The Politically-incorrect Marriage of Lillian Harman and E. C. Walker

Excerpted from “The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America”

Wendy McElroy


This essay can be cited as Wendy McElroy, “The Roots of Individualist Feminism in 19th-Century America,” in Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1982), pp. 16–17.

When the U.S. Deputy Marshall arrived in the small town of Calley Falls, Kansas, to arrest the staff of Lucifer, the co-editor, E. C. Walker, was nowhere to be found.  He was already lodged in the Oskaloosa County Jail in the cell next to Lillian Harman, Moses Harman’s 16-year-old daughter.  The couple had been imprisoned for their non-state, non-church marriage of September 1886.

Through this widely publicized marriage, the couple had hoped to gain government tolerance of their union and so deal a severe blow to the institution of marriage.  In their ceremony, E. C. Walker pledged, “Lillian is and will continue to be as free to repulse any and all advances of mine as she has been heretofore.  In joining with me in this love and labor union, she has not alienated a single natural right.”  Lillian pledged, “I make no promises that it may become impossible or immoral for me to fulfill, but retain the right to act always as my conscience and best judgment shall dictate.”  The ceremony concluded with Moses Harman declaring, “I do not ‘give away the bride’, as I wish her to be always the owner of her own person . . .”40

News of the marriage had brought threats of mob violence to Valley Falls, and the officials—seeking to soothe the situation—arrested the couple in the morning after their wedding night.  The charge was unlawfully and feloniously living together as man and wife without being married according to statute.  Walker was sentenced to 75 days imprisonment; Lillian Harman to 45 days.  When asked if there was any reason why sentence should not be passed, Lillian answered: “Nothing except that we have committed no crime.  But we are in your power, and you can, of course, do as you please.”41

In March 1887, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld this decision.  In a contradictory ruling, the court held that the common-law marriage was legal but nevertheless punishable for violation of the marriage license statute.  In other words, the couple had violated regulations designed to secure a record of their marriage.  As Chief Justice Horton said, disregarding the issue of the validity of their marriage: “The question, in my opinion, . . . is not whether Edwin Walker and Lillian Harman are married, but whether, in marrying, or rather living together as man and wife, they have observed the statutory requirements.”42

Although the couple served their term, they refused to pay the court costs; they remained in jail for six months until the costs were paid.

Lillian Harman gave her reason for breaking the law:

I consider uniformity in mode of sexual relations as undesirable and impractical as enforced uniformity in anything else.  For myself, I want the right to profit by my mistakes . . . and why should I be unwilling for others to enjoy the same liberty?  If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?43


40 [Hal D. Sears, The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (Lawrence, Kans: Regents Press, 1977)], p. 85.

41 Ibid., p. 92.

42 Ibid., p. 93.

43 Ibid., p. 258.

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