In 1902, 41-year-old Gertrude Young was losing hope. A stroke two years earlier had rendered her arm and leg partially paralyzed. Now they mostly dangled, slack and useless.
Doctors were only able to help her with her pain. But she wanted control of her body again. Which is how she ended up in the Minneapolis office of Linda Burfield Perry.
Perry – or, “Dr. Perry,” to her patients – was not, in fact, a doctor. But she had training as an osteopathic nurse, and she had no shortage of ideas. She told Young she could fix her paralysis with a new alternative treatment: 40 days without food.
Fasting could cure nearly all diseases, she claimed. Young would take no food and only small amounts of approved liquids – like tomato broth or strained orange juice – for a full 40 days. A friend would stay with her in her apartment in order to watch over her, and Perry or one of her nurses would check in on her from time to time. After the allotted time was up, Young would have her full range of mobility back.
Young enthusiastically agreed.
A month into her fasting cure, her friend and nursemaid was starting to get scared. Young was shaking and sweating bullets, and she kept vomiting a thick, dark ichor that smelled like death. Perry visited, assessed the situation, and instructed her friend to open the windows so Young could get some air.
Young only got worse. A nurse was so alarmed that she called Young’s old doctor, U.G. Williams. He said Young should stop fasting immediately and eat some bone broth and soft foods – something her impoverished stomach could handle. She refused. She wouldn’t eat until she was cured.
Over the next few days, Young’s body hollowed out, caved in, turned yellow, and finally died on the 39th day of the fast. As it happened, Williams was also the Hennepin County coroner. He opened an inquiry. The fact that several of her most precious pieces of jewelry were missing – supposedly gifted to a nurse who was never found – made circumstances doubly suspicious.
Williams accused Perry of “cruel and unnecessary quackery,” but she stuck to her guns. During an inquest, she delivered a long speech about the plight of mainstream medicine trying to shut down nontraditional methods like hers. She said 18 patients had taken her fasting cure, and only Young had died – mostly likely because she hadn’t been following Perry’s instructions closely enough.
In the end, nobody could charge Perry with a crime. After all, Perry wasn’t really a doctor, and so she couldn’t have a license of any sort revoked. And Young could have eaten something whenever she wanted.
It’s a debate that sounds eerily familiar to the pseudo-medical fistfights we now see every day. We watch as one luminary after another offer cure after cure. Drink this tincture for chronic pain. Stick to this diet so GMOs don’t give you secret cancer. When things inevitably go wrong – from measles outbreaks to bleach poisoning – the underlying quackery persists.
The death of Gertrude Young wasn’t the end for Dr. Linda Perry. After marrying Samuel Hazzard, she took his name and used a legal loophole to acquire licensure in Washington. On a 40-acre plot of land in Olalla, she built a clinic to practice her alternative medicine and published her first book, Fasting for the Cure.
The local morgue looked on in horror and confusion as emaciated corpses began to arrive from Hazzard’s clinic. As patient after patient turned into withered husks – and as Hazzard somehow ended up in many of their wills – authorities were largely unable to intervene. Hazzard was licensed, and her patients were supposedly willing guinea pigs.
Hazzard was eventually convicted of manslaughter after wealthy Brit Dorothea Williamson was rescued from Hazzard’s clinic, malnourished but alive. She served a two-year sentence and moved to New Zealand, where she continued to practice medicine. She eventually returned to Washington and built a 100-bed sanitarium, complete with its own autopsy room.
In 1938, Hazzard took ill and followed her own advice to cure herself. She died quickly, at age 71, of starvation.