Archive for January, 2012

Hazzardous Medicine

January 26, 2012

Linda Burfield Hazzard had the potential to accomplish a great deal of good in her lifetime. Born in 1867 in Minnesota, she became a doctor at a time when women were not encouraged to pursue such a career. She was an intelligent and very determined woman as wel, and a charismatic speaker and writer.
But something went wrong. Something went very wrong indeed.
Dr. Hazzard chose a peculiar area of medicine in which to specialize. Her specialty was fasting. At that time, fasting was considered quack medicine, largely discredited. This did not prevent the determined doctor from publishing a highly successful book in 1908, “Fasting as a Cure for Disease.” In it, she claimed that her fasting method could cure just about any disease known to man, up to and including cancer.
With her alcoholic husband Sam, Hazzard opened Wilderness Heights, a “sanitarium” in Olalla, Washington, a remote and picturesque coastal town. Here, wealthy patients came to take the cure. Many never made it out of Olalla alive.
Earl Erdman, a Seattle city engineer, kept a detailed diary of his stay at Wilderness Heights. In it, he described the spartan meals he consumed as part of the fasting treatment. The diet consisted mostly of strained tomato or asparagus broth, only a cup or less once or twice a day, supplemented with tiny amounts of orange juice. Erdman wrote that he slept well on this diet but that he was light-headed, suffered severe backache, and that his eyes were “yellow-streaked and red.” He died after nearly two months at Wilderness Heights. Predictably, the cause of death was starvation.
It was the Williamson sisters who finally exposed the full extent of the “treatment” prescribed by Linda Hazzard. Dorothea and Claire were wealthy British women in their early thirties, both perfectly healthy but with an interest in medical fads. This, coupled with a fair amount of hypochondria, led them to sign on for the fasting cure in 1912.
Initially the sisters lived in an apartment in Seattle, where they were cared for by a nurse and visited by Dr. Hazzard. When they were sufficiently weakened, they were moved to Olalla and the sanitarium itself.
It was at this point that Linda Hazzard gained control of the sisters’ finances and took possession of their jewelry and other valuables. She took advantage of the ladies’ rapidly-deteriorating health to get them to sign documents giving her such control.
And the treatment continued. Dory, as Dorothea was called, finally began to suspect that something sinister was going on. She and Claire were literally wasting away, in constant pain and barely able to talk. Dr. Hazzard separated them, and by the time Dory was finally permitted to see her sister, Claire was near death. Claire died shortly after a “massage” which was a part of the “treatment” which consisted, essentially, of Hazzard vigorously pounding on the sunken abdomen.
Claire Williamson died weighing less than fifty pounds. Dory was less than sixty pounds when a family friend finally arrived and rescued her, taking her to Seattle against the strong objections of Dr. Hazzard.
From there the terrible truth of what happened at Wilderness Heights began to come out. Hazzard went on trial for the murder of Claire Williamson, with Dory as the star witness against her. She was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two to twenty years in prison. She was released after two years, and a year later was pardoned by the governor of Washington.
The Hazzards promptly moved to New Zealand, where Linda worked as an osteopath and dietician for four years. After that they returned to Olalla and reopened their “sanitarium” though this time Dr. Hazzard billed herself as an educator, since her license to practice medicine had been revoked.
But the loss of her license made little difference. Linda Hazzard was still starving her gullible patients. Several more would die by her “treatment” methods, but she continued to operate without interference. The local residents were used to seeing pathetic, skeletal men and women around the sanitarium, and they referred to the place as Starvation Heights.
The sanitarium finally burned to the ground, and a few years later, in 1938, Linda Hazzard died by self-starvation in an attempt to cure herself.
Gregg Olsen, noted crime writer, deatailed the Hazzard case in a book called “Starvation Heights.” I hesitate to recommend it to anyone, because I didn’t actually finish reding it. I was forced to give it up because it was so slow-moving, so wordy, so BORING, that I just couldn’t keep on. The book was as heavy and indigestible as Dr. Hazzard’s cure was spartan and unnourishing.

The Forgotten Tragedy of Babbs Switch

January 19, 2012

Note: The name of the town has been seen spelled in various ways: Babb Switch, Babb’s Switch, etc. but I’ve decided to go with Wikipedia’s spelling of Babbs Switch.

Everyone knows about the Great Chicago Fire. A fair number now know about the Peshtigo, (Wisconsin) wildfire that broke out the very same night as the Chicago blaze and killed many more people. Quite a few people know about the fire at Boston’s famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub in 1942.
But few know the story of the Christmas Eve fire that broke out in a one-room schoolhouse in Babbs Switch, Oklahoma in 1924. By any standard, it was a terrible tragedy.

On that Christmas Eve, the little school building was packed with students and their families enjoying a Christmas program. A teenage boy was up on the stage, dressed as Santa Claus and distributing presents. Also on stage was a Christmas tree ablaze with lit candles.
Suddenly the boy playing Santa accidentally bumped against the tree, and one of the candles was knocked loose. It immediately set the cotton trim on his Santa suit alight. After that, things spiralled out of control with frightening speed.
Flames spread quickly within the small school building. People naturally ran to the door to escape, but found it opened inward, as most doors in public buildings did. Panic set in as people began piling up at the door, preventing anyone from opening it.
Others looked to the windows for escape. But unfortunately, those windows had recently been fitted with bars, after the glass had been shattered during several severe windstorms. Some managed to break the glass and pass smaller children out to safety between the bars. Mrs. Florence Hill saved several of her students’ lives this way, but she herself perished in the flames.
In all, the fire claimed 36 lives, among them several entire families.
The Babbs Switch disaster led to stricter building codes and, along with the Cocoanut Grove fire, is widely believed to be the catalyst for modern fire precautions such as outward-opening doors.

A strange twist to the Babbs Switch story unfolded in 1957. A woman named Grace Reynolds, living in California, came forward and claimed that she was actually Mary Elizabeth Edens, who’d been presumed killed in the fire back in 1924. Mary Elizabeth had been only a toddler at the time, and her body was never identified. Reynolds’s story was that she was handed out the window by her “real” mother into the arms of a childless couple who assumed that none of her relatives survived the fire and informally adopted her and raised her as their own.
(It was never explained how this couple came to be outside a tiny school in a tiny town just as it happened to catch fire.)
Grace Reynolds became a minor celebrity, appearing on Art Linkletter’s TV show and in various newspapers and magazines. Mary Edens’s family accepted her story and were thrilled to be reunited with their long-lost daughter.

Sadly, it was all a hoax. Nobody knows why Grace Reynolds believed, or claimed to believe, that she was really Mary Edens. It’s possible she suspected that the people who raised her were not her biological family; perhaps she was adopted, and her adoptive parents told her of the fire, for reasons of their own. Then again, perhaps Reynolds was delusional, or greedy, or just bored. Or perhaps she was even inspired by the story of Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov, who at the time was widely believed to have escaped assassination in 1918 and to be alive and well; this fanciful version of history had been dramatized in the movie “Anastasia” starring Ingrid Bergman, right around the time Reynolds made her claim.

In any case, a newspaper editor uncovered the hoax for what it was, and informed Mary Edens’s biological father. The father asked that the editor not publish his findings, as he (the father) felt that his wife would not be able to cope with losing her daughter for what would have seemed like the second time. The editor, in a rare example of journalistic restraint, agreed, and his findings were not revealed until 1999.

A sad conclusion to a very sad episode of history.

Granny Granny, Quite Uncanny, How Does Your Garden Grow?

January 6, 2012

If you’re Alberta Kelley, the answer is: “It’s growing like a weed!” The 67-year-old Pennsylvania resident was recently acquitted by a jury of possession and manufacture of marijuana.
Mrs. Kelley was charged last year after the police, acting on a tip, discovered seven “well-cultivated” four-foot-tall marijuana plants in her backyard. Mrs. Kelley predictably claimed she didn’t know what the plants were, but from here on her story becomes ridiculously, hilariously far-fetched.
She claims a “bearded stranger in a pointy hat” gave her a handful of seeds, saying they were flower seeds. She simply tossed them into her garden, thinking they might look nice next to her tomato plants. And they grew like crazy. And she still never suspected what they might be, even as they probably dwarfed her other garden plants.
Methinks the lady has read too much Jack and the Beanstalk, and possibly has been smoking a bit too much fresh garden produce as well. Seriously, a stranger in a pointy hat? Please. Also, since when do people just give marijuana seeds to strangers, not worried that the strangers might turn them in, and not insisting on a share of the crop?
And how many even semi-serious gardners just randomly plant unknown seeds, not worrying that the newcomers might not be something they want to grow?
Mrs. Kelley told a local TV station “To me, weeds are just weeds.” How many gardeners allow “weeds” to grow four feet high without question?
My theory is the jury knew she knew better, but let her off because her story was just so silly there was a slim chance she might be telling the truth.

Still and all, I advise all of you: don’t take things from strangers. And that goes double if your stranger is wearing a beard and a pointy hat. And if your name happens to be Jack, whatever you do, do not sell your family’s only cow in exchange for his “flower” seeds.

Knocked Stiff

January 3, 2012

Don’t worry, I’m going to post about books I do like too.
“Knockemstiff” by Donald Ray Pollock, is a collection of short stories that take place in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio. There actually is such a place, though it is essentially a ghost town now. In all honesty, if even a fraction of Pollock’s stories about the place are accurate, I’d pakc up and leave it too. Head off to Cleveland, or New York, or Timbuktu, or just about anywhere else.
These stories are not “Prairie Home Companion” material. They’re closer to “Tobacco Road” only worse.

Everybody in Knockemstiff is a drunk, an addict, a head case, a criminal, a loser, or some combination thereof. There are no heroes. A few townsfolk you’ll meet in your wanderings around Knockemstiff:

Jake: Jake ran into the woods to escape the draft at the beginning of World War II, and during his time hiding in the woods around town his mind began to disintegrate. Now he’s old, still living in the woods, surviving on what he can catch or scrounge, supplemented with a few grocery items he trades arrowheads for at the general store. A harmless, sad old soul, but what happens when he stumbles upon a brother and sister doing the nasty in the creek is rather worrisome.

Lard McComis: We never learn Lard’s real name, if he even has one. All we know about him is he’s a fat, slow-witted teenager who carries around a Nancy Sinatra album and calls Nancy his girlfriend. His main hobby is getting his friends to throw darts at his monstrous stomach.

Daniel: Daniel runs away from home and hitches a ride with a trucker who calls himself Cowboy Roy. This story is especially fun because we, the readers, can spot the warning signs right from the beginning, but Daniel, drunk on whiskey and hopping on speed provided by Cowboy Roy, is blissfully oblivious to the danger he is in.

Sharon and Joan: Niece and aunt, respectively. Sharon occasionally goes into town with Joan, acting as bait so that the older, fatter Joan can pick up men, which she apparently drugs and takes home with her. It is ominously hinted that some of these men are not seen again, but Sharon is not particularly concerned.

Del: Del is the champion loser in this town of losers. To enumerate the various ways he demonstrates his loserdom would fill a book by itself. Suffice it to say he will take any drug he can find, his wife is a mentally retarded woman who carries around a lot of fish sticks in her pocketbook, and his only good shirt, the one he deems appropriate to wear to a funeral, has “Troy’s Bait Shop” stenciled on the back of it.

“Knockemstiff” is definitely not for everybody, and if you do a little Googling, you can find some pretty “angry literary snob” reviews of it. But I love the stories for their sly, dark humor, their frightening realism, and the fact that Pollock, an ordinary guy who worked in a paper mill for 35 years and had only just started to write, scored such a commercial success with a book of short stories in a market where short-story collections aren’t supposed to sell. You go, guy!

Little Black Girl Lost, and So Is This Reader

January 3, 2012

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but this year I made one, and that is to update this blog regularly. And what could be an easier way to do that, a better motivation, than to start off by talking about books I’ve read? It’s almost too easy, really.
Today’s Reading Rainbow book is “Little Black Girl Lost” by Keith Lee Johnson. And the Siskel and Ebert rating is: two thumbs down.

Confession: I did not finish this book. I didn’t even get halfway through it. That’s how bad it was. I hardly ever just quit reading a book, it has to be really terrible for me to do that. Well, LBGL is really terrible.
The story, (and according to Wikipedia it’s the first in a series; be afraid!) is about a poor black girl named Johnnie Mae, who lives in New Orleans in the 1950’s. Her mother is a prostitute, and she pimps Johnnie Mae’s virginity out to a rich white client on JM’s 16th birthday. Up till then, JM has been a Good Girl, going to church, getting good grades, and being very conservative and well-mannered. We never see a grandmother, a father, an aunt or any kind of mentor, so we have to wonder who is being such a good influence on Johnnie Mae, because it certainly isn’t her mother.
After Mama does her dirty deed, Earl, the rich white client, “falls in love” with Johnnie Mae, who, extremely conservative values forgotten, begins working her wiles on him. She’s so good at it, despite never having had even a casual boyfriend till now, that inside a couple months, Earl has bought her a house of her own. He doesn’t put her up in an apartment or fine hotel, mind you. He buys her a house.
The plot thickens! Johnnie Mae begins investing the money she wangles out of Earl. She retains a broker to help her manage her money. This is Louisiana in the fifties, she is a teenage black girl raised by a prostitute, yet she manages to get this stockbroker to work for her, convincing him she is a rich society woman. How exactly does this work? (No, she doesn’t do for the stockbroker the things she does for Earl to get money out of him.)
I quit reading about at that point. It was just so unbelievable. I had the feeling the author really only wanted to write a story full of hot sex, but thought he would sell more books if he had an actual plot too. From what I can tell, the plot goes on to involve Johnnie Mae either teaming up with or trying to outwit the organized-crime boss of her section of the Big Easy.

Ah, the Big Easy. New Orleans, a city as rich in character and atmosphere as a good gumbo is rich in flavor. You’d never know it by reading this book. You’d honestly never know where the story was taking place if the city’s name had not been mentioned. There was nothing at all to identify the city as New Orleans, except some vague references to “parishes.” I suspect that the author hasn’t spent much time in the city, if he’s ever been there at all. He doesn’t even use the word “parishes” correctly, he has them confused with wards. Which is a shame. He’s trying to write what he doesn’t know because he thinks that will save his book from his bad writing and ridiculous plot. Sorry Keith, it only made it worse.
*Ghostess exits to a jazzy saxophone riff*