“The ultimate effects of starvation are identical whether the process be gradual or rapid, occupying days or years, and death results when the body has lost six tenths of its weight.”
— William Gillman Thompson, 1905
“Many serial killers are pathological liars.”
— Dr. Jack. Levin, Criminologist, Northeastern University 2012
The Hunger Artist
1973: All this time and there were still the dreams. Iva heard the wind soughing in the pines, heard the pines themselves creaking, listing like shipboard masts when they swayed. It was summer, but it was terribly cold; the damp that settled on everything — tables and blankets and floorboards and skin — fled inward to her bones. There was never any moon lighting up these dreadful nightscapes, but she always saw her sister, Callie, standing bare foot by the lake, white-gown plastered against the skeletonized frame of her body, hands rapidly opening and closing like a pair of gobbling beaks.
“I’m hungry, Iva,” she mourned. “I’m so cold and so hungry.”
And it was always a shock when Iva went toward her, and — moonlight or no — underneath the white cotton gown, she could clearly see and count her sister’s ribs.
Then Iva would wake shivering under the hospital blanket. Sometimes she rang for the nurse; sometimes it was enough to turn on the lamp and watch her fingers pinching the healthy flesh of her own hip or arm. Knowledge — certainty — that she was no longer the prisoner starving in the New England woods sixty years ago was balm that warmed her — to a point. Nothing, no one could soothe her completely: after all, her beloved Callie was dead.
Everything had gone wrong back then; two years that Iva still envisioned as a meager handful of dull feathery ashes. No gust or exhalation ever stirred or scattered them. Sometimes she might forget the hideous physical ordeal when scenes from the trial intruded on her consciousness; and sometimes, recalling the shame and the heart-pounding fear that surrounded the weeks in court when she was afraid Gretchen Burkehart would be acquitted and win upset her equilibrium so badly, that visions of her own suffering and Callie’s extremis seemed almost benign by contrast. Both events were terrible. And the memories that were ashes lay eternally unmoving in her palm, she thought, because one day when they laid out her body (her elbows crooked, snugged to her waist, her hands crossed) they’d be pressed against her heart: that had been burnt past charring, too, during those black seemingly endless two years. Ashes to ashes….
1912: “Just tell us in your own words, Miss Fredericks…” Thomas Vining began, one hand gently curving the rail in front of the witness box — as if just by standing close to Iva the prosecutor could steady her nerves.
She swallowed, but there was no spittle to moisten her throat and her voice was thin. “I saw an ad in one of the Boston papers for what sounded like a wonderful rest cure. Callie — she — maybe I indulged her too much, but she was my baby sister and our parents were dead; Callie was only twelve when Mother died, still a little girl….”
1973: “Is that you, Maggie?” Iva turtled (her breasts had shrunk to the point where they were no longer an inconvenience), smoothly rolling onto her back to look up at the face of a young woman whose hand lightly skimmed her own. “No, of course not,” she said, “Margaret was twenty years older than I am and she’s been dead a long time. And your skin is soft…” Iva paused, aware that she was looking at short brown hair, asymmetrically cut. Bare-headed. No cap. Instead of crisp whites, a peasant blouse. “You’re not a nurse.”
“Jill Davis. I’m a reporter. Well, a stringer, really.”
“Come to unravel something?”
“A stringer is a sort of free-lance journalist — ”
“My dear. I’m merely old, not ignorant — ”
“Of course. I meant — ” She stopped; cheekbones reddening.
In the brief silence that ensued, Iva pressed the electric button near her right hand and the top third of the bed glided upward until she was sitting, and now she could see the girl was wearing blue jeans. Sandals. Every year since she’d turned 99, about a week before her birthday the local paper sent someone to interview the oldest woman in Melton Lake. When she hit a hundred, there’d been articles written up in The Portsmouth Herald, The Manchester Union Leader — even The Boston Globe. But an old woman was old news, she guessed. So here was this hippie — this stringer — to ask the same tedious questions about whether she drank liquor (a weak champagne cocktail at 5 pm, a glass of wine with dinner), smoked cigarettes, (only when she could cadge one; these days alas, they gave her indigestion); exercised (absolutely — on warm days she pushed a wheel chair in front of her and walked to that pathetic little fountain out back, then sat and read a book in the sunshine — and that was surely exercise a-plenty when you hit 102); what she ate (anything that didn’t hurt her teeth when she chewed); what she did for amusement (the main thing was avoiding the nursing home’s idea of arts and crafts which consisted of gluing a mirror in the center of a paper plate, cementing macaroni around the rim, then spray-painting the whole shebang gold and attaching string to hang the monstrosity); and most importantly what did she — Iva Fredericks — believe was the secret behind achieving her great age?
But Jill Davis surprised her.
“I’m supposed to be writing a spec piece for the Millerton Record about the root causes of anorexia; and then, you know, throw in some historical background about turn-of-the-century fasting girls, tie it into new trends in teenage fad dieting — but the feature editor over there has about as much imagination as humphead wrasse. I did some digging, read about the trial back in 1912 and — ”
“And I guess you found out that the term aphorism is a complete misnomer,” Iva said. Jill pulled out a pack of Tarreyton 100s extending it toward the old woman and Iva took one. Jill lit them both. Iva dragged on hers but merely let the smoke roll around her mouth briefly before she exhaled. “Truth is hard to come by, lies are easy. Maybe I wasn’t ‘too rich’ — but I was definitely ‘too thin.’”
Jill nodded, absently blowing tarnished gray smoke downward toward the steno pad perched on her knee. Iva caught the wink of a small gold ring on the pinky of the hand the reporter used to rapidly flip through what must have been 50 pages of notes in tiny precise handwriting. “There’s something missing. I must’ve read a thousand damn articles on microfiche and the court transcript, and the story’s out of whack — completely off kilter.” Her eyes were ink-colored and Iva saw herself haloed inside their hard bright shine. “And that’s before you take into account that despite the murder charge, Gretchen Burkehart was convicted only of manslaughter, before you consider that she was pardoned by the governor and that she only served two years out of twenty….”
Jill had wheeled Iva’s chair outside to the grounds of the small old-fashioned hospital while Iva clung to the younger woman’s arm and ambled slowly alongside before sitting down where they’d parked under a huge maple.
“What’s missing,” Iva said, “was stricken from the official record — ”
“Well I just assumed that naturally; but what’s really goddamn odd is that usually you can get a whiff of what happened or what was said from books or newspapers — especially contemporary newspapers — ”
Iva shook her head. “Money can buy a lot, Jill. A lot more than someone your age truly realizes. I paid — or, rather, through me my lawyer paid a great deal to keep the details you so cleverly inferred from showing up anywhere — ”
“Did you know that after Lizzie Borden’s trial, Lizzie bought up the entire edition — the entire printing run of thousands of copies, that is — of a book called The Fall River Tragedy. Lizzie was rich, but I had a great deal more money than she had.” Iva saw Jill’s gaze narrow and she could read that the younger woman was considering the idea. Local scribes, okay no problem. Guys who, back in 1912, earned maybe ten bucks a week and were probably bought off regularly by hometown politicians for a few beers, a whiskey, a good meal; but what about reporters from Boston or New York? Could she have scuttled them, too? She had the means, though…not to mention that the Wren county prosecutor said there wasn’t enough money to go to trial, so Iva picked up the tab….
“So what was the big, deep dark secret you suppressed, Iva?”
“It’s very easy to grind someone into submission when you’re starving them,” Iva said. “And it’s even easier to hem them in if you convince them — if they believe — you have occult power.”
1912: “Miss Fredericks, can you tell us about this picture?” Vining asked, handing it to her.
“That’s a picture of me and Maggie — Margaret Woodbridge. When Callie and I were growing up, Maggie was our nursemaid and even after we were adults she stayed on with us — she was like a second mother, really. And….”
The photo had been taken a few weeks after Maggie had come all the way from Australia to rescue her and Callie. The telegram. Callie sent it — somehow sneaked it out of the filthy cabin they shared at Lakemere Rest Sanitarium and Maggie, bless her, had sailed immediately but she wasn’t in time, because Callie’s weight had dropped to 40 pounds. Iva felt her face flush. Is that what she looked like almost a month after Maggie had taken her away from that terrible place?
Her face was nothing more than a skull thinly layered with dark flesh. The eyes themselves were vacant, glittering; her gaze, empty — as if impossibly remote and infinitesimally tiny stars had been caught inside the deeps of her eye sockets and flickered there indifferently…meaninglessly. Her cheeks were smudged hollows with the sere look of ancient parchment. Her pale hair lay in knotty clumps, barely concealing huge bald patches. Her starched dress — size 4 — had been pinned, but it was still so oversized it appeared as if it might fall from her slight frame the instant she stood up.
Vining passed it to the jurors and Iva could see them cringe with revulsion. Looking at the picture was like looking at a ravaged mummy that had been spelled back to half-life. Worst of all, Iva clearly remembered how she carefully primped — so she’d look her best….
His voice startled her. “Miss Fredericks, how did you come to be in this condition? In this photo you weighed 68 pounds — not kilos, pounds. And before you began “treatment” with Mrs. Burkehart, your weight — completely normal for someone who stands 5 feet, two inches tall, was 104 pounds. How did it happen, Miss Fredericks?”
Iva’s chest heaved, her stomach knotted, but she took a deep breath. “She advertised — the only doctor — she called herself — who was a licensed fasting specialist. She advertised that she’d cured everything from syphilis to ulcers to blindness…Over and over she told us and stated in writing, ‘All functional disease is the result of improper diet,’” Iva said. In her mind’s eye grim sequences and flashing images unspooled:
Callie unwrapped the pamphlet with such excitement she tore the paper.
Iva read it, but Callie studied the damn thing and within hours of its arrival could quote whole passages verbatim. Iva knew that some of their relatives thought the girls had too much money and too much time and that, as a result, hobbies and interests became fads with them. Aunt Caroline said as much when the girls refused meat at her table: “Being a vegetarian is a luxury — those who work for a living can’t pick and choose what they eat. If you girls were shipwrecked, you’d soon enough be eating fish and fowl.”
So, when they decided to take the fasting cure, they told no one.
Gretchen Burkehart professed to be uncertain about whether they were candidates for her cure… Callie told the osteopath she had a tipped uterus that caused awkward pains. Iva complained of a feeling of torpor in her limbs.
They expected massage and a carefully controlled but bracing diet that would cleanse them. They expected to be in a lakeside rest home with awning-covered balconies. They got nothing but a cup of watery broth made from canned tomatoes served twice a day and hot water enemas that lasted six hours at a time. Within a few weeks, neither of them could really walk…they were stinking, wasted scarecrows lying on narrow cots listening to the rain patter against the metal roof of the ‘cabin’ that was really a shed, listening to Gretchen Burkehart and her ‘nurses’ rifle their trunks for clothes, shoes, jewelry, books — anything they could lay their hands on. But even that wasn’t the worst of it….
1973: “I know one of the medical doctors testified that you and Claire would have needed to drink 50 quarts of that broth a day — just to survive. And I’m not sure he was taking into account those enemas,” Jill said. “It’s pretty clear Gretchen was a klysmaphiliac — you know someone with an obsession for enemas.”
“Humiliating…” Iva shook her head. “And worse was having her or one of her assistants check the contents — like someone sieving for precious metals.” In her mind’s eye she felt the rude shock of the rubber tube, the onrush of the hot water, heard the ugly spatter of liquid feces pouring into an enamel pail.
“In her books she called them ‘enemata’ — trying to sound high-flown,” Iva shrugged. “And you’re spot on about her obsession, because people who are starving have chronic diarrhea.”
“What about the other symptoms?” Jill asked.
Iva looked up at the canopy of leaves over her head. “Funny how your mind plays tricks. Sometimes I could only notice what was happening when I looked at Callie — as if the same things weren’t happening to me. The hair is pouring off your head, but you grow a kind of thin fur over your body –”
“Lanugo,” Jill said. “I read about that. Survival at its most basic, the body’s attempt to stay warm.”
“I drooled all the time, but I couldn’t chew,” Iva said. For a moment she put her hands over her face. “My god it was awful…cried all the time because I wanted to eat and I couldn’t.”
“This was after Margaret came from Australia, after Callie died?”
“Some part of me saw how much worse it was for Callie — when she lay on her back, the bones of her spine could actually be seen through her abdomen. I doubted I’d actually seen it; I looked a long time — years and years — before I found a picture that showed how someone’s spine could be visible when they lay face up. You know where I finally found it? In a book that showed piles of corpses in Auschwitz.” Iva winced. “My sister…. She was like a carcass that’s been picked clean by scavenger birds.”
1912: Gretchen Burkehart was going to take the stand that day and because she and Maggie might be called as rebuttal witnesses, naturally they weren’t allowed in open court, but there were pictures in the newspaper and the prosecutor would be telling them about her testimony. The accused wore an elegant narrow-waisted brown merino dress with a high lattice collar and a huge hat cascading with pheasant feathers that was straight out of the most recent edition of Ladies’ Home Journal. Undoubtedly, Iva remarked drily, the money for the fancy togs had come from Gretchen’s depredations on Iva’s own bank account. By then, both Iva and Maggie knew not only that Callie wasn’t Mrs. Burkehart’s first victim, but that she’d managed to seize assets — jewelry, valuables and property from other patients she’d killed as well. Hell, it turned out that the land for Lakemere Sanitarium came from one of her former patients.
On direct testimony, with her lawyer jollying her along, Gretchen wove a charming tale fraught with outright lies.
“The tomato broth was merely a hot drink between meals — the Fredericks were allowed all the food they wanted to eat. But they refused everything my nurses cooked for them,” she began. “It was very sad, but then, you know Callie told me other doctors had given up hope on her case, so she and Iva came to me as a last resort,” she said while artists sketched her face, the fluttering feathers on her hat, and the fan she coyly flashed at dramatic moments.
Callie, she declared, had absolutely given all the jewelry to Gretchen and the nurses as gifts. Callie had known she was dying, and appointed Gretchen as Iva’s guardian because Iva was insane — and had been deteriorating mentally for several years. Callie had not died of starvation — but from an organic colonic disease that originated in her childhood and, according to Gretchen Burkehart, nothing and no one could have saved the young woman.
“In fact, Callie was so grateful for the fact that I prolonged her life beyond what was expected, that she changed her will.”
Pens flew across reporters’ notepads, the court reporter’s typewriter beat the rhythm the scratching nibs kept time to. Gretchen Burkehart appeared calm, but even the reporters could see that as her testimony was drawing to a close, more and more frequently she glanced over at the prosecutor — and he was clearly itching to take her to task.
“Mrs. Burkehart,” Vining said.
“Doctor — ”Gretchen interrupted. “I prefer to be called doctor.”
“You have no medical degree, Mrs. Burkehart,” the prosecutor said. His smile was knife-thin and everyone knew he was about to tear her to shreds.
1973: “All right,” Jill said, “I know Vining got a graphologist — a handwriting expert — who proved that Burkehart was full of shit — Callie never wrote that codicil to her will, Gretchen Burkehart did. And he brought in experts who testified about her other cases — not once when she performed the autopsy on one of her patients did she list starvation as the cause of death. It was always some half-assed diagnosis like paralyzed intestines — but plenty of other doctors completely contradicted her — her and her paid stooges. Those so-called nurses who backed her up.”
“There was only one who slipped — and it was her testimony that was expunged from the record,” Iva said. “There’s a hint about Gretchen Burkehart’s power over people in what Maggie said, too. She told the court that even though she knew the tomato broth was made from canned goods, Gretchen actually convinced her at times that everything was farm fresh…that the tomatoes had been raised locally — not purchased at some market — and therefore each serving had even more nutrients. That was impossible, of course. Tomatoes can’t be harvested before the end of August in New Hampshire, and we began treatment at the end of February; Callie was dead by May.” She watched Jill scribble the date and went on. “There were days, Maggie said, she had to fight off what Gretchen was saying: that I was improving — had improved tremendously under her care — that Maggie must recall how deranged I’d been before the treatment started. How ill I’d been and that Callie had been even sicker than I was….Maggie said she made herself remember that Gretchen was lying through her teeth by reminding herself over and over that two other patients — also young women — begged her to take them away from Lakemere because they knew they were starving to death and after the first ten days they were already so weak they couldn’t get away on their own.”
“Disgusting…that woman was disgusting.”
“Evil,” Iva said. “Of course you know that when Maggie arrived Gretchen Burkehart actually showed her someone else’s corpse and said it was Callie.” Iva herself had been too weak to make the trip to the funeral home or to the funeral — so her last memory of Callie was at her sister’s deathbed; Callie’s eyes starting from the sockets, her fetid breath rattling, claw-like fingers grasping a thin cotton sheet drawn over the wasted body.
Jill nodded. “Tried to foist off the wrong body on a woman who raised the girl practically from birth. That was stupid — but we know she was very smart, so what made her think she could get away with it? Was her ego that overblown? Was she drugging Maggie’s tea or the broth she served you?” Jill lit a cigarette. “That’d be really rich — she detested pills so much she would’ve been the queen of the 60s anti-drug contingent.”
“Maggie wasn’t the only one who thought Gretchen Burkehart had some kind of hypnotic power she could use to force people to do what was against their own better judgment.”
1911: “You’re looking ever so much stronger, Miss. The doctor says it won’t be long now before you’re up and walking!”
Iva lay on a makeshift mattress on the bathroom floor. It had once really been a mattress she thought, but maybe rats had gotten to it and now it was little more than lumpy cotton batting wadded in a nest shape and covered with oil cloth. Above her hung a pail and a rubber hose. The end of the tube was in her rectum. She no longer had the strength to stand up and evacuate, so the oil cloth served as a sort of sluiceway that disgorged her stinking brown water into an old privy hole. Didn’t have the energy to get herself to the porcelain toilet and the doctor still insisted the enemas were crucial to her treatment and her nurse was prattling about being able to walk — as if Iva had been wheelchair bound for a decade. Was it only last summer that she and Callie had trekked to Mt. Kilimanjaro? It was painful lying on her side — her bones — ribs, pelvis and knee — dug into what was left of her flesh. If only she could see Callie. But the nurse, Marina, said she was too weak to leave her cabin next door. Last week Marina had carried Callie — the way a child carried a doll in her arms — over in the evenings…could Callie have gotten so much worse so quickly?
“Tub time!” Marina said. Iva wasn’t sure how long she’d been lying on the floor and drifting, but at the sound of the nurse’s voice, she felt herself being hoisted upward and then pushed into scalding water. She began to scream.
Gretchen Burkehart’s voice boomed from the doorway. “You’re not clean — your stool is malodorous, your breath is foul — and, since you refuse to walk — ”
“I don’t refuse — ” Iva was crying, but there were no tears; her dehydration was too extreme.
“You refuse to walk,” Gretchen interrupted, “so the tub baths need to be hot.” She put her own hand in briefly and Iva registered that it emerged the boiled red of shellfish — and that was merely the osteopath’s hand — not her whole body. “Gordon,” she directed, “add another bucket. And scrub her down, she’s dirty.”
“No,” Iva said, feebly trying to cover her breasts. “No!”
1973: “Gordon Fields,” Jill said, nodding. “He and his girlfriend, Marina Slade — the so-called nurse — both testified that he only lugged water to the cabin, that he was just a hired hand and never in the room when either you or Callie were given those baths — or the enemas.”
“He and Marina were both Spiritualists.”
“They don’t sound very spiritual to me — ”
“I’m not sure you understand.” Iva shook her head. “Give me another cigarette…and damn, is it almost five o’clock? I’d like a drink before I tell you about what happened next.”
Jill looked up at the slanting sun, shielding her eyes, then glanced down at her watch. “It’s been five o’clock across the pond for at least five hours. Close enough for me.” She opened a brightly striped wool shoulder bag she used as a tote and pulled out a mayonnaise jar she’d filled with Almaden wine. Look it’s not the greatest and I don’t have glasses — I planned on snatching a couple from the hospital cafeteria.”
“A lady knows when to forego niceties. Hand it over.” Iva swigged, wiped her mouth with the back of her wrist and passed the jar to Jill.
“If anyone — curious or otherwise — comes over here, this is a urine sample I’m bringing to my doctor,” Jill said, “so don’t get caught swilling.”
They both began to laugh.
1911: “It’s very simple,” Gretchen Burkehart said. “Marina is not only a nurse, she’s a talented medium. You’d be helping Callie, of course. She’s still grieving for your mother and she’ll be stronger emotionally. It may be her best chance at getting well.”
Iva looked at her sister, blade-thin, propped on pillows and seated at a small round table between Marina and Gretchen. Gordon Fields sat opposite. In the center of the table a pair of slates — like the ones used by school children — had been hinged together. Just now they were lying open with a piece of ordinary white chalk lying on the one on the right.
“Let’s try — please, Iva?”
There was nothing to lose — or so Iva thought.
Gordon Fields closed the slates and latched them shut.
The lights were extinguished and Marina admonished them not to be frightened and to keep holding hands. She recited a prayer and asked Rose Fredericks if she would come and make herself known to her daughters. A long while passed and then suddenly, in the pitch black, the sound of scratching on the slates could be heard.
1973: “When they lit the candles, Callie opened the slates and the words, Flower Girls: Calla and Ivy were written in chalk. My mother called us her flower girls,” Iva said.
She motioned for the jar of wine and Jill handed it to her saying, “I drank ninety percent of this, there’s only a sip left, go ahead and finish it.” Iva nodded. “Go on,” Jill said.
“After that, that’s when I started seeing Marina wearing Callie’s silk robe, and Gretchen wearing a diamond ring that had belonged to Mother.”
“Do you think Callie told them — even accidentally?”
“I think one of them found those words written in Callie’s red-leather diary. It was one of the things that was gone — even Maggie couldn’t find it.”
“So they tricked her into thinking your mother was there and communicating.”
“Oh yes — all the usual japes and shenanigans. From trumpets floating in the air, to ectoplasm to more and more detailed messages written on the slates.”
“Did you believe it was real, Iva?”
“I was out of my mind with hunger and cold and fear.”
“Did you think it was your mother?”
“I was certain Callie came back to me.”
Jill flipped through her notebook and read, “‘In 1926, Harry Houdini wrote, “Distressed relatives catch at the least word which may remotely indicate that the Spirit which they seek is in communication with them. One little sign even, which appeals to their waiting imagination shatters all ordinary caution and they are converted.’ Is that what happened to you?”
Iva lowered her eyes and shook her head.
Callie. The dreams. Callie barefoot by the lake, shuddering with cold. “I’m hungry, Iva,” she mourns…. “I’m so cold and so hungry.”
“But you know that Gretchen Burkehart stole from you and others — she took money and jewelry, property. You know that she killed many, many patients — ten or fifteen others…she was arrested for practicing medicine without a license even after she served time for murdering Callie.”
Iva gave a thin smile. “Maggie told me those same things — over and over — all the rest of her life. Callie was starved to death, and I was nearly dead — but I’m still alive. I’m 102 and still alive because Callie has never left my side.”