Book Review

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

  • Author: Gregg Olsen
  • Genre: True Crime
  • Publication Date: January 19, 2023
  • Publisher: Thread

Thank you to NetGalley and Thread for providing me with an ARC of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

All that was left of Doctor Linda Hazzard’s sanitorium was the foundation and the masonry incinerator that swelled from the ground like a huge grave marker. A perfect row of old firs and pines lined up like sentinels along the road. Every one of the trees marked the spot where the doctor had buried each of her victims.

In 1911 two wealthy British heiresses, Claire and Dora Williamson, arrived at an unfinished sanitorium in the forests of Olalla, Washington, to undergo the revolutionary “fasting treatment” of Doctor 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 underwent brutal, evasive procedures and became emaciated shadows of their former selves.

How did Hazzard persuade the sisters to undergo such monstrous treatments? And why, on Claire’s deathbed, did Dora, near to death herself, still hold such an extreme belief in Hazzard’s methods?

In this chilling true story of deception and murder, Gregg Olsen brings us inside the disturbing world of Hazzard, who would stop at nothing to achieve her dream of creating the most renowned sanatorium in the world – but ended up a convicted serial killer.

A gripping and fascinating account of the most unusual and disturbing criminal cases in American history that will hook fans of The Five and The Devil in the White City.

After reading If You Tell by the same author, I couldn’t resist this one, and wanted to see how it would be as an audiobook. Stacey Glemboski was a fantastic narrator, keeping my attention hooked throughout the story, even though it was a bit long. This is a disturbing and horrifying true story that took place just over 100 years ago, and while some of it feels too bizarre to be real, it actually did happen.

As someone with a chronic illness, I know all too well the frustration of feeling as though traditional medicine can’t help or provide relief. People who suffer long enough without a break, those who have been dismissed by medical doctors, or have experienced harmful side effects from medications may feel drawn to holistic practitioners in search of relief. And in 1911, when so much of what we know and have available to us wasn’t around, natural medicine and holistic practitioners were probably so much more common and appealing than doctors and newfangled medications. So it’s easy to see how people may have fallen prey to this “fasting treatment.” In addition, the fact that Linda Burfield Hazzard was able to portray herself as a “doctor” when she wasn’t a medical doctor at all would lend credence to her treatment.

The Williamson sisters arrived in Olalla, Washington in search of treatment for their vague health concerns. Despite seeming to be in good health, they were convinced that there was something wrong with them that no one was able to fully identify and treat successfully. Naturally, Hazzard’s “fasting treatment” seemed to be exactly what they were looking for—a panacea for just about any ailment under the sun. They immediately submitted to her treatment, which involved (obviously) fasting and only consuming minuscule amounts of soups and juices, hours long enemas, and pummeling to release poisons from their bodies. It doesn’t sound too different from juice cleanses and colonics. Except they didn’t quite get the results they were hoping for, when one of the sisters died from starvation, and the other was rescued on the brink of death by a family friend.

This is where the story got really interesting. The family wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Hazzard gave for Claire’s death, and there were plenty of discrepancies that they noticed. One of these was the disappearance of the valuables that the women arrived with, as well as the way Claire bequeathed money to the sanitorium. Once they did some digging, they got a lawyer involved and brought charges against Hazzard. 

There’s a lot of attention paid to the court case, and it was really interesting not only to see the brilliance of the prosecutor in manipulating even the most difficult witnesses, but also how differently the court system worked back then. The outcome of the case was never easy to predict, swinging back and forth, and I was on the edge of my seat to find out what was going to happen. Hazzard’s manipulative tactics were highlighted throughout the case, as was her reach. I especially liked how the court case was broken up by relevant snippets and background, letting us know more about the different people involved. I was particularly intrigued by Hazzard’s backstory, in hopes of learning what caused her to become the way she turned out.

However, we never fully learn what allowed her to maintain an almost hypnotic hold over the people in her orbit. Even after Dora’s friend arrives to rescue her from the brink of death, she was conflicted about leaving Starvation Heights (as it had come to be called), despite stating that she wanted to leave just the day before. Her change of mind came after having a discussion with Hazzard, but we never learn what occurred to spark that change. It felt like everyone around Hazzard was compelled somehow to follow her orders, even when they knew it wasn’t the right or healthy thing to do. I would have loved to learn more about that, and how she managed to maintain such tight control.

Overall, this was a horrifying and yet simultaneously fascinating read that was like a car crash that I couldn’t look away from. Despite being terrified that this was able to actually happen, I was completely drawn to the story and unable to stop reading it. The way it was written was captivating and I flew through the story. It’s another great true crime story written by Olsen, and I’ll be looking forward to reading through his backlist until the next one comes out.

What’s your favorite true crime book?

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