If you’re looking for the perfect winter read that will truly thrill and haunt you in equal measure, I cannot recommend Gregg Olsen’s Starvation Heights: The Chilling True Story of the Doctor who Starved her Patients to Death (Thread Books 1997 [reissued 2023]) more. By turns captivating and heartbreaking, Starvation Heights kept me guessing until the very end.
Olsen’s book recounts the story of “Dr.” Linda Burfield Hazzard, but it begins with the stories of two wealthy women, Claire and Dora Williamson. The two sisters, who were extremely and inseparably close, were somewhat obsessed with their health and wellbeing. Their money allowed them to pursue various medical treatments and natural ‘cures’ for the various ailments they believed they had. So, in 1911, when the two women encountered Linda Hazzard and her so-called ‘fasting-cure,’ wherein extreme dieting could lead to healthier bodies and minds by clearing out and limiting the toxins in the body, Claire and Dora became deeply intrigued.
Treating their time under Hazzard’s care as a holiday, the two sisters travelled to her sanatorium deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. However, within a month of arriving, the two women were found to be emaciated and in extreme crisis. Both were near death from starvation and were deeply unwell. As Olsen goes on to account, Claire and Dora were not the first to fall victim to Hazzard, and in the aftermath of their time at the sanatorium—known to the locals as Starvation Heights—and in the trial that follows, the extent of Hazzard’s malice, greed, and callousness is revealed to the public and to the reader. As jewelry and other valuables start to disappear from the Williamson’s belongings, and papers and bank drafts they don’t remember signing start to move their wealth to the Hazzards’ hands, Dora Williamson resolves to do all she can to escape the torture, isolation, and awaiting death at Starvation Heights.
The first time I heard about this case was on My Favourite Murder, years ago. At the time, I found it to be one of the most chilling and shocking true crime cases I had ever heard. The systematic starvation, torture, and abuse of people at the hands of a woman in a position of authority and trust is almost too shocking to contemplate. The story of what Dora and Claire endured at the hands of Hazzard is truly not for the faint of heart. However, Olsen, who has also had a sharp spike in popularity due to interest in his recent true crime book If You Tell (Thomas & Mercer 2019), is an expert true crime writer who is able to strike a balance between informative storytelling and suspenseful narrative. In the first part of this book especially, I was hooked and on the edge of my seat. I could hardly stop myself from flipping to the end to see how this narrative ended.
In many ways, this book is straightforward true crime, presenting the facts of the case, the backgrounds of those involved, and the ordeals contained in the aftermath of such trauma. Starvation Heights is well-researched, thorough, and clearly required a great deal of work in the archives—in newspaper archives especially—to piece this story together. Alongside all of his evidence, he finds a way to accurately pace the story and weave crucial details together seamlessly. For those who have never heard of this case, or people like myself who have been fascinated by it, Olsen’s book will offer fresh insights.
Fans of historical true crime will really appreciate Starvation Heights and Olsen’s narrative work here. I highly recommend this book for both Olsen’s writing and the truly shocking elements of this case from over a century ago!
Please add Starvation Heights to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.