In 1911 two wealthy British heiresses, Claire and Dora Williamson, came to 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 were emaciated shadows of their former selves, waiting for death. They were not the first victims of Linda Hazzard, a quack doctor of extraordinary evil and greed who would stop at nothing short of murder to achieve her ambitions.
As their jewelry disappeared and forged bank drafts began transferring their wealth to Hazzards accounts, Dora Williamson sent a last desperate plea to a friend in Australia, begging her to save them from the brutal treatments and lonely isolation of Starvation Heights.
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.
Jennifer Van Dyck’s enthusiastic reading of Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen will cause listeners to turn on all the lights in whatever room they are enjoying the audiobook or seek out a public place with lots of other people around. So realistic is Van Dyck’s characterization of the malicious Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard that anyone listening will be able to imagine vividly the murderous “fasting doctor” directing her horrific tirades at them.
Starvation Heights is the story of Dr. Hazzard, who was convicted in 1912 of the murder of a young English heiress under her care. Hazzard ran The Wilderness Heights Institute of Natural Therapeutics in Olalla, WA, a secluded mountain area near Tacoma. A self-proclaimed expert in fasting, Dr. Hazzard’s patients existed on two cups of watery broth per day, daily enemas, and “osteopathic massage”, vigorous physical pummeling by the doctor to beat toxins literally out of weakened patients’ bodies. It was not until the death of 33-year-old Claire Williamson in 1911 and the near death of her older sister, Dorothea, that Dr. Hazzard’s treatments gained international attention. It seems that while the starving women were incapable of making rational decisions, the good doctor took legal control of the Williamson sisters’ generous funds and helped herself to their jewelry, clothing, and anything else of value they had brought with them to the Pacific Northwest. Soon it became clear that Claire Williamson was not the first wealthy patient to expire under Dr. Hazzard’s care.
Van Dyck captures convincingly the capricious Williamson sisters’ gullibility as they focus on Hazzard’s radical fasting treatments for the alleviation of their most likely non-existent afflictions. The upper-crust English accents of Claire and Dorothea convey not only their excitement to begin this latest “cure”, but also their total trust as they put their lives into Hazzard’s conniving hands.
Through Van Dyck, Hazzard is presented first as a terse, no-nonsense doctor outlining her radical treatments to new patients. Once fully into the fasting treatment and with her ulterior motives proceeding, Dr. Hazzard becomes a maniacal harpy using psychological terror to bilk weak, wealthy patients out of their fortunes. Hazzard is evil yet sickeningly sweet as she tries to cajole the barely alive Dorothea Williamson to end her own life after her beloved sister, Claire, has died. Hazzard’s belittling of employees and hectoring of patients keeps all those at Wilderness Heights living in fear of crossing the doctor.
Van Dyck adds color and depth to Starvation Heights with the dialogue of folks who tried to help or who had observed the mysterious comings and goings at the “sanitarium”. Working-class Margaret Conway, maidservant and former nurse to the Williamson sisters, grows from meekly-voiced, concerned servant to the confident and adamant advocate for Dorothea’s care and Claire’s memory. Dorothea’s description of Claire’s death reveals a brilliant performance as Van Dyck builds tension, fear, and horror through the raspy, tortured voice of the once vibrant woman. That the Williamson case proceeded at all is testament to the unequivocal outrage of the British vice consul for Tacoma, Lucien Agassiz. His aristocratic voice portrays a sense of obvious superiority to perceived backwater American justice. As the arrest of Dr. Hazzard and the trial commences, oily scandal sheet reporters pick and poke through the doctor’s shady past much to her vocalized outrage.
Jennifer Van Dyck smoothly transitions between all the personalities, allowing Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen to become an audiobook addiction that none will forget. Carole Chouinard
“A fascinating turn-of-the-century story of medical malpractice and murder. If you liked The Alienist, you'll find Starvation Heights all the more gripping because this story is true.” (Michael Connelly)
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- Crystal D. Jones