Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

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

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

4.0 95
by Gregg Olsen

See All Formats & Editions

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


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 Hazzard’s 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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

“An engrossing and compelling look at a shocking crime in another era. Olsen’s deft touch takes us back to the early 1900s so cleverly that reading Starvation Heights is akin to stepping into a time machine.” —Ann Rule

“An account of real-life villainry that outdoes anything a novelist might concoct.” —Les Standiford, author of Meet You in Hell

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.23(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 naivete 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.

Meet the Author

Gregg Olsen has been a journalist and investigative author for more than twenty years. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Abandoned Prayers, and, most recently, The Deep Dark. He lives in Olalla, Washington.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 95 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is utterly fascinating. And while I think this phrase is often overused, I simply could not put this book down. When I was away from it, I was constantly thinking about when I would have time to read it again, and at the same time, not wanting it to end. The journalistic detail in this book is second to none. The reader is completely transported back in time--and into the heart of a dark story. It is hard to believe this story is true, but it makes reading it all the more exciting and fascinating. While some purists shy away from 'true crime', I enjoy it--but I am extremely selective in what I read. The writing must be as good as the story. 'Starvation Heights' does not dissapoint in this area. This is investigative reporting and writing at it's best. Fans of true crime will be thrilled to read such a well written account, and those who don't typically read true crime will find this story reads like a novel. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I guarantee that for whatever reason you decide to read it, you will NOT be disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am an avid reader, and I enjoyed this book more than any other I can recall in recent history. Mr. Olsen does a fantastic job of walking us through this compelling, albeit at times difficult, story. This case proves that truth really IS stranger than fiction. It is obvious that the author put a lot of work into this and I do not think anyone who picks up a copy of Starvation Heights will be disappointed.
Gibletmom More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book very much even with the horrid subject matter. Well written and something I had not known about. Well researched.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great read, I have read several of his books now and I think he is a truly gifted author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down, it really held my attention. To think it was a true story is amazing. The only thing that would have made it better would be for it to have pictures. I kept thinking they would be at the end. It really should have had some. The author even noted he had got a copy of the doctor's business card; I would like to have seen it. Otherwise, extremely good book. At the end I thought, "Wow".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put this book down. Hard to imagine such inhumanity to man but also hard to fathom people actually acceping this "cure". This so called doctor could and should have been stopped sooner. Horrible way to die.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beutifully researched and completly enthralling. When you begin this book be prepaired to never want to put it down. What captures your intress the most is how bewitching. Dr.Hazzard was,you can sense her still just buy reading this book. She totally beleived she was helping people, but I believe if the people would have looked more at Mr. Hazzard they would have been able to tell she was helping herself to their money. The sad thing is this kind of con is still going on today...Makes you really wonder if money is worth its dollars and sence?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gregg Olsen does a fantastic job of digging into facts and transforming them into an easy page-turning story. It is remarkable how far people will go to have their health. Although this story was set in 1911, I am sure there are people worldwide that would--today--put thier lives into the hands of the 'fasting specialist,' Dr. Hazzard. Read this story of greed and serial killing... no one else may call the 'doctor' a serial killer, but she fits the profile. Dora and Claire Williamson lived a horrifying story, and Mr. Olsen tells it well; buy this book!
BrenHI More than 1 year ago
It took me a bit to read the book, once i got into it i couldnt put it down.. Cant wait to read more of Gregg Olsons work...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read a lot of true crime, but I am picky, I want the writing to be as good as the story. This book will please true crime lovers as well as those who may not normally enjoy it. It is fascinating, reads like a novel, and is all the more interesting because it is true. The writing is superb, the reader is transported back to the early 1900's completely. You will NOT be disappointed with this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and I want to read more works written by Gregg Olsen. The way he writes makes me feel like I am living back in the 1900's. Only the very talented authors can make that happen for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure I would like this when I realized the highlighted crimes were committed in 1910! But it is so worth sticking with it. Alternative medical practitioners still are struggling today with acceptance and that gives this story an added level of interest. I am a huge fan of Gregg Olsen and this book did not disappoint.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Appalling how this monster could call herself a doctor! Engrossing but heartbreaking. Well worth it
bluelu More than 1 year ago
What a fascinating story & the writer captivated me though i was horrified by the evil, pain & sadistic treatment which was constantly inflicted upon these naive, trusting but gullible women & others too at the Starvation Heights...i am still (don't ask why) constantly amazed at what ghastly atroucaties that the higher authorities can without compuction easily turn head & just look the other way. allowing persons under the guise of a medical license torturing, starving & basically keeping them prinsoner in Olalla, as they were all so weak most could hardly drag themselves out of their cot. the book is up there w/my best books read!! i could not put it down as Gregg Olsen had me so wrapped up in the story, i was there & i was angry ... when i read a great book as this, i have my pen in hand & was writing my thoughts angry & mad at Dr Hazzard -- such a perfect vision of the devil incarnate, of EVIL... & i underlined parts that i found to be so ungodly & upsetting that i could not believe my own eyes... get this book... but if you are afraid of the dark, or live way out all alone... maybe you may think twice.. but then again... give it a try. i am certain you'll be glad you did. exciting & riviting every minute--
Books4lifeMK More than 1 year ago
I was surprised at the horrible things that could be done to people under the guise of medicine and it was not that long ago.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My parents own property on the Orchard Ave. in Washington state mentioned in this true story. I was living on property the infamous doctor likely owned after deceiving then killing her own neighbors in the early 1900's. While living in a house just down the street, I read the history of that area and it was incredible. I could visualize many of the descriptions and when traveling through the area saw old graveyards where victims of this horrific time likely rested. This is one of the best books for anyone interested in true crime.
Anonymous 3 days ago
Great true story even better when you live in the area where it happened.
WorldReader1111 5 months ago
I liked this book, mostly. In my opinion, 'Starvation Heights' is readable, but somewhat flawed. Namely, large sections of the book have been heavily dramatized by the author, as well as injected with his own opinions, conclusions, and, at times, biases. As a result, the facts are sometimes obscured by this "coloring" on the author's part, such that the text is devalued as an objective, trustworthy document (though, it does gain entertainment value from this treatment, which, presumably, was the author's motivation). For some readers, this is not a problem; however, if you desire a purely neutral, "unadulterated" presentation of the facts, then 'Starvation Heights' is not that kind of book. The consequences of this type of less-than-objective writing style are best exemplified by an assumption that permeates the text: that Dr. Hazzard's crimes automatically debunked therapeutic fasting as an effective treatment for some ailments. Specifically, it is never considered that, perhaps, she was a murderer who simply employed a legitimate practice to compromise her victims (a scenario which is actually suggested by some evidence appearing at the very end of the book, when it is revealed that several of her victims possessed lethal amounts of alum in their stomachs, as to be the ultimate cause of death, rather than fasting and the like). Such reasoning is like condemning all doctors who give painkillers to their patients, because some doctor, somewhere, used those drugs to intentionally overdose a patient and take their money -- a fallacy, as it were. With this in mind, the question must be asked: what if the blame lay solely on Dr. Hazzard and her murderous intentions, with medical fasting judged guilty by association? However, literary and logical shortcomings aside, the book remains substantial and informative, retaining enough factual integrity to reconstruct the basic thrust of the Hazzard case. If nothing else, we are offered a powerful historical lesson: that, in the past as much as the present, judicial trials have become charades of public opinion, appearances, and self-advancement of various kinds, rather than any sort of pursuit of truth and justice. Additionally, the story provides much in the way of psychological study, and that of mankind in general. Personally, I liked the descriptions of turn-of-the-century Washington and its culture. All in all, there's much to be learned from 'Starvation Heights,' if the reader can ignore the factually loose writing style. For me, I came away from the book feeling generally satisfied. My thanks goes out to this book's author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work and service.
Anonymous 7 months ago
The book was intersting and well written, but reviews of the book (paper book) mentioned the great photos. There was not a single photo in this entire 450 page nook book. This should have been made clear before I spent my money. You are getting a partial book. I am fascinated by non fiction history books and the photos are a big part of that. This will greatly affect my nook book choices in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A bit longer than it should have been. It kept my interest but got a little boring towards the end.
BrandyGirl More than 1 year ago
Never heard of this story before so thought I would check it out since I like true crime and I like this author. It reminds of a scam that took place way back in time. This book is in three parts. The second part gets a little bogged down with legal maneuverings but picks up in the third part.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago