I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Without benefit of a medical degree, Linda Hazzard was granted a license to practice medicine in Washington State. (Things were loosey-goosey in the late 19th century in the world of medical regulation).
Essentially, she was a quack doctor who treated her patients by having them fast. She believed that all diseases were caused by too much eating and, therefore, that denial of food was the obvious cure. Not eating was the best way, she said, of shedding nasty toxins from the body so that it could heal itself.
Of course, there is a downside to extreme fasting; it’s called starvation and it, predictably, led to the death of numerous patients.
An Old Practice
Linda Hazzard was a devotee of Dr. Edward Hooker Dewey. He was a bona fides medical man who came to believe in the therapeutic value of fasting. In his 1895 book, The True Science of Living, he claimed that “every disease that afflicts mankind [develops from] more or less habitual eating in excess of the supply of gastric juices.”
Linda Hazzard said she had studied under Dr. Dewey and applied his methods to the halt and lame who came to her clinic in Olalla, Washington. She called the place, rather grandly, the Institute of Natural Therapeutics. The building itself was called Wilderness Heights, although the locals quickly dubbed it Starvation Heights.
In her 1908 book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease, Hazzard wrote that fasting as a medical cure had deep roots. The Ancient Greeks held that while eating, demons could enter your mouth, and even Jesus fasted from time to time.
For those who might be a tad concerned that not eating might be injurious she assured them that “[d]eath in the fast never results from deprivation of food, but is the inevitable consequence of vitality sapped to the last degree by organic imperfection.”
The Clinic’s Course of Treatment
Her book attracted clients, some of them very wealthy. What could be better than taking a cure overlooking idyllic Puget Sound under the care of a qualified doctor?
Patients were put on a diet of small amounts of diluted asparagus and tomato juice. Occasionally, and no doubt this was a cause for great celebration among the inmates, a small teaspoon of orange juice was allowed or even a small orange.
This diet lasted for days, sometimes longer, and then there were the enemas. These were daily, but it’s hard to understand how there could be anything to expel. Added to this were massages that some people have described as more like assaults.
One man, Earl Edward Erdman kept a diary of the food he received at Wilderness Heights. From February 1,1910 to late March, he ate only vegetable broth and an occasional orange. On March 28, he died in Seattle General Hospital of starvation.
However, there were plenty of people, other than Mr. Erdman, who came away from Wilderness Heights singing the praises of Linda Hazzard and her treatments.
The Williamson Sisters
Two wealthy British women, Claire and Dorothea (known as Dora) Williamson, heard about Linda Hazzard’s Institute of Natural Therapeutics while staying in Victoria, British Columbia.
The sisters were great believers in alternative medicine, and, though not seriously ill, decided to travel down the coast and stay at Wilderness Heights for a while.
Their treatment started in February 1911 and followed the regimen described above and included enemas lasting up to three hours. By April 1911, the sisters weighed about 70 pounds each.
By May, the childhood nanny of the women, Margaret Conway, got wind of what was going on and decided to visit the clinic. On the way there, she was met by Hazzard’s husband, Samuel, who told her that Claire had died and Dora had become insane. The explanation given was that Claire had received drug treatments as a child that had caused irreparable damage to her liver that no amount of Linda Hazzard’s tender loving care could cure.
Margaret Conway was horrified to see that Dora now weighed only about 50 pounds. She was equally horrified to learn that Claire had made Linda Hazzard executor of her considerable estate and that Samuel had been given power of attorney by Dora.
And, where was the sister’s treasure trove of jewels valued at $6,000 (about $160,000 in today’s money)?
Let Justice Prevail
Margaret Conway summoned John Herbert, an uncle of the sisters. He had to pay what amounted to a ransom of $1,000 to get Dora out of Wilderness Heights. He then contacted Lucian Agassiz, the British vice consul in Tacoma, to help investigate the Hazzard business.
It turned out that several wealthy clients had died under the care of the Institute of Natural Therapeutics. Many had signed over large parts of their estates to the Hazzards before passing away. The appropriate people were notified and, on August 15, 1911, Linda Hazzard was arrested on a first-degree murder charge relating to the death of Claire Williamson.
The trial the following January heard from some staff who testified about atrocities committed on patients. Other members of staff were fiercely loyal to Hazzard.
The prosecution entered evidence showing Linda and Samuel forged cheques and fraudulently drained the estates of their victims. Mrs. Hazzard claimed she was the victim of an organized persecution from the medical profession and that her methods were sound. They were jealous of her, she said, because she cured patients when they couldn’t. She boasted to the press that “I intend to get on the stand and show up that bunch. They’ve been playing checkers but it’s my move. I’ll show them a thing or two when I get on the stand.”
Her lawyer, wisely, kept her out of the witness box. The jury brought down a verdict of guilty of manslaughter and Linda Hazzard was sentenced to two to 20 years in prison.
Linda Hazzard only served the minimum of her prison term before being released. The state governor gave her a complete pardon on condition she leave the United States.
She and Samuel went to New Zealand where they set up shop in a similar business. She claimed expertise as a dietitian, osteopath, and physician. Little information exists about their time in the southern hemisphere but it seems the authorities grew suspicious about someone practicing medicine without a license.
So, the Hazzards reneged on their deal with the governor of Washington and returned to Olalla in 1920, and set up what they called a “school of health.”
Amazingly, she was able to continue her starvation regimen until 1935 when the “school of health” was gutted in a fire.
In 1938, and now in her 70s, Linda Hazzard felt unwell and tried to cure herself through one of her fasts. In a delicious irony she died of starvation.
The exact number of her victims is not known but the low estimate is a dozen and the high one is 40. And, except in the case of Claire Williamson, she got away with all of them, which is a monumental failure of the criminal justice system.
- After Dora Williamson’s release from Wilderness Heights she went to live in Australia, but she never returned to full health and needed special care until she died.
- In June 1880, Dr. Henry Samuel Tanner, a practitioner of what he called hygienic medicine, began a 40-day fast in New York City. His progress was covered breathlessly in newspapers and crowds paid a quarter each to watch the man shed 40 pounds. On the day he broke his fast, 2,000 people showed up as he fed on milk, watermelon, and steak. Once he recovered his strength he went on a lecture tour touting his theory that disease could be cured through starvation.
- Puritan preacher Cotton Mather was influential in describing demonic possession at the Salem witch trials of 1692-93. He said that fasting would cure the outbreak of witchcraft.
- One of Linda Hazzard’s patients was Daisy Maud Haglund. She died in 1908, after fasting for 50 days. She was only 38 and she left behind a three-year-old son, Ivar. He went on to found a highly successful seafood restaurant, Ivar’s in Seattle, and chain of burger places. In contrast to Hazzard, Ivar fed millions of people.
- “The Doctor Who Starved Her Patients to Death.” Bess Lovejoy, Smithsonian Magazine, October 28, 2014.
- “Linda Burfield Hazzard.” Juan Ignacio Blanco, Murderpedia, undated.
- “Natural Medicine, Starvation, and Murder: The Story of Linda Hazzard.” Dr. Harriet Hall, Science-Based Medicine, December 13, 2016.
- “The Bizarre and Gruesome Saga of Linda Hazzard: ‘The Starvation Doctor.’ ” Stephen Johnson, 13th Floor, December 22, 2016.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on September 18, 2018:
What a terrible history. And yet fasting still exists both as a part of medical practice and as religious observances, albeit not for days and days with only a tiny bit of broth to break the fast with.
Suzie from Carson City on September 18, 2018:
Rupert...Well, clearly a "hazard," to visit this uneducated Dr!! While fasting has been touted as being beneficial for some people under certain conditions for a closely supervised, short period of time, simply ceasing nourishment altogether while inducing forced bowel evacuation is LETHAL. Once our body is depleted of all nutrient, substance, electrolytes and enzymes....it's Adios Amigo!! The heart just gives up.
I did learn of the strange practice of individuals simply declaring that they were Medical Practitioners, without the slightest term of study, formal education nor stint as an apprentice! I found that tidbit of frightening information while researching an article I did about trail blazing, brilliant "Hall of Fame" women of days gone by.
Frankly, I've not ever been so certain I fully trust our over-educated Drs of today!!
I love your comment, Rupert.....made me laugh! I feel the same way when I've had to miss breakfast for some reason! Great article! "Food for Thought??" LOL Paula
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 17, 2018:
My longest fast has been when I've needed to work through lunch. It's been agony.
RTalloni on September 17, 2018:
So much to think about here...
It's a good reminder that trusting people calling themselves doctors should be done with caution.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on September 17, 2018:
Wow. What a freak show. Guess there are always these sorts of things going on. These days you've got the vegans, and they seem perfectly incapable of saying anything which is actually true about nutrition and human physiology.
Supposedly (me not being any sort of expert) a 3 day fast is the max a body needs to sort of reset itself for better metabolism and such.
They say fire can purify things. Heh.