Faithful readers of the real estate sections in Washington’s newspapers in the early 1900s would have been familiar with Wellesca Allen, a name that cropped up with some regularity.
In 1909, she acquired the National Rifles Hall, the downtown event space that was coincidentally the setting of her graduation from teacher training college in 1891. In 1913, she bought a building at 604 F St. NW. On G Street NW alone she owned 927, 1723 and 1725.
Wellesca was a regular little property dynamo, which was odd, given that she was, or had been, a lowly kindergarten teacher.
But there was a lot that was odd about Wellesca. She had no apparent income, save for a modest amount of money sent to her from Philadelphia by her husband, a man named Wilfred Allen whom she married in 1906 after a one-hour conversation in a Chicago train station. Nine months after the wedding, she went off with a female friend to tour the Holy Land and meet the head of the Bahai religion, Abdul Baha.
After her return in 1907, Wellesca said she had seen Wilfred only three times. Nine months after each visit she gave birth to a son. First came Roshan, then Golshan, then Joshan, Persian names that were bestowed by Abdul Baha. Mr. Allen was not present at the births of the boys, but Harrison G. Dyar was.
Dyar was a Smithsonian entomologist and close family friend. He and his wife, Zella, met Wellesca in 1900 at Skyland, a resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Dyar tended to his moths, butterflies and mosquitoes in the National Museum, which happened to be across the street from Wellesca’s house at 804 B St. SW. He visited her there often. Possibly Dyar saw neighborhood children teasing Wellesca’s sons, asking where their father was, shouting at them, “There goes your father!” when Dyar walked down the street.
Who knows how long Zella was suspicious. Probably since the time Wellesca had incongruously popped up in Pasadena when the Dyars were summering in California. Or maybe it was when Wellesca’s boys had grown out of their baby fat and started gaining a familiar aspect around their eyes and chin. Or maybe someone just came out and blurted: Zella, not only is your husband sleeping with that Wellesca woman, he’s giving her money to buy property all over town!
Things must have gotten hot around 1915, for that’s when Zella said Harrison Dyar left her. He headed west, planning to collect insect specimens while also seeking a climate more beneficial to his poor health. Wellesca Allen accompanied him as his nurse. She also explored divorcing her oddly absent husband.
This was all too much for Zella, and whatever tight-lipped detente existed in the failing Dyar marriage evaporated Oct. 7, 1915, when she filed for divorce in Washington.
“Rich Man Who Works Sued for Divorce,” said the headline in the Washington Herald. The Washington Post buried the news at the bottom of its District Court roundup, but included this tantalizing morsel: “The wife charges her husband with misconduct and names a corespondent.”
Dirty laundry was about to be aired.
The following month, Dyar sent a letter to Zella from Reno. “I am fighting for honor and vindication from unjust charges,” he wrote. He would not take the accusations sitting down.
He fumed: “Do you realize for what a mess of pottage you are losing the heritage of my good will? You and Dorothy and Otis? For they go down with you, I promise that.”
Dyar wrote that there was a time when the matter could have been handled amicably, a time when Zella could have taken the largesse he was willing to extend to her and to their two children. But that time was over. By filing the divorce suit, she had poisoned their relationship. After claiming there was no proof he intended to marry Wellesca (“I want to divorce you for the damnable way you have treated me”) he got to the crux of the matter, the hinge on which the entire case would turn. He wrote:
“There remains only the adultery charge, which I will prove to you is false as far as a negative proposition can be proved. Remember that I do not have to prove innocence. It is a fundamental principle of our law that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The onus of proof is on you and you had better be pretty certain before you charge such an offense. I can convince any person open to reason that I am absolutely innocent.”
Tuesday: No he can’t.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.