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Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwestby Gregg Olsen
It was a world both bustling and tranquil; a musky sweet-smelling blend of extremes. As hotel clerks, waiters, doormen, and gardeners went about their myriad duties, ladies in heavy, ankle-length satin dresses and mile-high hats of twisted taffeta and rosette-coiled velvet gossiped while demurely fanning themselves under the sparkle of a great glass dome amid enormous oriental urns planted with palms. Their chatter was frivolous and cheerful, like the chirping of songbirds gathering to feed on millet sprays and the dried discs of sunflowers.
The front desk calendar was inscribed: September 1910.
Across the lobby, Dorothea and Claire Williamson, splendidly attired in dresses pulled from one of the fourteen trunks that accompanied them around the world, gazed out a window. The evidence fall was lapping toward winter was everywhere on the grounds of the two-year-old Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia. Small clusters of leaves had fallen in the cool, moist air, their bronze and gold remnants raked into ruffly heaps. New shrubbery framed the expansive lawns of the Canadian Pacific Railway-built hotel; ivy began its creep upward on the magnificently towering brick edifice. Plantings were crisp from the precise trim of a gardener's shears. There could be no disputing that the view of the green, well-tended grounds and the blue waters of the Inner Harbour was a soothing tonic for weary eyes.
Orphaned daughters of a well-to-do English officer in the Imperial Army Medical Service, Dorothea was born in Trichinopoli, India, Claire in London. And though schooled in Switzerland, England, and France and well traveled, the sisters, especially Claire, exhibited a childlike naivete and innocence that sometimes left them a target of manipulation by those with dubious intentions. Hardly a week went by when there wasn't a banker or an investment expert with phony assurances that he had a plan for their money. Encounters with those who would do them financial harm only served to draw them closer to each other.
Suitors, however, were another matter. Neither sister had found a man that would make a husband worth leaving her sister all alone. And though Claire and Dorothea were unwed and beyond the age of thirty, neither quite considered herself a spinster. Yet, among the ladies in the lobby, they did not court the attentions of gentlemen. It was true they had had their admirers. But they were indifferent to such advances, and certainly they had no regard for the conventions of courtship.
Claire and Dora, as her sister called her, were likely the only women in the hotel with waists not bound and compressed like the bunched-up necks of cloth sacks. Corsets, they told each other, were the devil's invention, cutting off circulation and choking digestive tracts. They preferred looser, one-piece undergarments. Clothing, they insisted, that wouldn't choke the very life out of them. To be fair, neither really had any need of corsets. Their figures were trim and youthful.
As they sat sipping tea, the sisters were a striking image: unblemished porcelain skin, blue-green eyes, and the controlled posture of the upper class. Dora had auburn-hued hair with a few grey strands that she plucked from her scalp whenever they showed. Claire's face was more heart-shaped than round like her sister's, and her dark, wavy hair was the envy of the few who had seen it unfurled from beneath a hat. Claire, the younger of the two by four years, was slightly stouter in her bone structure than her sister. Both women had small, delicate hands that seldom went without the covering of gloves.
Dora cupped her hand over her mouth, turned away from her sister, and dramatically stifled a yawn.
"A bit more sugar, dearie," she said.
Claire nodded and moved a small tray with a silver pitcher and sugar bowl closer to Dora. Sugar, she thought, would provide a nice boost for the afternoon. A boost was decidedly in order. Neither sister had been sleeping well. Both longed to fall into the kind of slumber that would wash over them and give them the stamina needed to continue their journey. It had been such a long journey. They had come from Liverpool, England, by steamer, arriving first in Quebec, then Toronto, before making their way west across the Canadian Prairies to the Pacific Coast and Vancouver Island's Empress, a stately hotel that held its surroundings like a grand, decorated cake above the seawater in which the island seemed to float. It was the kind of fine establishment that travelers found unexpected in North America—a hotel with nearly the standards of the better places in Europe.
At each stop of their journey the sisters visited the distant relatives that made up all that was left of their family. Their father had died shortly after Claire's birth, their mother when Claire was only fourteen and Dora, eighteen. Scarlet fever drained the life out of two sisters, Ethel and Gertrude, when they were very young. Beyond each other, all Claire and Dorothea could embrace now were the odd collection of various aunts, uncles, and cousins, and their beloved governess, Margaret Conway. They certainly, and they always said, tragically, had the money for such endeavors. Their Scottish-born grandfather, Charles Williamson, left his beloved Dorothea and Claire a fantastic fortune—worth more than a million American dollars. Most of it was in Victorian Government Inscribed Stock from Australia. Considerable land holdings in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia added a good deal more to their net worth. That two women controlled such extraordinary funds in 1910 was all the more remarkable.
While their fortune had afforded them world travel, wardrobes brimming with gowns from Paris, armloads of Irish linen, and charming homes near London and Melbourne, it had not brought them the one thing they sought over everything else: a sense of well-being. If not their money, what would help them be happy, be well? It was a question often asked by the rich and unhappy, and it was a question Claire had frequently posed to her sister. Dora had no clear answers. She only knew they were not alone in their endeavors. Both Europe and America were dotted with centers for healing, institutions of physical culture, sanitariums, all promising robust health to those with brimming pocketbooks. By the time they visited North America, the sisters were like many other faddists for cures--they had been to several health institutes already. It was almost a hobby, a lifestyle, their great quest. And so they were drawn. Like a vapor-camouflaged island far away on the taut line of the horizon, always out of reach . . . always beckoning with the promise, the hope.
While on their travels, the women saw a small but thoroughly intriguing newspaper advertisement in a Seattle daily newspaper. On September 2, 1910, Claire responded to the notice. She wrote a letter to Dr. Linda Burfield Hazzard, requesting the doctor's book, Fasting for the Cure of Disease. In her note, she exaggerated her sister's illness somewhat. It was true that Dora had not been feeling well, but she was hardly knocking on Death's door. Claire was given to overstating matters and emotions. She had been overindulged by a devoted sister who allowed her the leeway for slight embellishments. It mattered none to Dora. Her sister was the center of her world. Whatever it was Claire fancied, she only had to ask for it. Dora would cheerfully comply.
Claire described to the doctor how Dora had been on a partial fast since August 26 and had eaten nothing but fruit since then—with the exception of two small meals. Her glands were swollen and pain shot through her knees.
(Dora's) eyes just now are very bloodshot and seem to be eliminating a good deal of matter. Her period was due ten days ago, she has a very sharp pain over the right temple whenever she moves . . .
Five days after she sent the letter, a package arrived at the hotel front desk. It had been shipped from Dr. Hazzard's office in Seattle. In it was a slim but provocative volume penned by a woman who believed every ailment was caused by dietary factors. The idea was not entirely original, but Linda Burfield Hazzard presented her thesis in a convincing and revolutionary way. The sisters, especially Claire, couldn't wait. They were intrigued. Suddenly, sleep didn't seem so important.
Dora called for a waiter to have their tea sent up to their suite. They had some reading to attend to.
Their hotel suite was lovely, but a bit too snug. Dora had hoped for a little more room, perhaps two dressing tables. She remarked to Claire that she'd be more careful about their accommodations in the future. Even though only four years separated them, in Dora's mind it was she who had the role of the mother; Claire, the child. Claire happily accepted the role. She found her place in telling Dora how they could not have survived the loss of their parents without her maturity and unflappable resolve. It was Dora who reminded her sister that they should rely only on each other. No financial advisors. No husbands. Just the two of them.
It was also Dora who made the arrangements when it came to the details of their lives. At least Claire allowed her to believe so. When disappointment was the result of such efforts, Dora took the blame.
"I hadn't wanted to stay at that hotel in the first place. I suppose I shall recover from the draftiness of the place. Dora, it isn't your fault. It really isn't."
Claire studied Dora's face as she surveyed their room at the Empress. She could see Dora's dissatisfaction. To ease her sister's sense of responsibility, Claire spoke up quickly and cheerfully reminded her older sister of their circumstances.
"We are not in England . . . this, my dear, is North America. This was a colony, for goodness sake!"
Dora clasped her hands against her cheeks and laughed. With that, the hotel was suddenly fine. Besides, they had more important concerns.
As Dora breathlessly read the doctor's book aloud, Claire brushed out her long, burnished hair.
With each word, Dora's voice singsonged with bursts of enthusiasm. Every so often, Claire would stop her brushing and turn from the looking glass to tell her sister that she agreed with every word.
It should not require an exhaustive argument to establish the fact that disease has its origin in impaired digestion.
Upon this fundamental truth and its development the treatment known as the fasting treatment, depends on its entirety; and long experience at varied hands has demonstrated that, whatever the manifestation, the only disease is impure blood and its sole cause impaired digestion.
Dr. Hazzard's thesis was to "rest" the digestive system and allow the "impurities" to pass out of the body. The "natural cleansing process" would in time, she reasoned, strengthen the body.
A fresh foundation is there to work upon—a new and thoroughly cleansed body, ready to take up its labors, and with proper hygienic and dietic care, to carry them on indefinitely.
Already vegetarians, the Williamsons embraced natural methods of healing as superior to modern medicine. They thought little of traditional doctors and their drugs.
"Such medicine is for fools," Dora said.
Claire knew exactly what was next. In many ways the two were like twins. Everyone thought so. They always knew what the other was thinking. And they seldom, if ever, disagreed.
As they clouded their tea with sugar and milk poured from Canadian Pacific Railway silver service, each sister entertained the possibility of submitting to Linda Hazzard's fasting treatment. It was so intriguing, so promising. A poor diet was always suspect in health problems. The fasting treatment might finally provide their long-sought key to a lifetime of good health. Turning the pages, Dora found a small brochure tucked into the book touting the sanitarium known as Hazzard's Institute of Natural Therapeutics. The sanitarium was in the country, west of Seattle across Puget Sound. The sanitarium's address was in a village called Olalla. Its very name was melodic. O-la-lla. Like a song, maybe sung by a seabird. The place sounded lovely, a location blessed with fresh air, sparkling salt water, and a forested covering that would surely keep the environs cool in the hottest of summers.
"Dare we do it?" Claire asked, already knowing Dora's answer, already knowing her sister's desire.
Dora smiled, grabbed Claire's hand, and squeezed.
"Dare we not!"
Dora closed the pages of Fasting for the Cure of Disease and watched Claire spin her long hair into a spiral to coil it away in the confines of a sleeping cap.
Neither sister was seriously ill, if at all. But the two women persuaded each other that treatment was in order. Claire had told her older sister about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his celebrated sanitarium in Michigan, but the two had decided it was too far and inconvenient a trip. Besides, the sisters preferred coastal, over inland, travel. To their way of thinking, treatment was both a medical necessity and the basis for a holiday.
Dora had foolishly convinced herself she suffered from swollen glands and "acute rheumatic pains" in her knees. To add more credence to Claire's misguided notion she also was in dire need of treatment, a London osteopath told her that her uterus had dropped back on her spine and her ovaries were badly inflamed.
Until that diagnosis, all Claire believed she had was a delicate stomach.
Dr. Hazzard, they read, was the only licensed fasting specialist in the entire world. Through the years of her practice, Dr. Hazzard had stood before patients and the medical establishment with the announcement she had discovered the basis for all ailments—mental, physical, and moral.
"Overeating," the doctor wrote, "is the vice of the whole human race."
Therapy in the country sounded like the right prescription, and with the decision made, the practical issue of just when they could take the treatment was considered. After visiting North America, the sisters had plans to travel back to Australia and on to London, places where they had family homes. Claire planned to set sail for London on May 18, 1911. She had enrolled in a kindergarten instruction course. Her sister, not overly enchanted with the prospect of being alone, decided she'd travel to Australia to visit a distant aunt. Dora knew she could not stay with Claire during the training.
They were voyages neither would take.
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