Wellesca Pollock was not beautiful. Or perhaps she just didn’t photograph well. In one photo I’ve seen of her, she has frizzy hair roughly parted in the middle, a few unruly strands escaping from a bun. In another, the angle of her face accentuates a rather large and droopy nose.
Still, there is something about her gaze. It is direct. I know a lot, it says, and I would like to know more.
Wellesca was born in 1871, one of 13 children, seven of whom — six girls and a boy — lived to adulthood. Her mother, Louise Pollock, was from Germany and before meeting Wellesca’s father, a serially unsuccessful businessman named George H. Pollock, had studied there with Friedrich Froebel.
If Froebel’s name does not ring a bell, his invention will: kindergarten. The pedagogue believed that even young children could be educated, provided they were engaged in creative ways. Louise’s lifework was the kindergarten teacher training college she ran on Q Street NW, the Washington Normal Kindergarten Institute.
Louise wrote that the kindergarten student “should not realize that his play or occupation contains a lesson. . . . In the true kindergarten, the children take little or no notice of visitors, they are not self-conscious, nor put themselves on their best behavior to appear well, having been taught a lesson of deceit. . . . they do not leave the school-room with a shout of exultation, and realize a sense of freedom from restraint.”
Restraint was something Wellesca would certainly fight against during her life.
Wellesca’s world revolved around her mother’s school. She was herself a graduate, reciting an ode to Froebel at her commencement in 1891, held in the National Rifles Hall, an event space on G Street NW. She gave model lessons to members of Masonic lodges and attended meetings of clubwomen around town, eager to spread the kindergarten gospel. When kindergarten was being introduced in Washington, Wellesca helped train the African American teachers who would be needed for the “colored” schools.
What Wellesca did not have was a husband. This was not such a disaster. Several of her sisters would remain unmarried. Still, it must have been a void in her life.
And it was not the only one. As the 19th century ended, Wellesca felt incomplete spiritually. Once again, she was hardly alone. In the late 1800s, the United States was awash in religious experimentation. Transcendentalists communed with nature. Theosophists searched for hidden meaning in the universe. Mediums contacted the spirit world at seances. Eastern faiths held an exotic appeal.
Around 1900, two important things happened to Wellesca. One was that she became a Bahai.
Bahai was one of the world’s newest religions. It was founded in 1844 by a Persian merchant named Siyyid ’Ali Muhammad who took the name the Bab — meaning “the Gate” — and hinted that he was a figure prophesied in the Koran.
Inventing a new religion in the land of an old one is always a dicey proposition. In 1850, the Bab was executed for his beliefs. In 1853, one of his followers, Mirza Husayn Ali, picked up the mantle. He took the title Baha’Allah and quickly found himself persecuted. He was confined to an
Ottoman penal colony in present-day Israel from which he wrote letters to world leaders. After his death in 1892, his son, Abdul-Baha, took over.
After his own stint in prison, Abdul-Baha traveled widely to popularize the Bahai faith. He explained that Bahais believe in one God and that this one God had sent various messengers to Earth. These messengers had founded separate religions, but there was no longer a need for that. Now all humanity could be united under one faith, living in a world free from prejudice, with equal opportunity for men and women, the embrace of science and a focus on personal improvement.
Like most religions, it sounds sort of squishy when you try to pin it to the page, but it appealed to many Americans, who were first introduced to Bahai at the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893.
Equality, education, science — these things sounded pretty good to Wellesca Pollock, who threw herself into spreading Bahai in Washington as energetically as she had spread kindergarten. Only, she wasn’t Wellesca anymore. The mousy schoolmarm’s tireless work had come to the attention of Abdul-Baha himself, who christened her “Aseyeh,” after his Persian mother.
And the second thing that happened to Wellesca as the 20th century dawned? She went to her brother’s Blue Ridge resort and started an illicit love affair with a wealthy Smithsonian entomologist named Harrison G. Dyar.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.