Starvation Heights, by Gregg Olsen

In one of the most gripping tales of historical true crime I’ve ever read, “Starvation Heights” had me from page one, and it completely caught me by surprise. It’s the story of a power-hungry doctor from the 1910’s who espoused a “healing” method that was popular at various times in history called fasting.

But the lengths that Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard went to to “heal” her patients were nothing short of serial murder.

(For a brief overview of this story, see this article at crimelibrary.com.)

Dr. Hazzard believed that a diet of nothing but a few teaspoons of soup and water, along with enemas (which were quite popular in the early 20th century) and vigorous massage, would rid the body of “toxins”, leading to better health.

As the patients wasted away, Dr. Hazzard would “encourage” her patients to sign over power of attorney, quietly and violently becoming a very rich woman.

Two of Dr. Hazzard’s patients – British sisters named Claire and Dora Williamson – are the sad subjects of this book. They came to Dr. Hazzard’s rural Washington clinic in search of healing and emotional well-being.

After dwindling down to under 75 pounds, Claire managed to send a telegram home begging for help. But before her Nanny could arrive, she passed away. Dora, however, was able to escape and eventaully was nursed back to health and was able to be a witness in the trial of Dr. Hazzard, where she was convicted of manslaughter.

But justice would not prevail in this case, and after serving only a short term, the governor commuted her sentence. Eventually re-arrested after the death of another patient, the number of victims who died under her care will likely never be known.

In an odd twist, Dr. Hazzard’s book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease is still available at various locations online.

I recommend this book, not only as a great historical true crime book, but just as a gripping read all around. Pick it up – you won’t be disappointed.

Published in: on September 15, 2006 at 3:24 am  Comments (16)  

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”

 

-Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood”

 

I believe that part of the roots of my interest in the genre of historical true crime is that I come from that very area – Western Kansas. I grew up “out there”, on the “high wheat plains”. I was quite a ways removed from the Clutter murders – my family moved there, about an hour from that lonely, tree-lined property where the quadruple murders took place in 1984, a full 25 years after November 15, 1959.

(The story of the Clutter Murders can be found here.)

I can clearly remember The tree-line road that leads to the former Clutter home.my first introduction to the Clutter murders – we were in Holcomb for a forensics (drama) meet. There were only a few of us on my high school team, but somehow we managed to talk the bus driver into driving down the former Clutter driveway, which is within view of the high school.

It is easy for me to imagine the Clutter family at work and at play because my own family, and my parents’ families in particular, were Kansas families that very much mirrored the Clutters not only in age but in being a farming family that hired help, was popular in the community and children who were very active in church and school. Either my Father or my Mother could have been a member of the Clutter family, so close was the resemblance.

What IS hard to image the horror that happened there. Since I grew up in a nearly identical small, western-Kansas town, it is hard for me to imagine – and often brings a smile to my face doing so – such a “colorful” character as Truman Capote trying to blend into the 1960’s Kansas scenery.

Capote’s 1965 classic “non-fiction novel” was the grandaddy of a new genre called “New Journalism”, a compelling cross between journalism and literature. He paints with broad strokes what I would agree is a mostly fair account of the at-home, simplistic lifestyle of rural Kansas in the mid-20th Century – with only a few points where the descriptions don’t ring true.

And for good reason. Capote spent six years on the book – spending an entire year doing research before ever putting a word of the novel to paper. In an interview with George Plimpton, he noted:

My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling. All my research. Hundreds of letters. Newspaper clippings. Court records – the court records almost fill two trunks… I have some of the personal belongings – all of Perry’s because he left me everything he owned; it was miserably little, his books, written in and annotated; the letters he received while in prison. . .not very many. . .his paintings and drawings…I think I may burn it all … The book is what is important. It exists in its own right. The rest of the material is extraneous, and it’s personal. What’s more, I don’t really want people poking around in the material of six years of work and research. The book is the end result of all that, and it’s exactly what I wanted to do from it.”

It is important to remember that this book is also an excellent study in justice in 1960’s America. Bringing Perry Smith and Richard Hitchcock to justice was at the same time a long and yet swift process, leading to their hanging on April 14, 1965. Capote hits on all cylinders in his tale of their trials and final days in a Kansas prison.

Interest in the book has increased in the previous year thanks to the move “Capote“, a movie based on the story of Capote’s descent into madness that may or may not have been the result of encompassing himself in the Clutter murders and Smith and Hitchcock trials. It is a good accompanying piece to “In Cold Blood”, and I do recommend re-reading the book before seeing the movie, if you have not already.

Needless to say, this is a book I not only recommend, but would say is the first place to start if you are interested in historical true crime. It is the most significant book of the genre, and is important to the understanding of the origins of the true crime genre itself.

Published in: on September 12, 2006 at 1:59 am  Comments (11)  

Welcome to those interested in the Black Dahlia…

I’ve been noticing that many of the visitors to this website are searching for information on The Black Dahlia.

So I’m curious – if you’ve read a book on the Black Dahlia, which do you think hits closest to the truth?

I haven’t read all that many books on the subject – maybe three. I’m REALLY interested to see what everyone else thinks is the most likely scenario. Leave me a comment!

Published in: on September 11, 2006 at 6:33 pm  Comments (9)  

Two historical true crime movies coming to theatres.

There are two movies opening that may be of interest to those who enjoy historical true crime.

The Black Dahlia  opens September 15. It’s based on the James Elroy novel, which is based on the Black Dahlia murder (which I have written about previously in the blog.)

Have you seen this movie? I’d love to hear if you liked it or not-I’m still debating whether I should see it in the theatres or not.

(For more information on the Black Dahlia case, please see this excellent crimelibrary.com article. )

The second film that is coming to theatres is Hollywoodland, the story of the original “Superman”, George Reeves.

This movie is based on the very entertaining book Hollywood Kryptonite, by Nancy Schoenberger.

(For more information on this infamous hollywood mystery, see this Wikipedia overview of George Reeves’ life and death.)

The George Reeves murder/suicide remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring mysteries, and I highly recommend the book on the subject, which I will likely review here after I reread it.

Seen the movie? Let me know if it’s worth seeing!

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  

Another blog note.

I apologize for the lack of blogging in the last three weeks as, while visiting my parents, I managed to spend some time in the hospital and most of the rest of the time trying to heal an ulcer.

But I’m back home now, and will resume blogging as soon as I read something worthy of review.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment