In the 19th and 20th centuries, medical treatments available to sick or not-so-sick people were unbelievable. It was not uncommon to take a sip of a cough syrup made with alcohol and heroin in it or give some to your baby to help it sleep through the night.
Many greedy people would claim to be physicians and would travel to different towns or cities to sell their products. They claimed that their “medicine” would cure everything from baldness to cancer.
Once the Clean Food and Drugs Act was passed, these quack potion peddlers became a thing of the past. However, people still were interested in other cures for their illnesses and turned to alternative medicine.
Although it has the word medicine in the name, alternative medicine is nonsense. The practitioners are often quacks and those out to make a lot of money off the desperation of others. One alternative medicine practitioner in the early 1900s in Seattle and Olalla, Washington, took advantage of her patients in the worst way.
This woman is believed to have killed at least 15 people through her treatments, and potentially many more, in a sick attempt at trying to make them better. Her name was Dr. Linda Hazzard, and she was known as the “Starvation Doctor”.
Dr. Linda Hazzard
Linda Laura Hazzard was born in Carver, Minnesota, on December 18, 1867. Although she called herself a doctor, she did not have a medical degree. Due to a loophole in the law that grandfathered in some practitioners of alternative medicine without a degree in the state of Washington, she was given a license to practice medicine, which proved a deadly mistake.
Hazzard was a firm believer and practitioner in therapeutic fasting. In a book she wrote, Hazzard claimed to have studied fasting therapy from Dr. Edward H Dewey, a pioneer in this area.
Dewey’s ideas included the “No Breakfast Plan,” which involved skipping breakfast and only eating two meals a day. Dr. Dewey believed all diseases and medical issues were caused by excessive eating. He even believed long periods of fasting could cure mental illnesses like insanity.
While Dr. Dewey’s idea was trendy in the 20th century, medical experts considered it nonsense. It was by reading Dr. Dewey’s books that Hazzard developed her medical theories.
Fasting is not a new practice and is often a practice of many world religions, and the father of medicine, Hippocrates, was a believer in fasting. Today, we hear about intermittent fasting or diets like OMAD (“one meal a day”) helping people lose weight.
Intermittent fasting means fasting for a period of time each day or during the week, but crucially you still consume food. There are many different methods of fasting, and each comes with the adverse side effects of early starvation, including fatigue, concentration difficulties, headaches, and preoccupation with thoughts of food or eating.
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Fasting, if not done correctly, can easily transition into disordered eating like anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Ultimately, if left unaddressed these will kill the sufferer.
The Starvation Doctor
Hazzard became known as the “Starvation Doctor” due to her ” treatment methods.” She strongly believed that fasting for long periods could cure any illness or disability and would advertise her treatment in the newspapers at the time. People would come to Hazzard for treatment, but sometimes that treatment turned fatal.
One of the earliest confirmed patients of Hazzard was Gertrude Young, a woman seeking a cure for the partial paralysis of her left arm and one leg due to a stroke. Hazzard offered to treat her with an alternative treatment that she claimed would bring back her mobility: a 40-day fast.
Desperate to cure the paralysis, Young began treatment with the Starvation Doctor. Gertrude had a friend stay with her at her apartment during the treatment, and nurses or Hazzard would come to provide instructions on what to do. Gertrude was instructed to abstain from consuming food but was permitted to drink small amounts of liquids, such as half a cup of tomato broth or strained orange juice, when Hazzard allowed it.
A month into her 40-day fast, Gertrude was discovered shaking, sweating, and vomiting a dark and thick substance. Hazzard said to open the windows despite the freezing temperatures outside to keep the air fresh; this only made Gertrude vomit more.
Her friend called a physician who formerly treated Gertrude for pain management due to her paralysis to see Gertrude. He told her to stop fasting, and it wouldn’t cure her mobility issues. He told Gertrude’s friend to slowly introduce foods like bone broth and soft foods until her stomach could handle more quantities and types of food.
Gertrude refused to stop because Hazzard had convinced her that this starvation would cure her, and that was all Gertrude wanted. She died on the 39th day of her 40-day fast.
Hazzard was not charged with the murder she committed because, technically, Gertrude could have broken her fast and received proper medical care on her own, but she chose not to. This brush with the law did nothing to stop Hazzard from treating many patients with the same method.
The Effect of Starvation
Starvation is defined as a severe deficiency of caloric intake that falls below the level required to sustain the life of an organism or individual. Humans can die from starvation after going two months without food on average, and it causes permanent damage to the body’s organs.
Starvation wreaks havoc on the human body, starting with the brain, which results in the following mental and behavioral changes: irritable mood, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and obsessive thoughts about food and eating. The physical effects of starvation put a person at risk for death.
These effects include weakness, fast or irregular heartbeats, shallow breathing, thirst, and either constipation or diarrhea. The eyes will sink into the skull, muscles lose definition and decrease in size, and the skin can turn pale or slightly yellow. A person has zero stamina, and tasks like walking a short distance are exhausting.
Starvation weakens the immune system because your body will direct all nutrients to your organs to keep them functioning. Wounds are slow to heal, and there is a higher chance of catching an illness that will take longer to recover.
Other symptoms of starvation are depression/anxiety, insomnia, anemia, low blood pressure, stomach diseases, and heart and breathing diseases. Other serious internal problems can also develop like heart failure, kidney failure or disease, feeling cold all the time, dry skin, brittle nails and bones, and thinning hair.
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For women, starvation can cause irregular or completely stop the menstrual cycle and result in fertility issues. Starvation is a painful and terrible way to die.
The Williamson Sisters
Hazzard began building a sanitorium in Olalla, Washington, to treat patients away from prying eyes and continue her practice of having the dying patient sign over their possessions or property to Hazzard. The will changes and stealing of personal items by Hazzard added another ominous facet to her quackery: theft. It seems Hazzard may have even expected her patients to not survive, as she had positioned herself to gain financially if they did not.
Hazzard thought she hit the jackpot when Claire and Dorothea Williamson became her patients. The Williamson sisters were heiresses, rich, and had property in places like the US, Canada, and Australia.
The girls were orphaned early in their lives and developed a mild case of hypochondria, often paying large amounts of money for medical care. Because the sanatorium in Olalla was not finished when the sisters arrived for “care,” the girls were treated in Seattle, Washington, in an apartment complex.
The women were starved, pummeled, and subjected to hours-long enemas given by Hazzard. They became too weak to walk, and other residents of the apartment would hear the girls crying or screaming in pain. All that attention was the last thing Hazzard wanted, and she moved the girls via gurneys to the unfinished facility in Olalla.
Residents of the apartment complex mentioned how frail and sickly the girls had become, but they did nothing to stop Hazzard. In Olalla, the locals called the sanatorium “Starvation Heights” due to the starving and skeletal patients that would be seen wandering and begging for food or help.
Meanwhile, the girls were becoming delirious from malnutrition which was the moment Hazzard was looking for. She wrote new wills for the sisters and appointed herself as their legal guardian and beneficiary of their estate, valued at over $500,000, and signed over the deeds to their land holdings. If that wasn’t enough, Hazzard stole the girls’ jewelry and valuables, wore their clothes, and prevented the sisters from seeing each other.
Somehow Dorothea was able to send a telegram to a former governess that they had in England, asking her to come immediately. Unfortunately, by the time the nanny arrived, Claire had died. When Claire died, her weight was less than 50 pounds (22.5 kg), the nanny was horrified at what her former charge looked like, and Dorothea was almost as bad.
Dorothea weighed less than 60 pounds (27 kg) and was too weak to move or do much of anything. While she couldn’t save Claire, the governess was able to have Dorothea removed from Hazzard’s care, and once the frail and dying woman was in Seattle, she reported what happened to the police.
Hazzard was sentenced to two to twenty years in prison and was remanded to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. But she was released on parole after serving two years and managed to gain a full pardon from the governor of Washington, but was forced to leave the US.
Hazzard moved next to New Zealand, where she once again began practicing medicine as a dietitian and an alternative medical practitioner. Because Hazzard held a practicing certificate only for the state of Washington, she was charged in Auckland, New Zealand, for “practicing medicine while not registered to do so” and had to pay a fine of around $460.
She moved back to Olalla and once again opened a sanatorium (it had to be called a school of health due to her revoked medical license in Washington) and saw patients for starvation therapy. Ironically, Hazzard died on June 24, 1938, from starvation. Her attempt to use her own medical treatments to cure herself of an illness resulted in Hazzard experiencing the same torturous death as her patients.
Top Image: “Dr.” Linda Hazzard starved her patients to death and then claimed their possessions. Source: Mushika / Adobe Stock.
By Lauren Dillon