Karen's Reviews > Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest

Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen
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Jul 15, 2012

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bookshelves: 2012, bechdel_test_yes

Oh good lord, whatever you do, don't sign yourself up for a fasting cure courtesy of Linda Hazzard, the kind-of not-really "doctor" who ran a remote, isolated spa-type sanitarium in Olalla, WA back in the first decades of the century. Hazzard had one prescription for all her patients: stop eating, take daily enemas, and submit to hard-fisted "osteopathic" treatments that consisted of being smacked and pummeled in an effort to expunge the body's "poisons."

Amazingly, plenty of people signed up. Many of them died. The rich ones were often encouraged to sign over their worldly possessions to Hazzard and her ne'er-do-well husband Samuel before joining the choir invisible. If they seemed to resist that idea, there are signs that Linda and Samuel may have saved them the trouble by forging the paperwork. In a few cases, it's possible that patients who didn't die of outright starvation may have been helped along by various means, including a bullet in the head. Either way, folks who live in the region are matter-of-fact about the human remains that you can still dig up in the ravine behind Hazzard's place. And when Hazzard took over the care (and disposition) of two wealthy English sisters, one of whom died and the other of whom was rescued at the last minute by her elderly nurse, the criminal prosecution that followed seemed to point toward any number of other, similar cases from her shadowy past.

Olsen is a true crime writer, so this is his milieu and he does a good job of bringing the events to life despite the intervening years. Occasionally this rings a little melodramatic, as he recreates conversations and internal ponderings in richly-imagined scenes--and overall there's a sense that he's diligently introducing every possible data point he could find. (It's terrific that he knew what the weather was like on a particular day, but it doesn't always really matter and we don't *always* have to know. In his gracious acknowledgements, Olsen thanks the many folks who helped him do his research, and I had the sense that he included some details because others worked hard to find them for him.) The book is extensively, impressively researched--but it might have been a little less so, and shorter, without much harm.

The story itself is fascinating both for the bare facts of the case--which are strange and grotesque enough--as well as for the perspective it gives on the medical profession. At that time, without any formal medical training, Linda Hazzard could still declare herself a doctor and practice her "cure" because the laws against it were just being formed. For all the red tape and bureaucracy of the medical profession today, it's a vast improvement over a period when any snake-oil saleswoman could hang out a shingle and start (legally) fleecing sick, desperate people of their worldly goods.

It's also interesting from a gender standpoint. Then, as now, the health industry was dominated by authoritarian male voices. When Linda Hazzard's cure was challenged, she cried sexism--and to some extent she was right. There was no scientific consensus as to whether her cure had medical benefits, and there were plenty of other charlatans around practicing electrical, phrenological, and other kinds of quackery. To some extent, Hazzard's cries of sexist persecution ring true.

What's hardest to understand about this story is whether Hazzard herself truly believed in her methods or whether she was cynical and cold-blooded in using them to murder the vulnerable for her own advantage. Her vision of a Kellogg-style sanitarium on the West Coast seems genuine--but her bizarre habits of autopsying her dead patients without medical permission, wearing the clothes of the deceased, and appropriating their possessions, seems vulture-ish and pathological. By all accounts, Hazzard was a magnetic, hypnotic, frighteningly confident and charismatic woman. Her husband, Samuel, is a shadowy figure who played an uncertain part in all of this. And in the end, the courts could not find her unreservedly guilty. Over and over--there was more than one accusation, more than one case--Linda Hazzard escaped full condemnation, and disappeared to reinvent herself somewhere else. Whatever else she was, cold-blooded murderer or misguided, sociopathic medical visionary, she was a survivor.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
July 15, 2012 – Shelved
July 15, 2012 – Shelved as: 2012
July 15, 2012 – Shelved as: bechdel_test_yes

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Kavita You know, that was the one thing I really could not make out - whether Linda Hazzard believed in her cure or not. I've finally settled on her as a believer but unscrupulous, like some medically licensed genuine doctors can be today.


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