Olalla, Washington There are methods of murder and ways of disposal. There are motives as old as time. There are also the scars of misery left by the hands of evil. Even the most jaded of investigators finds the occasional case that gives him pause, and when there is not much left of the victims to bear witness, sometimes the shells of humanity left behind give the most compelling testimony.
Most serial killers ply their trade with a knife or gun or club. Some use poison, others more brutal methods. What sets Starvation Heights apart from other crime scenes are the methods used by the perpetrator and the level of slow suffering endured by her victims. Death did not come easy or quickly for more than forty people as they were lulled by their doctor’s radical new treatment for any disease: starvation.
During the late 19th Century the United States of America awakened to dozens of health crazes. Everything from steam baths to electroshock was used by scientists and charlatans alike in the name of promoting perfect physical health. It was during this time that names such as Kellogg and Graham became synonymous with good health through proper diet. Resorts to rest and rejuvenate, called Sanitariums, became all the rage throughout the nation. The upper crust of society flocked to any place that could promise a radical new treatment, one that would prolong their lives and make them happier.
Linda Burfield Hazzard was one such doctor, made even more radical and cutting edge because she was a female doctor. Well-to-do patients lined up to partake in her radical theories of how to cure any illness. Documented in her 1911 book Fasting for the Cure of Disease, Hazzard claimed that any and all illnesses could be conquered by means of starving them out of one’s body. She set up the Wilderness Heights Sanitarium and began accepting clients.
Shortly thereafter, things began to take a turn toward the macabre. Many patients went to the Sanitarium, never to be seen again. Though she claimed they’d been cured and gone on to lead richer lives, the families were not so convinced. When the first patient died, Hazzard appeared with a copy of the man’s last will and testament in her hand, claiming that he’d signed over his entire fortune to her on his death bed. More patients died and more wills produced, but even so, the fame of the Wilderness Heights Sanitarium spread.
In 1912 a pair of British sisters, Dora and Claire Williamson, who were heirs to a great fortune, came to the Sanitarium for some of Hazzard’s "treatment." It took no time at all for Dora to see what was really going on, but Claire was held fast in Hazzard’s spell. Dora repeatedly attempted to make her sister leave, but Claire stayed devoted to Hazzard’s methods. Despite Dora’s pleading and her own physical deterioration, Claire chose to stay. She weighed less than fifty pounds when she died, emaciated and less than half the weight she’d been when she and her sister entered the place that was to be called ?Starvation Heights.?
True to form, Hazzard produced Claire’s will, dated the day before she died, leaving Hazzard everything. She also produced a diary, the last entry of which was the day before Claire’s death, in which Claire told of the will change and of how she wanted Hazzard to have the fortune. Both were later proven to be forgeries. After the autopsy was performed, Claire’s rings and jewelry was taken off her fingers and placed in Hazzard’s own jewelry box. Her gowns found their way into the doctor’s wardrobe, and even the gold from fillings in Clair’s teeth were pulled and sold to a local dentist.
Within days Hazzard met with city officials to try to declare Dora mentally unstable and have her committed to the Sanitarium for the rest of her days, thus allowing the doctor control over the entire Williamson fortune. Fear and outrage led Dora to British Vice Consul C.E. Lucien Agassiz, who sparked an investigation. The results were astonishing.
During her career as a "doctor," it seems Hazzard lost more than forty patients, producing wills for each of them and inheriting all of their money. When patients died, it was she who typically filled out their death certificates, claiming some malady or another as the cause of death; but on those occasions when a different doctor performed the postmortem examinations, the conclusions were all frighteningly the same: Her patients had simply starved to death.
Patients that died were disposed of in several ways. Most were buried on the front lawn of the Sanitarium with a tree planted atop their graves. Some were burned in the incinerator. Later, a few were dumped off a nearby cliff.
In February of 1912 Hazzard was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labor in prison in Walla Walla. She was released in 1920, only to resume practice in a newly constructed Sanitarium.
The trees stand like monoliths, eerie grave markers of those who lay below. Because of the number of people who died there and the extent of their suffering, determining the number or identities of the restless souls is nearly impossible. However, their voices can still be heard.
Those who walk the grounds say they’ve felt colds spots — even on a summer day. When the wind catches the trees, most swear they can hear the voices of those whose bodies are in the roots, crying out for help.
More than anything, many people report feeling fatigued on the site, as if they haven’t eaten all day. Crossing onto the land, people report a strangely oppressive feeling originating in their bellies, pulling them downward.
The only things that remain today of the Starvation Heights Sanitarium are the foundation and the incinerator, in which a few of Hazzard?s victims were cremated. However, the trees still stand like headstones in the yard. In 1997 the story of Starvation Heights was documented by true-crime author Gregg Olsen in his book by the same name.
There seems to be no best time for walking among the restless souls here. It doesn’t matter when a person goes to the site of the grisly doctor’s practice; there is a constant residue of suffering left behind. However, as the area is densely forested, nighttime visits are not advised.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson