Followers of health trends have heard about the concept of fasting. People skip meals or go hungry for a few days as a way to reset their bodies, run more efficiently and appreciate food more. There was a time a century ago, however, when the idea went awry so much that it killed. Some called it treatment. Some called it murder. Others consider it one of the rare examples of female serial killers.
Such is the odd case of Linda Hazzard’s “Wilderness Heights” hospital. While the hospital, which locals called “Starvation Heights,” was located in Ollala, just miles from Tacoma, the case first came to light with an international incident that started in Tacoma. It would also end thanks to a notable Tacoman.
Flashback to the dawning years of the 20th century. Medical treatments weren’t regulated and quack doctors who sold snake oil ruled the day. Hazzard tapped into that vein with her book “Fasting for the Cure of Disease,” which promoted the idea that starving patients would allow their digestive system to rest so their bodies became cleansed of “impure blood.” It was a fairly popular concept back then. Several doctors championed it around the nation. But Hazzard didn’t have a medical degree and spun the concept further by adding daily enemas and “flushings” that required patients drink up to 12 quarts of water a day instead of eating. Oh yeah, and she also punched and beat her patients to spark a full “cleansing.”
Hazzard began her starvation medical “practice” in Minneapolis but fled there for Washington in 1902, after authorities began investigating her treatments when a patient died of starvation and all of her valuables went missing. Hazzard set up a treatment center in Seattle in 1906. The first patient there died in 1908. That patient was Daisey Maud Haglund. She died at the age of 38, after undergoing Hazzard’s starvation regime for 50 days. Haglund left behind a three-year-old son, Ivar. As a turn of fate, Ivar would go on to found Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants. His clam chowder would feed millions after his own mother had literally starved to death. She would not be the last.
The pattern was fairly straight forward after Hazzard set up a “hospital” in the woods of Ollala to avoid the watchful eyes of big-city investigators in Seattle. Patients paid up front for treatments at her private hospital. Treatments ran between four and six weeks. Richer patients would often sign over their worldly possessions along the way. Those who survived were deemed cured of whatever ailment they had. Those who died were listed as succumbing to their underlining diseases. Hazzard conducted many of the autopsies and filled out the death certificates herself, after all.
Relatives of “living skeletons” complained to authorities, but learned little could be done since the patients willingly participated in the controversial treatments, and Hazzard was licensed to provide medical care within the state.
Rumors about deaths at her Institute of Natural Therapeutics found their way into newspapers here and there over the years, but everything came to a head in 1911, when two British-born sisters, Dorothea and Claire Williamson, sought Hazzard’s cure. Their family learned of Hazzard’s treatment plans and set out to rescue them. The sisters’ servant arrived to learn that 34-year-old Claire had recently died. She weighed 50 pounds. Dorothea, 37, was alive but deemed insane, leaving Hazzard with a power of attorney over her wealth and affairs. Dorothea weighed just 60 pounds. She first pled to be rescued from Hazzard’s watchful care but later changed her mind. The British consulate in Tacoma got into the case and triggered an international investigation.
Hazzard was arrested. Newspapers dedicated thousands of words over tales of the starvation, beatings and theft from patients during the 17-day trial. Hazzard played to the press by championing her treatment plan and blasting the charges against her as a conspiracy of the male-dominated medical establishment to shut her up. She became a feminist icon of her day. Forged diary entries that had been reportedly written by dead patients that gave Hazzard glowing reviews and lavish gifts didn’t help her defense. A jury found her guilty of second-degree murder.
But she wasn’t done treating patients. People still sought her care – even when they learned of her conviction. Two more patients would die under her care between her conviction and sentencing.
Hazzard spent two years of a 20-year sentence of labor at the state prison in Walla Walla before being released. She was pardoned by Gov. Ernest Lister in 1915. Lister had grown up in Tacoma. His father, J.H. Lister, had operated the first foundry in the city alongside his uncle, David, who was the mayor of New Tacoma in 1881, before New Tacoma and Tacoma City merged. Lister Elementary School is named after the family, specifically in honor of longtime school board member and business manager Alfred Lister, Ernest’s brother.
Hazzard’s pardon came with the condition that she leave the country. She did, for a while anyway.
She moved to New Zealand and set up a “treatment sanatorium” there before returning to her Olalla compound in 1920 to continue her operation. She would treat, and kill, patients for another 15 years. The “school of health” burned down in 1935. She died three years later – she starved herself to death while following her own treatment regime.
Records link Hazzard to 15 deaths, although the lack of record keeping leads many to believe the trail of murder could reach into the hundreds since many patients, and their medical files, simply disappeared.
Nothing but the foundation of the former sanatorium exists today and the site is located on private property. But that doesn’t stop stories of Starvation Heights from appearing in collections of ghost stories and retellings of the state’s most odd events and personalities. Gregg Olsen’s “Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest,” is one of the most popular books on the topic.