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“Fighting Food to Find Transcendence”



I read this book on the recommendation of the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class in their episode that discussed this case. I highly recommend both the podcast and the book. The case of Linda Burfield Hazzard is a fascinating one. It’s also interesting to see that the lengths many people will go in order to cure their real or imagined maladies hasn’t changed much. What has changed is how we deal with the practitioners of these so-called natural cures.

Sisters Claire and Dorothea Williamson who came to Dr. Hazzard in early 1911 for her fasting cures. The sisters were in overall good health but did not feel healthy and thought Dr. Hazzard’s fasting cure could be the key to their wellbeing. By spring of that same year, Claire would be dead, weighing less than 50 pounds, and her sister Dorothea would be spirited away from Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium by a faithful family nursemaid looking like a living skeleton. Additonally, both sisters’ finances and power of attorney was signed over to the doctor though Dorothea would deny ever having done such a thing. In the ensuing trial for murder, Dr. Hazzard would paint herself as a martyr for homeopathic medicine being persecuted by the mainstream medical community. The case is bizarre and fascinating. Author Gregg Olsen paints a picture of a woman whose pride and stubbornness combined with her husband’s greed created the monster that would be known locally as “Starvation Heights.”

This story was thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. I would only give the caveat that the first third of the book that details the Williamson sisters’ harrowing experience with the fasting cure is extremely disturbing. I’ve been reading true crime since I was a teen and I found it hard to take. This is not a complaint against Mr. Olsen’s writing. Relaying the experience of starvation should be upsetting.

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