions.



Starvation Heights

Gregg Olsen


This is for the widows of Olalla...










and for

Opal and Chuck


Some, as thou saws’t; by violent stroke shall die,

By fire, flood, famine: by intemperance more

In meats and drinks, which on the Earth shall bring

Diseases dire, of which a monstrous crew

Before thee shall appear, that thou mays’t know

What misery the inabstinence of Eve

Shall bring on men

                                                                                 If thou well observe

The rule of “Not too much” by temperance taught

In what thou eat’st and drink’st seeking from thence

Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight

Till many years over thy head return;

So may’st thou live, till, like ripe fruit, thou drop

Into thy mother’s lap, or be with ease

Gathered, not harshly plucked, for death mature.*

Paradise Lost



The older boys always brought it up to the younger ones.

Sit down, and I’ll tell you the story of what happened here in the very spot you’re sitting on. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a rusty needle in my eye. I ain’t lying. What I’m telling you is true.

Fourteen Boy Scouts and their Scoutmaster had gathered to camp in a clearing on a brambly hillside meadow not far from the shoreline of Puget Sound in Washington State. It was nearly autumn, 1946. The boys who comprised Fragaria Troop 528 were the sons of chicken farmers, berry growers, and shipyard workers. All were passing from boyhood to manhood.

None were unfamiliar with the place they camped, though they would not have thought to go there on their own. No one but the very stupid or the very brave ever did that. Even on a dare. Some folks who lived their entire lives in the community that was but a mere blip on most maps had never set foot on the property.

Those that knew the story best, those who could tell it best, would gather the others and speak in low, earnest tones. As the campfire burned to an ashy bowl of red-hot embers, the boys would ramble on, piling up horror upon horror, like cordwood stacked under a blood-red-barked madrona tree.

Like most places, Olalla had a bit of a past. Some of it was good, but that, of course, was humdrum, simply unsuitable for the milieu of a campfire. The proud history was the kind of talk a grandmother gives while her grandchildren squirm to break away from her sweetly uninspired dissertation about the good old days. Some of the past, however, was bad. And bad was always better.

Not much of a town anymore, but it’s a true fact that there was a time when people from all over the world came here         .         .         .

By the time the Scouts gathered to camp at the old Hazzard sanitarium, it had been decades since the town had seen its heyday. Good Lord, to walk its roads or along its beaches was to see nothing but reminders of a bygone era. By the 1940s, fate had reduced Olalla to a dwindling village, a place that inhabited only the faded memories of the greying and the bald. As old businesses along the waterfront burned down or fell into rotten disrepair, they were abandoned. No one ever rebuilt the pool hall, the bakery, the shingle mill, or the net sheds. No one reclaimed what the seawater had stolen, what the insatiable worms had gnawed to Swiss cheese. Many, many years later, old photographs would hang on the walls of the sole surviving waterfront business—a small grocery store and two-pump gas station. Illuminated under buzzing fluorescent lights, the black-and-white images would provide silent, yet convincing, testimony of what had once been.

As the tide from the Sound does to a child’s aimless footprints on the beach, time washes away all traces of what had been.

No one could possess a shred of doubt that Olalla’s most famous institution was the sanitarium up on the heights off Orchard Avenue. Nothing else even came close. Not the sawmills, the strawberry fields, the hotel on the little bay. But, of course, all—even the most famous—had been consumed by the years. All that was left of Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium were the ankle-deep walls of the foundation and the tower of a masonry incinerator that swelled from the ground like a huge grave marker. In a way, that’s what it was.

The doctor locked her patients up and starved ’em. To skin ’n bone, I heard.

The half dozen or so little cabins that were reserved for some patients at the peak of the world-renowned institution’s fame had rotted into the earth. The Pacific Northwest’s legendary rains had gently turned the wooden floorboards into a soil so black it looked like a hole to another world. A perfect row of old firs and pines lined up like sentinels from the road.

Each one of them trees marks the spot where the old lady buried one of her victims.

Long before the Scouts and their Scoutmaster came to camp and told ghost stories, a great white, wood-frame building rose from the concrete outline that held it skyward. It was a magnificent structure for its time and place—a sanitarium of three stories, plus a basement. Dormer windows jutted over a porch that ran the full length; a dark, oak staircase in the grand foyer dominated the interior. There was even a kitchen, an office, and of course, the Treatment Room.

A stark white painted wooden archway over the north end of a circular driveway that looped from the road to the satiny oak of the building’s front doors proclaimed to visitors that they had arrived at what the owners called Wilderness Heights.

All of what the place had been was the great dream of a woman, a doctor named Linda Burfield Hazzard.

There are bodies out here, buried all over the place. I heard a kid from up the valley found a couple of human skulls when he was diggin’ a pit for baked beans         .         .         .

Eleven years had passed since the sanitarium burned to the ground, even longer since the story began. The old lady had been dead since 1938, her husband, Samuel, followed her to the grave eight years later. The main house, overlooking a fern-glutted ravine still stood just south of where the old sanitarium had been. The cedar-shingled bungalow was empty at that time. A For Sale sign stuck in the dandelions alongside the driveway.

Many who passed by on Orchard Avenue remarked how the air always seemed a little colder around that place on the hill. Wind blew a little harder, too. At night, the sky’s blackness seemed to hold no room for the cheer of the moon. The Scouts of Troop 528 unfurled sleeping bags into rows in the open field and lay as still as could be. The older ones insisted to the younger ones that at night, when the wind forced treetops to bend over backwards, the haunted screams of the dead could be heard.

It should not have ended that way. It wasn’t supposed to end that way. But it did. Among the debris, hidden beneath tangled shields of blackberry vines and enormous bouquets of salal foliage, were secrets that time seized in its mighty, unforgiving grip. Only in the campfire-stoked stories of Boy Scouts, bedtime tales baby-sitters employ to frighten bratty charges, or in the sweet delight of grandpas who never grew up, would the stories live on.



Miss Claire & Miss Dorothea

Appetite is Craving; Hunger is Desire. Craving is never satisfied; but Desire is relieved when Want is Supplied.

Eating without Hunger, or pandering to Appetite at the expense of Digestion, makes Disease inevitable.


It is a most beautiful treatment.




It was a world both bustling and tranquil; a musky sweet-smelling blend of extremes. As hotel clerks, waiters, doormen, and gardeners went about their myriad duties, ladies in heavy, ankle-length satin dresses and mile-high hats of twisted taffeta and rosette-coiled velvet gossiped while demurely fanning themselves under the sparkle of a great glass dome amid enormous oriental urns planted with palms. Their chatter was frivolous and cheerful, like the chirping of songbirds gathering to feed on millet sprays and the dried discs of sunflowers.

The front desk calendar was inscribed: September 1910.

Across the lobby, Dorothea and Claire Williamson, splendidly attired in dresses pulled from one of the fourteen trunks that accompanied them around the world, gazed out a window. The evidence fall was lapping toward winter was everywhere on the grounds of the two-year-old Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Small clusters of leaves had fallen in the cool, moist air, their bronze and gold remnants raked into ruffly heaps. New shrubbery framed the expansive lawns of the Canadian Pacific Railway–built hotel; ivy began its creep upward on the magnificently towering brick edifice. Plantings were crisp from the precise trim of a gardener’s shears. There could be no disputing that the view of the green, well-tended grounds and the blue waters of the Inner Harbour was a soothing tonic for weary eyes.

Orphaned daughters of a well-to-do English officer in the Imperial Army Medical Service, Dorothea was born in Trichinopoli, India, Claire in London. And though schooled in Switzerland, England, and France and well traveled, the sisters, especially Claire, exhibited a childlike navet and innocence that sometimes left them a target of manipulation by those with dubious intentions. Hardly a week went by when there wasn’t a banker or an investment expert with phony assurances that he had a plan for their money. Encounters with those who would do them financial harm only served to draw them closer to each other.

Suitors, however, were another matter. Neither sister had found a man that would make a husband worth leaving her sister all alone. And though Claire and Dorothea were unwed and beyond the age of thirty, neither quite considered herself a spinster. Yet, among the ladies in the lobby, they did not court the attentions of gentlemen. It was true they had had their admirers. But they were indifferent to such advances, and certainly they had no regard for the conventions of courtship.

Claire and Dora, as her sister called her, were likely the only women in the hotel with waists not bound and compressed like the bunched-up necks of cloth sacks. Corsets, they told each other, were the devil’s invention, cutting off circulation and choking digestive tracts. They preferred looser, one-piece undergarments. Clothing, they insisted, that wouldn’t choke the very life out of them. To be fair, neither really had any need of corsets. Their figures were trim and youthful.

As they sat sipping tea, the sisters were a striking image: unblemished porcelain skin, blue-green eyes, and the controlled posture of the upper class. Dora had auburn-hued hair with a few grey strands that she plucked from her scalp whenever they showed. Claire’s face was more heart-shaped than round like her sister’s, and her dark, wavy hair was the envy of the few who had seen it unfurled from beneath a hat. Claire, the younger of the two by four years, was slightly stouter in her bone structure than her sister. Both women had small, delicate hands that seldom went without the covering of gloves.

Dora cupped her hand over her mouth, turned away from her sister, and dramatically stifled a yawn.

“A bit more sugar, dearie,” she said.

Claire nodded and moved a small tray with a silver pitcher and sugar bowl closer to Dora. Sugar, she thought, would provide a nice boost for the afternoon. A boost was decidedly in order. Neither sister had been sleeping well. Both longed to fall into the kind of slumber that would wash over them and give them the stamina needed to continue their journey. It had been such a long journey. They had come from Liverpool, England, by steamer, arriving first in Quebec, then Toronto, before making their way west across the Canadian Prairies to the Pacific Coast and Vancouver Island’s Empress, a stately hotel that held its surroundings like a grand, decorated cake above the seawater in which the island seemed to float. It was the kind of fine establishment that travelers found unexpected in North America—a hotel with nearly the standards of the better places in Europe.

At each stop of their journey the sisters visited the distant relatives that made up all that was left of their family. Their father had died shortly after Claire’s birth, their mother when Claire was only fourteen and Dora, eighteen. Scarlet fever drained the life out of two sisters, Ethel and Gertrude, when they were very young. Beyond each other, all Claire and Dorothea could embrace now were the odd collection of various aunts, uncles, and cousins, and their beloved governess, Margaret Conway. They certainly, and they always said, tragically, had the money for such endeavors. Their Scottish-born grandfather, Charles Williamson, left his beloved Dorothea and Claire a fantastic fortune—worth more than a million American dollars. Most of it was in Victorian Government Inscribed Stock from Australia. Considerable land holdings in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia added a good deal more to their net worth. That two women controlled such extraordinary funds in 1910 was all the more remarkable.

While their fortune had afforded them world travel, wardrobes brimming with gowns from Paris, armloads of Irish linen, and charming homes near London and Melbourne, it had not brought them the one thing they sought over everything else: a sense of well-being. If not their money, what would help them be happy, be well? It was a question often asked by the rich and unhappy, and it was a question Claire had frequently posed to her sister. Dora had no clear answers. She only knew they were not alone in their endeavors. Both Europe and America were dotted with centers for healing, institutions of physical culture, sanitariums, all promising robust health to those with brimming pocketbooks. By the time they visited North America, the sisters were like many other faddists for cures—they had been to several health institutes already. It was almost a hobby, a lifestyle, their great quest. And so they were drawn. Like a vapor-camouflaged island far away on the taut line of the horizon, always out of reach         .         .         .         always beckoning with the promise, the hope.

While on their travels, the women saw a small but thoroughly intriguing newspaper advertisement in a Seattle daily newspaper. On September 2, 1910, Claire responded to the notice. She wrote a letter to Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard, requesting the doctor’s book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease. In her note, she exaggerated her sister’s illness somewhat. It was true that Dora had not been feeling well, but she was hardly knocking on Death’s door. Claire was given to overstating matters and emotions. She had been overindulged by a devoted sister who allowed her the leeway for slight embellishments. It mattered none to Dora. Her sister was the center of her world. Whatever it was Claire fancied, she only had to ask for it. Dora would cheerfully comply.

Claire described to the doctor how Dora had been on a partial fast since August 26 and had eaten nothing but fruit since then—with the exception of two small meals. Her glands were swollen and pain shot through her knees.

(Dora’s) eyes just now are very bloodshot and seem to be eliminating a good deal of matter. Her period was due ten days ago, she has a very sharp pain over the right temple whenever she moves         .         .         .

Five days after she sent the letter, a package arrived at the hotel front desk. It had been shipped from Dr. Hazzard’s office in Seattle. In it was a slim but provocative volume penned by a woman who believed every ailment was caused by dietary factors. The idea was not entirely original, but Linda Burfield Hazzard presented her thesis in a convincing and revolutionary way. The sisters, especially Claire, couldn’t wait. They were intrigued. Suddenly, sleep didn’t seem so important.

Dora called for a waiter to have their tea sent up to their suite. They had some reading to attend to.

Their hotel suite was lovely, but a bit too snug. Dora had hoped for a little more room, perhaps two dressing tables. She remarked to Claire that she’d be more careful about their accommodations in the future. Even though only four years separated them, in Dora’s mind it was she who had the role of the mother; Claire, the child. Claire happily accepted the role. She found her place in telling Dora how they could not have survived the loss of their parents without her maturity and unflappable resolve. It was Dora who reminded her sister that they should rely only on each other. No financial advisors. No husbands. Just the two of them.

It was also Dora who made the arrangements when it came to the details of their lives. At least Claire allowed her to believe so. When disappointment was the result of such efforts, Dora took the blame.

“I hadn’t wanted to stay at that hotel in the first place. I suppose I shall recover from the draftiness of the place. Dora, it isn’t your fault. It really isn’t.”

Claire studied Dora’s face as she surveyed their room at the Empress. She could see Dora’s dissatisfaction. To ease her sister’s sense of responsibility, Claire spoke up quickly and cheerfully reminded her older sister of their circumstances.

“We are not in England         .         .         .         this, my dear, is North America. This was a colony, for goodness sake!”

Dora clasped her hands against her cheeks and laughed. With that, the hotel was suddenly fine. Besides, they had more important concerns.

As Dora breathlessly read the doctor’s book aloud, Claire brushed out her long, burnished hair.

With each word, Dora’s voice singsonged with bursts of enthusiasm. Every so often, Claire would stop her brushing and turn from the looking glass to tell her sister that she agreed with every word.

It should not require an exhaustive argument to establish the fact that disease has its origin in impaired digestion.

Upon this fundamental truth and its development the treatment known as the fasting treatment, depends on its entirety; and long experience at varied hands has demonstrated that, whatever the manifestation, the only disease is impure blood and its sole cause impaired digestion.

Dr. Hazzard’s thesis was to “rest” the digestive system and allow the “impurities” to pass out of the body. The “natural cleansing process” would in time, she reasoned, strengthen the body.

A fresh foundation is there to work upon—a new and thoroughly cleansed body, ready to take up its labors, and with proper hygienic and dietic care, to carry them on indefinitely.

Already vegetarians, the Williamsons embraced natural methods of healing as superior to modern medicine. They thought little of traditional doctors and their drugs.

“Such medicine is for fools,” Dora said.

Claire knew exactly what was next. In many ways the two were like twins. Everyone thought so. They always knew what the other was thinking. And they seldom, if ever, disagreed.

As they clouded their tea with sugar and milk poured from Canadian Pacific Railway silver service, each sister entertained the possibility of submitting to Linda Hazzard’s fasting treatment. It was so intriguing, so promising. A poor diet was always suspect in health problems. The fasting treatment might finally provide their long-sought key to a lifetime of good health. Turning the pages, Dora found a small brochure tucked into the book touting the sanitarium known as Hazzard’s Institute of Natural Therapeutics. The sanitarium was in the country, west of Seattle across Puget Sound. The sanitarium’s address was in a village called Olalla. Its very name was melodic. O-la-lla. Like a song, maybe sung by a seabird. The place sounded lovely, a location blessed with fresh air, sparkling salt water, and a forested covering that would surely keep the environs cool in the hottest of summers.

“Dare we do it?” Claire asked, already knowing Dora’s answer, already knowing her sister’s desire.

Dora smiled, grabbed Claire’s hand, and squeezed.

“Dare we not!”

Dora closed the pages of Fasting for the Cure of Disease and watched Claire spin her long hair into a spiral to coil it away in the confines of a sleeping cap.

Neither sister was seriously ill, if at all. But the two women persuaded each other that treatment was in order. Claire had told her older sister about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his celebrated sanitarium in Michigan, but the two had decided it was too far and inconvenient a trip. Besides, the sisters preferred coastal, over inland, travel. To their way of thinking, treatment was both a medical necessity and the basis for a holiday.

Dora had foolishly convinced herself she suffered from swollen glands and “acute rheumatic pains” in her knees. To add more credence to Claire’s misguided notion she also was in dire need of treatment, a London osteopath told her that her uterus had dropped back on her spine and her ovaries were badly inflamed.
Until that diagnosis, all Claire believed she had was a delicate stomach.

Dr. Hazzard, they read, was the only licensed fasting specialist in the entire world. Through the years of her practice, Dr. Hazzard had stood before patients and the medical establishment with the announcement she had discovered the basis for all ailments—mental, physical, and moral.

“Overeating,” the doctor wrote, “is the vice of the whole human race.”


THERAPY IN the country sounded like the right prescription, and with the decision made, the practical issue of just when they could take the treatment was considered. After visiting North America, the sisters had plans to travel back to Australia and on to London, places where they had family homes. Claire planned to set sail for London on May 18, 1911. She had enrolled in a kindergarten instruction course. Her sister, not overly enchanted with the prospect of being alone, decided she’d travel to Australia to visit a distant aunt. Dora knew she could not stay with Claire during the training.

They were voyages neither would take.

On the night of September 7, 1910, fueled by excitement and heavily sugared tea, the sisters took turns reading from the doctor’s book as they tended to their immediate and secret plans. Under the advice of an osteopathic physician they had visited in Victoria, they decided to winter in California and visit the doctor the following spring, when the northwest weather would be warmer. Claire carefully composed a letter in a graceful and fluid handwriting. She told the doctor that Dora was not well enough to make the trip to Seattle just yet. She needed sunshine. There was hope for improvement. Dora had been employing the enema nightly and was feeling somewhat invigorated, but still not well enough for a trip to drizzly Seattle.

She enclosed a $1.25 payment for the book.


THEY WERE stronger than they let on. Even as they reminded themselves and their American family members of their abdominal troubles and the scads of other things that they said ailed them, they still looked as though they could take on the world. In many ways, they did just that. They had been traveling for six months when they arrived in Riverside, California, in November 1910. They booked rooms at the exclusive Arrowood Hotel and proceeded to soak in mud baths, lie on sheet-covered mattresses for massages, and drink gallon after gallon of water—water therapy. Even though Dora was feeling fit as could be, her sister was eager to correspond with the fasting specialist from Seattle. She wanted help for herself this time.

On Sale
May 3, 2005
Page Count
448 pages