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A flame as a moth: how I began chronicling the life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr., Part 1

Although I never met Harrison Dyar (1866-1929), I have often felt during my pursuit of knowledge on moths that he was looking over my shoulder. It was my research on moths, in turn, that led to my unraveling parts of Dyar’s complex life.

Life history of the New York slug caterpillars

I first became acquainted with Dyar’s work on the moth family Limacodidae, my chosen entomology dissertation topic, in 1983 at the University of Minnesota. It was in the Hodson Hall library on the St. Paul campus where I noted how Dyar’s authorship dominated the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in the middle to late 1890s. Particularly notable was his running series from 1895-1899 entitled “The Life Histories of the New York Slug Caterpillars”. The odd caterpillars of limacodid moths are referred to as slugs, in part because of their sticky underbelly and some smooth-backed ones are similar to these mollusks. However, spine-backed species known as “nettle caterpillars” dominate the group worldwide.

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These accurate and extensive illustrations, hand colored by Emily Morton or Dyar’s sister Perle Knopf, are among those that accompanied Dyar’s “Life Histories of the New York Slug caterpillars” in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society. Image Credit: New York Entomological Society, used with permission.

Clues of a love triangle from moths

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Dyar’s wives and their limacodid species: Wellesca Pollock Allen Dyar with Parasa wellesca (above) named in 1900 and Zella Peabody Dyar with Acharia zellans (below) named in 1926. Image Credits: Wellesca Pollock Allen Dyar by the Office of the Smithsonian Archives, used with permission. Zella Peabody by the Handy Family, used with permission. Parasa wellesca and Acharia zellans by Marc E. Epstein, used with permission.

On my early visits to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC as a graduate student, merely mentioning Dyar to present day workers elicited tales of his bigamy and digging tunnels that connected his two families. Dyar had worked at the National Museum from 1897 until his death in 1929, often gratis and able to do it because he had the wealth. Sadly, when he needed a paid gig the most was after he lost his government position in 1917.

At the time I began my Smithsonian fellowship, I visited the institution’s historian Pamela M. Henson, who kept files on some of the more unusual Smithsonian scientists, a rather onerous club that Dyar belonged to. Henson told me about Dyar’s Dupont Circle tunnel, a bit about his mistress, including correspondence from Dyar’s assistant who mentioned a “suit of cloths” presented to her by Dyar during a trip to Colorado in 1901. When I inquired about her name I was astonished to hear “Wellesca Pollock.” Parasa wellesca was the name of a limacodid from Costa Rica that I studied during my graduate work. To find out more about Wellesca I checked old DC city directories at the historical society (note: this was prior to the internet). I found Wellesca and her family to be prominent in the kindergarten teaching movement, and her brother a proprietor at Glen Echo, Maryland.

When I went back to Pam to report my findings I asked her the name of Dyar’s wife and once again she spoke a name I was familiar with. Acharia zellans was a limacodid named for Zella Dyar, though many years beyond the Wellesca species in 1926 and well after Dyar’s divorce scandal. This was an eureka moment because even though Dyar had done a massive amount of work on Lepidoptera and mosquitoes, naming over 3,000 of them, limacodid moths appeared to be favorites. This, I would find, was only the beginning!

“Digging for Dyar”

At the time I met Pam Henson she mentioned a newspaper clipping about Dyar’s tunnel in Dupont Circle from September 1924: it had been sent to Dyar by a correspondent in South America. I went to the Library of Congress microfiches of Washington, DC papers and I was amazed to find articles about not just one set of Dyar’s tunnels, but another across from the National Mall. These findings got us talking about writing an article about Dyar. There was interest from American Entomologist, but I was concerned about being able to do the project because I had a limited term postdoctoral appointment. Fortunately, I got funded for a second one, which enabled me to remain in Washington to finish the project.

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Among the images related to the Dyar tunnels that were found using microfiche early in my research. Image Credit: The Washington Post, used with permission.

We began our research combing archives at the Smithsonian and around Washington, DC. Soon, correspondence between Dyar and his cohorts drew attention back to limacodid moths. We found Dyar outraged over the removal of limacodids from the US National Museum’s insect collection by William Barnes, MD, of Decatur, Illinois. Barnes, who had the largest private collection of Lepidoptera in North America, would take material from the collection when Dyar was out on collecting trips or attempting a quiet divorce in California or Nevada. Barnes justified removing specimens because he was donating others to the museum and his curators in Illinois needed specimens from the National Collection to compare with his. When Barnes was ask to return the specimens, August Busck, a colleague at the museum who assisted Barnes with the pilfering, referred to the limacodids as Dyar’s special “pets” and Dyar vented that Barnes had taken “his most cherished treasures.”

During a visit to the National Archives to examine records in the US Department of Agriculture files, Pam and I found a letter from Barnes’s nephew that he was attempting to remove items from these very files that could prove damaging to the sale of his collection to the government. She aptly referred to this letter as the “smoking gun,” which in fact was placed at the front of a file so a future researcher could easily see it. We believed that among these “items” that Barnes’s nephew attempted to remove were letters about his taking limacodid moths from the National Collection without proper loan forms. We knew it was now time to publish the full story of Dyar.

Featured image credit: Parasa wellesca by Marc. E. Epstein, used with permission.

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