In the war that was Dyar vs. Dyar, the forces of legaldom were deployed on several different battlefields.
Dr. Dyar was suing Mrs. Dyar for divorce (desertion, he said). Mrs. Dyar was suing Dr. Dyar (adultery, she said). Mr. Dyar’s purported mistress, Wellesca Pollock Allen, was even attempting to divorce her husband, but no one had seen him for years and it was unclear how you could divorce an invisible man.
The various transcripts and depositions make for entertaining reading today, but in 1916, gossip-minded Washingtonians were denied whatever titillating pleasures the trials may have offered. The involved parties agreed that the salacious evidence would be heard behind closed doors.
The trials were the inevitable result of a chance meeting in 1900 of Harrison G. Dyar, a wealthy Smithsonian entomologist, and Wellesca Pollock, a D.C. kindergarten teacher and ardent Bahai adherent. The two fell into a close relationship. It was up to a judge in Reno, Nev., to decide whether that relationship was or was not sexual in nature.
Perhaps, like kings before him and presidents after, Dyar felt that his relationships were no one’s business but his own. For example, he admitted that he had been present at the birth of Wellesca’s three children, but, wrote his attorney, “[We] submit further that if evil inferences are to be drawn from such conduct that the fountains of human kindness in the world would be stopped, and that if such things are to be established as precedents in courts of law, there are thousands of men in like case who should be convicted of adultery.”
But Dyar’s nice-guy act could only last so long when confronted by his wife’s star witness, a woman with the wonderful name of Mrs. Leech.
Maud Leech had been hired by Wellesca as a babysitter and general domestic dogsbody. Mrs. Leech testified that Wellesca confided that her three boys — Roshan, Golshan and Joshan — were in fact Dr. Dyar’s. She also said she repeatedly caught the couple in flagrante delicto.
The first time, Wellesca cried, “Oh, good lawsy,” and Mrs. Leech said, “Excuse me,” and hurriedly shut the door.
The next time occurred when Mrs. Leech had gone to the bank to deposit some checks. She thought she’d lost one, so she returned to the house. Oops. Dr. Dyar, Mrs. Leech testified, growled that “he wished to god I would learn to knock before I came in the door.”
Mrs. Leech’s husband had also caught the pair in the act.
“What in thunder are you doing in here?” Dr. Dyar shouted when Mr. Leech accidentally walked into the bedroom.
Mrs. Leech said Wellesca told her that she and the doctor were going to marry, but to do so they needed to travel to Nevada and divorce their respective spouses. And so, in the summer of 1915, Wellesca, her sons and Dr. Dyar traveled on the Red Star Line steamer S.S. Finland from New York to San Francisco. Mrs. Leech accompanied them.
Mrs. Leech testified that Dyar was afraid of getting arrested for violating the Mann Act — a multipurpose morals law — during the trip. Even so, the couple apparently could not control the thermostat of their ardor. At a hotel before embarking, Dyar and Wellesca pushed two twin beds together. Mrs. Leech moaned: “Good lord, people. I think you should cut that out.”
Wellesca responded: “Maudie, don’t be such a priss.”
Mrs. Leech said Wellesca felt that she and Dyar shared a “marriage made by love.” The pity was that society did not recognize such a thing. To make themselves respectable, they needed a proper, legal marriage. Wellesca considered this “right ridiculous,” but was willing to craft at least the semblance of decorum.
Hers seems a very modern viewpoint — and what a healthy, modern sex life! — but a hundred years ago, a judge was not going to see things that way.
In a blistering decision denying Wellesca the right to sue her husband for divorce — everyone was convinced that it was Dyar who had posed as the mysterious Mr. Allen — the judge wrote that the adulterous couple had shown an “utter disregard for the conventionalities of life. Society is hedged about by certain recognized canons of moral ethics that cannot be violated without incurring a penalty. These canons have grown up and become crystallized — the product of man’s knowledge of human nature — and he who defies them well knows that in so doing he is constructing a case against himself in the eyes of decent society.”