Dyar and Wellesca, together at last and above ground
By John Kelly,
At one point during the adultery scandal that engulfed Wellesca Pollock, someone threw garbage at the door of the house that Harrison Dyar had bought for her on B Street SW. She suspected that it was someone from her family who didn’t approve of the relationship.
And yet, when the smoke cleared from the legal battles dissolving the marriage of Dyar and his wife, Zella, he and Wellesca were still together.
Of course, there had to be repercussions. When Dyar was hired in 1897 as the custodian of the Smithsonian’s Lepidoptera collection, he had agreed to forgo a salary. At the time, this was not a problem. He was a rich man.
But the divorce demolished him financially. Dyar was on the payroll of the Department of Agriculture — his knowledge of insect pests was invaluable — but the scandal ended that. In 1917, he was dismissed. Dyar, his boss decided, had behaved in a manner unbecoming a government official.
But at least Dyar and Wellesca could finally live as husband and wife. The two were married in 1921, seven years after she first explored divorcing the fictitious Wilfred Allen. A year later, Dyar adopted Wellesca’s three sons. Of course, they were his already.
The Dyars threw themselves into the Bahai religion. Wellesca had joined the faith around 1901. Dyar never did officially, but he edited a Bahai journal called Reality and funded it from his own diminishing bank account.
Bahais today have complicated feelings about the couple. Wellesca is valued for the work she did to spread the religion, but Dyar held beliefs not consistent with the teachings of the faith’s founders.
This was clearest in a slim pamphlet the couple published in 1922 called “Short Talks on the Practical Application of the Bahai Revelation.” The faith’s leader, Abdul Baha, preached racial harmony. Dyar disagreed. “A farmer breeds from his best cattle,” he wrote, using a distasteful metaphor. “He does not first cross them with another strain.”
Dyar went even further: He felt that birth control should more accurately be called “birth destruction.” The only way for the human race to evolve would be if its best and brightest were encouraged to procreate.
He wrote: “Real birth control would not be practiced by the individual, except as directed by a body of efficient men who knew their business, and would include acceleration of the birth rate where desired, and not simply an attack on this most essential of all functions; in short, scientific breeding of the human race with the definite purpose of advancement both physically and morally by a capable body who understood every angle of the case.”
And this, I think, is why Dyar started an affair with Wellesca. No, “affair” is too tame a word. He started a family with her. His wife, Zella, wanted no more children. Dyar felt himself exactly the sort of person whose DNA — he called it “germ-plasm” — was desirable. He was a believer in something that would be the 20th century’s darkest stain: eugenics.
After the divorce, Zella moved with the children to California. The 21st Street house was sold, its tunnels forgotten until construction projects exposed them. For a while, Dyar continued to expand the tunnels under his B Street house. The District’s building inspector pronounced them ably built and no danger to nearby structures.
Over the years, the number of servants employed in the Dyar home dwindled. On Jan. 19, 1929, Dyar walked across the Mall to his office in the National Museum, today’s Natural History Museum. He sat at his desk, no doubt looking forward to examining the latest insect specimens that had been sent in. He suffered a stroke and died two days later, age 62.
A week earlier, word had come that he was being reinstated by the Department of Agriculture. Wellesca wrote to one of his colleagues: “Like Moses, he did not get to the ‘promised land,’ but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing it was to be his in a short time.’”
Wellesca moved to 3441 17th St. NW in Mount Pleasant and died there in 1940, age 67. Her sons remembered that as she grew older, she would often sit in a chair facing Rock Creek Park. Perhaps the woods reminded her of the Blue Ridge, of Skyland, the place she’d met Harrison Dyar, 40 years before.