Belle Harris had made up her mind to make the best of her time in a Sugar House prison with her 10-month-old-son when she was told she had visitors.
It was Friday, May 18, 1883, her first day in the Utah Territory Penitentiary, and women’s champion Emmeline B. Wells, along with other Latter-day Saint women, stopped by to offer some comforting words.
“They all talked encouragingly to me, told me the Lord would take care of me, and said I had many friends who would be happy to furnish me every comfort I required,” Harris scribbled in her diary, “after furnishing me a great variety of delicacies calculated to tempt the appetite of the most dainty.”
The entry is part of a 72-page manuscript detailing Harris’ monthslong prison stay (excerpts in this story have been edited for spelling and clarity). The roughly 160 entries make up the only known writings of a woman imprisoned during the federal crackdown on polygamy in the late 1800s.
Historians say the writings, published online Tuesday by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reveal the endurance of Harris’ faith, the unwavering support from other Latter-day Saint women, and how the legal conflict between the feds and the faithful affected everyday members.
Ken Adkins, the Church History Department’s lead historian on the project, said Harris’ faith resonated with others when she was in custody, and her writings will resonate with readers today.
“Although they might not recognize Belle’s fight,” he said, “they will definitely recognize Belle’s faith.”
Caught in the middle of conflict
Harris’ legal tangles came as federal law enforcement amped up the effort to stamp out plural marriage under the freshly adopted Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882.
Raids on suspected polygamists resulted in the imprisonment of more than 900 men.
One of fewer than a dozen women to be incarcerated in polygamy cases, Harris has a rich Latter-day Saint pedigree. She was the grandniece of one of Mormonism’s founding fathers, Martin Harris, a witness to the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, and was the granddaughter of Emer Harris, who was great-great-grandfather of apostle and First Presidency counselor Dallin Oaks.
She was 23, divorced and the mother of two boys when she refused to testify against her ex-husband, Clarence Merrill, in a Beaver courthouse.
A judge found Harris in contempt, fined her $25 and sentenced her to prison, where, because she was still nursing, she stayed with her 10-month-old son, Horace.
Women rallied to her side
There was nowhere for Harris to stay when she first arrived at the prison, so she was put up in a dining area with little privacy.
She quickly received aid from other Latter-day Saint women.
“The women of the [church’s] Relief Society,” Adkins said, “embraced Belle and Horace in a really phenomenal way.”
While prison may not be pleasant for anyone, Harris had an experience far different from those of the men locked up. She had the freedom to walk around the prison grounds, for instance. One day, a trek to pick flowers led to a poison ivy-induced breakout.
Harris wrote that the guards assigned to watch her weren’t strict about keeping silent around her.
“On the contrary, they are very agreeable,” she wrote, “and I know that they not only respect me but think it unjust and unnecessary to detain me here.”
Relief Society women ensured she was stocked up on food. Harris also had access to other comforts like a sewing machine, a bassinet for her baby and carpeting in her room.
“The idea that a woman is in a prison is really kind of abhorrent to American society in general at this time, especially with a baby,” Adkins said. “So what they tried to do is to make it not a public space, but a private space, a women’s space.”
Harris’ writings also highlight a firsthand account of the conflict between the federal government and the church. On the eve of Independence Day, Harris lamented her imprisonment in a country where people were declared free to worship how they chose.
“This looks to me,” she wrote, “something like oppression.”
Harris made headlines across the nation. In one early entry, she called The Salt Lake Tribune an “abominable sheet” for questioning her courage.
“I wonder who they think I am afraid of,” she wrote. “I should think I have proved that I am not so great a coward, for rather than assist in giving evidence which I know was calculated to [make] mischief, I dared to brave the terrors of a felon’s den.”
Harris ultimately served 106 days before the grand jury disbanded. Merrill, her polygamous ex-husband, never served prison time, and the church officially stepped away from plural marriage in 1890.
Adding texture to history
Matthew Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University and a Tribune guest columnist, said Harris’ journal helps to tell the story of women in polygamy who faced persecution and prosecution.
Its online publication, he said, widens and deepens the church’s historical narrative, making women’s perspectives more visible.
Harris’ story, Bowman said, “helps to add nuance and texture, and allows more people to see themselves in the history of the church.”
Matt McBride, the Church History Department’s director of publications, said the journal’s online release is part of a larger effort to include the viewpoints of more women in church history and represents a step forward in emphasizing the experiences of everyday Latter-day Saints.
McBride said the Harris journal — focusing on a rank-and-file member — adds to these layers of historical documents. It’s a departure, he said, from the traditional way of sharing history through the experiences of men in leadership roles.
“As a profession, as historians, and also as people of faith and members of the church,” McBride said, “this is a moment where we’re recognizing just how one-sided and narrow that approach is.”