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From ‘footnote’ to ‘foreground’: Church publishes 1883 prison journal of Belle Harris

The publication of the Belle Harris prison journal is part of an ongoing effort to focus on the history of Latter-day Saint women

In the spring of 1883, a 23-year-old Latter-day Saint woman named Belle Harris refused to answer questions regarding her plural marriage to a former husband before a grand jury at the courthouse in Beaver, Utah.

As a result, the young mother and her baby were imprisoned at the Utah Territorial Penitentiary for more than three months.

While behind bars, Harris wrote about her compelling experience in a journal.

A transcript of the Harris prison journal has been published online and is now available to view, The Church Historian’s Press announced Tuesday, Feb. 21.

The Church Historian’s Press has published the prison journal of Belle Harris.
The Church Historian’s Press has published the prison journal of Belle Harris. | Church History Library

The Prison Journal of Belle Harris” is the only known record of a woman who was imprisoned on charges related to polygamy. While a handful of others served time in the penitentiary, Harris was there the longest and was the only woman to document her experience, said Kenneth Adkins, a Church history specialist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“This is the experience of a young Latter-day Saint mother who is going through a very difficult time in her life personally and very publicly,” Adkins said. “It gives me faith and reminds me of the kind of service I can render.”

“It’s powerful to read and hear her words, the way she thought about her experience, the way she stood up for something that was a deeply-felt religious belief,” said Matthew McBride, director of publications for the Church History Department.

“There is no questioning the sincerity, faith and courage of Belle Harris when you read the diary.”

Who was Belle Harris?

Isabelle Maria Harris was born in Willard, Box Elder County, Utah Territory, on April 15, 1861.

Her paternal grandfather, Emer Harris, was a brother of Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.

Belle Harris was part of the first generation of Latter-day Saints raised in the West and one of the last to practice plural marriage.

In 1862, her family heeded the call of President Brigham Young to serve in the Cotton Mission in remote southern Utah. While the family resided in Parowan, Utah, Belle’s brother, Charles E. Harris, began a business relationship with Clarence Merrill, a son-in-law of Apostle George A. Smith.

Belle became the third wife of Clarence Merrill at age 18. The couple had two children before they separated and were later divorced.

A photograph of the Utah Territorial Penitentiary
A photograph of the Utah Territorial Penitentiary dated Oct. 31, 1855, during the facility’s first year of operation in what is now Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City, Utah. Belle Harris spent the summer of 1883 there after refusing to answer questions about her former husband and their plural marriage. | Utah Historical Society

Why was Belle Harris imprisoned?

It was because of her marriage to Merrill that Harris was pulled before the grand jury in 1883.

After the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 was signed into law, federal officials in Utah Territory increased efforts to arrest, try and convict Saints who practiced plural marriage. Merrill was among those pursued. 

“Were you ever married?” Harris was asked. “If so, to whom were you married and where?”

When Harris declined to testify against her former husband, the grand jury found her in contempt of court, and Judge Stephen P. Twiss ordered her to pay a fine of $25 and remain in the custody of the U.S. marshal.

Harris then traveled to Salt Lake City and was incarcerated at the territorial penitentiary with her 10-month old son, Horace, whom she was breastfeeding. She was imprisoned for 106 days, from May until August 1883, until the grand jury was discharged and she was released.

What was prison life like for Harris?

Facilities for women did not exist at the prison because they were rarely imprisoned during this period. Harris was not housed with the male prisoners. Jail officials created space for her, and she was granted some privilege, including regular visitors who brought her various items, from homemade food to sewing supplies, writing paper and books.

The first handwritten page of the prison journal of Belle Harris, dated May 18, 1883.
The first handwritten page of the prison journal of Belle Harris, dated May 18, 1883. | Church History Library

Harris received many ministering visits from Latter-day Saint women, including Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, Presendia Huntington Kimball, Zina Huntington Young, Mary Isabella Hales Horne, Romania Bunnell Pratt and Bathsheba Bigler Smith.

She was also visited by Latter-day Saint men, including George Reynolds, Charles W. Penrose, A. Milton Musser and her attorney, Scipio A. Kenner. 

“The Saints really came together to support her and make her stay in the penitentiary something that was bearable,” Adkins said.

Other visitors, such as marshals or other lawmen, tried to get her to give in and testify so she could leave the prison. Harris didn’t budge, and they often left with baffled expressions.

Harris recorded on May 24, 1883, (with misspellings left intact): “It is a perfect mystery to those who do not understand our faith how I can think of staying here when to an[s]wer 2 or three questions would insure my liberty. ... I am not so great a cowerd for rather than assist in giveing evidence which I know was calculated to mark [make] mischief I dared to brave the terrors of a fellons [felon’s] den. Those who accuse me of cowerdice are in my extimation [estimation] not worthy the notice of a woman who is not afraid to assert her wrights and the wrights of her people.”

Her story was published in regional and national newspapers and made her a household name among Latter-day Saints.

Despite the support and attention, Harris expressed anxiety and sadness over being held in prison indefinitely. Her baby was often ill, and she felt herself a target of religious persecution.

In her July 29, 1883, entry, she recorded: “I could not help feeling very lonely and longed to be among my friends ... I have much to be greatfull for but there are times when I cannot help being depressed in spirit ... it is trying for me to listen to the abuse heaped upon the Latterday Saints and especialy the Presidency of our church.”

Does Harris have other journals?

No other journals of Belle Harris are known to exist, but additional detail about her life is available in a biography written by her brother Silas A. Harris.

The second handwritten page of the prison journal of Belle Harris, dated May 18, 1883.
The second handwritten page of the prison journal of Belle Harris, dated May 18, 1883. | Church History Library

Why did she only write about her experience in prison? Perhaps it’s because she needed something to occupy her time, Adkins said.

“I think part of it is that she was bored,” he said. “She had the paper and pencil supplied to her as donations, and I think she was encouraged by some of these women, like Emmeline B Wells, a very dedicated diarist, and Eliza R. Snow, who may have encouraged her to write these things down.”

She may have also had a clear sense of the historical uniqueness of her situation, McBride said.

Why read the Harris prison journal?

After Harris died in 1938, her family donated the original manuscript of her journal — 72 handwritten pages — to the Church.

“It’s not very long,” McBride said. “But it’s so fascinating because she is an eloquent diarist.” 

The journal offers scholars, Church members and other readers a public view of 19th-century women’s prison life and the challenges of an ordinary Latter-day Saint who finds herself in the middle of a political struggle between the Church and the United States government over plural marriage.

“Latter-day Saints who read Belle’s journal might not be familiar with her fight, but they will be familiar with her faith,” Adkins said. “It’s a very compelling journal. ... When people read this journal, it resonates with them.”

The journal can be read and searched online free at ChurchHistoriansPress.org/Belle-Harris

Continued focus on women’s history

The Harris prison journal is the latest in a series of publications that focus on Latter-day Saint women. Other publications produced in recent years include:

“A big part of our motivation for publishing Belle’s journal is our ongoing commitment to women’s history in the Church History Department,” McBride said. “We are learning over and over again how significant women’s experiences, women’s contributions are to the Church. This is another effort to show and elevate the voices and contributions of women as part of our history.”

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Harris is referenced in “Saints, Vol. 2,” “The First 50 Years of Relief Society” and “The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells” (see 18 May 1883).

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to take a unique document and make Belle less of a footnote, bring her to the foreground and say this was her story,” McBride said.

McBride said more projects are in the works. There are plans to publish, in a way similar to the Harris prison journal, a diary kept by one of the first Latter-day Saint women to serve a full-time mission.

The Church History Department is also sponsoring a one-day symposium on women, religion and records featuring the work of several distinguished scholars on Saturday, Feb. 25. Register at churchhistorianspress.org.

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