Starvation Heights Shows That Quackery Is Nothing New

Hello, everyone! As if there wasn’t enough death and disease in this world, I spent the last few weeks with my nose buried in Gregg Olsen’s Starvation Heights, a true crime book about Linda Burfield Hazzard’s starvation clinic in the early 1900s. As we are forced to fend off an American president who touts unproven drugs as mystery cures and nonchalantly suggests injecting disinfectant to kill the coronavirus, Olsen’s story reminds us that in humanity’s never-ending search for wellness, medical quackery is nothing new.

Synopsis: British socialites Claire and Dora Williamson had always been interested in medical fads. As wealthy heiresses with too much time and too much money, they were used to trying out the newest trends and moving on to the next. But when the Williamson sisters travel to Olalla, Washington to try out Linda Burfield Hazzard’s “fasting for the cure of disease,” they don’t realize that their lives hang in the balance. When one of the sisters dies, and the other barely escapes with her life, Hazzard’s sanitarium comes under the spotlight. Is Hazzard a murderer, or an unparalleled healer being persecuted by the medical establishment? The sensational court case would open America’s eyes to the weakness of a country more obsessed with the notion of wellness than the science behind it.

My take: Starvation Heights examines a fascinating part of American history, but as is often the case with non-fiction, the story itself is more interesting than the book attempting to tell it. I’d first heard about Linda Burfield Hazzard’s sanitarium in my favorite podcast My Favorite Murder and was intrigued to know more, especially after they recommended this specific book. Imagine my surprise to find that Karen’s retelling of the case on the podcast was actually more interesting than the book she had used for research.

The main reason for this has to do with subject matter. Karen has only about 40 minutes to tell her story, so she takes all of the meatiest parts of the story, such as the details of the crime, and focuses on those. Olsen, on the other hand, decided to write a 448 page book and only spend 1/3 of that book on the crimes themselves, while filling the other 300 pages with tedious details about newspaper coverage of the murder case and witness testimony.

From a researcher’s perspective, I understand why he did this. He wanted the book to contain as much primary source material as possible. The problem, however, is that the primary source material makes for dry reading.

Most people reading this book are there because they want to be titillated. They want to learn about the motivations behind a woman who fasted her patients to the point of starvation and never accepted responsibility for their deaths. Personally, I read the book because I wanted a deep-dive into Hazzard’s upbringing and her relationship with her patients and her husband, who is a character all to himself. Olsen includes dozens of anecdotes from Olalla residents who lived near Starvation Heights at the time of the sanitarium, but none of these anecdotes are from people who personally knew Hazzard. Surely he could have attempted to track down her relatives, such as her grandchildren, who are definitely still living. Even though the book is full of primary sources, it still feels like it barely scratches the surface of Hazzard’s character and motivation.

Then there’s Olsen’s writing style. Some of his phrases are beautiful, but he’s a fan of purple prose. His structure is unwieldy and jarring, as he often switches between the past and the present with only italicized text to indicate the time jump. At least in this book, I never felt like I was reading a story so much as a crime report intermixed with irrelevant first-person anecdotes and pages and pages of court transcripts. As a piece is an academic history journal this might have worked, but as a piece of popular non-fiction, it’s incoherent and boring.

After reading this almost 500 page tome, I still want to know more about Hazzard. It’s easy to see how her unwavering belief in alternative medicine and cult-like following foreshadowed several modern wellness movements. And her crimes, and the government’s reluctance to prosecute them, shows how American individualism can be twisted by those greedy enough to exploit its weakness. Starvation Heights takes a stab at tackling these ideas, but like Hazzard’s patients, I’m still hungry to read more.

Dr Linda Laura Burfield Hazzard (1867-1938) - Find A Grave Memorial
Linda Burfield Hazzard

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