Dr. Linda Hazzard was licensed by Washington State as a fasting specialist in 1902. She claimed to believe that food was the root of all illness — and that the cure, naturally, was fasting. During her time as a fasting specialist, 12 people died under her care.
For a significant portion of my life, I struggled with an eating disorder. I’m recovered today, but it still manifests in odd forms. I am occasionally leery of eating grapes (2–3 calories each! as one health website warned me); looking at nutrition labels sometimes upsets me, confusing whoever I’m with.
That’s why this story stuck with me. I recognize how easy it is to convince yourself that food is bad. I know how misty your thoughts get when you haven’t eaten in days. And it’s oddly comforting that I’m not the only person who’s been duped by the health industry and food purity culture in history. I’m far from it, in fact.
Dr. Hazzard used a combination of panacea psychology mixed with hypnotism to convince her victims to starve themselves to death — but not before deeding over their assets to her.
Her health scam used panacea psychology
Dr. Hazzard marketed fasting as a cure for all ailments. You didn’t have to be very sick to benefit from fasting, she claimed — anything from swollen glands to a dropped uterus could be cured by a simple lack of food.
Though the cure might be unfamiliar to us, the marketing is not. I was shocked as I read her words and claims because they were so similar to what many gluten-free, 100% vegan, fruit-only detox diets all promise people today, despite her living one century ago.
Humans are always on the hunt for perfection, and we love to believe that the small aches, pains, and inconveniences of daily life might be solvable by an “expert,” especially if we have to suffer in order to get the promised rewards.
I spent several months on a gluten-free diet, despite not being a coeliac, because I really thought purging my system of gluten would give me shinier hair, better skin, and more energy. (Spoiler alert: it did not, because there’s no scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet does anything for non-coeliacs.) The same goes for the keto diet, where the only benefits have been proven for mice, not humans.
It’s true of people 100 years ago and it’s true today: we really want to believe that cutting out “toxins” will help us be healthier. In Dr. Hazzard’s case, she claimed toxins were food. And people believed her, even though her treatment was brutal.
Once she convinced people that too much food was causing whatever issue they imagined they had, she put them on her “most beautiful treatment.” This consisted of daily enemas, scalding baths, and eating nothing but thin vegetable broths.
She stole money from inheritances
We’ll never know if Dr. Hazzard actually believed her own claims. I suspect not, because part of her scheme was that when her victims were weak from hunger, they were induced to give their clothes, money, jewels, property, and other assets to her. Horrified relatives and friends were shocked to find that the residents had offered Hazzard’s husband, Samuel Hazzard, power of attorney.
The final nail in the scam was that Hazzard often refused to release her victim-patients, claiming their treatment wasn’t yet complete. For example, sisters Claire and Dorothea Williamson transferred to Hazzard’s “sanitarium” where they received the treatment until they completely lost all sense. When the sisters sent a cable to their old nurse, the letter was so confused and disoriented that their nurse, Margaret Conway, took a boat all the way from Australia to check on them, worried about their health. There, she received the news that Claire had died, allegedly due to cirrhosis from drugs she had taken as a child.
Dora was still alive, but only weighed 50 pounds and had listed Hazzard as her guardian. She refused to leave the sanitarium, even though she was so thin she couldn’t sit down without experiencing pain. Hazzard reported this to Margaret while wearing one of Claire’s robes, and refused to release her.
It was only when John Herbert, an uncle of the Williamsons, paid Hazzard $1000 that Dora was released.
Hazzard was found guilty of manslaughter
Even though by 1911 Hazzard had been connected to at least 12 deaths, she did not stand trial until the British vice-consul heard about Claire’s death and got involved. When the authorities were finally convinced, Hazzard was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.
During the trial, Hazzard claimed that she was being wrongfully persecuted for being a successful businesswoman and doctor, that this was just an escalation between the gatekeepers of traditional medicine and more intuitive medication that she peddled.
She was convicted of manslaughter, eventually pardoned, and in 1920, built another sanitarium that lasted until 1935, when it burned down. Her own death came in her 70s, when she tried to fast herself healthy and died.
History repeats itself
Hazzard, whether intentionally or not, killed at least 12 people. Her story is recorded and stands as a testament to how much we want to believe in a simple cure for all their issues, and what we’re willing to suffer in order to get it.
We don’t know today what happened to Dora. She testified in the case against Hazzard, recounting how Claire had been led to believe she was insane and was barred from hearing Claire’s last words. I like to think she recovered and led a full and happy life.
It’s hard to explain to people who have never suffered how you can fall into this addiction. To many, it seems unbelievable that after months of starving, patients still believed the cure to their unhappiness was not eating, that Dora still refused to leave even after her sister died.
To me, it makes too much sense. These patients were promised a solution to all their problems and told only that they had to suffer a bit to get it. Some of Hazzard’s words are evocative of dieting culture today: “Appetite is Craving; Hunger is Desire. Craving is never satisfied, but Desire is relieved when Want is supplied,” she wrote in her self-published 1908 book Fasting for the Cure of Disease. I see a lot of that same messaging in diet culture, telling us that if only we’re willing to give up our money and whatever “toxin” is today’s fad, we’ll finally be pure.