The Church Historian's Press



The journal of Isabelle Maria Harris provides a unique perspective into one of the most difficult chapters in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This period, which began with the passage of the Edmunds Act in 1882 and ended with President Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 manifesto, marked a trying time for men and women who practiced plural marriage. During this time, church leaders encouraged Saints to continue practicing polygamy, despite federal penalties including fines and imprisonment.[1] Harris, like others, chose to defy federal officials in court by refusing to testify against her polygamous former husband. Her decision ultimately resulted in her confinement, with her young son Horace, in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary in Salt Lake City from May to August 1883.

Though Harris was not the first or the only Latter-day Saint woman to be arrested during this period, she is the only woman known to have kept a journal detailing her experience.[2] Her record is both personal and political. In it she records her private struggles, laments the poor health of her baby, and reflects on the emotional difficulty of prison life. Often, she reflects on her love for her faith, family, and community. At other times, she recounts her conversations with federal officials and their wives concerning the injustices of her circumstance and the importance of her faith.[3] These entries provide rich insight into the tension that existed between Latter-day Saints and other Christian Americans in Utah during a period of political and social conflict. Though Harris never held positions of political or ecclesiastical prominence, her willingness to sacrifice for her beliefs endeared her to her people.

Isabelle Maria Harris was born in Willard, Box Elder County, Utah Territory, on 15 April 1861. Belle, as she was known to her friends and family, was the daughter of pioneers. Her father, Charles Harris, and mother, Louisa Maria Hall, crossed the plains from Illinois to the Great Basin as children of early Latter-day Saint convert families. Her paternal grandfather, Emer Harris, was a brother of Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon. In October 1862, her family heeded the call of President Brigham Young to serve in the Cotton Mission in remote southern Utah.[4] While the family resided in Parowan, Utah, her brother Charles E. Harris began a business relationship with Clarence Merrill, a son-in-law of apostle George A. Smith. Belle Harris found Merrill charming, and the two began a courtship. After two years, at age eighteen, she agreed to become his third wife. The couple were married in the St. George temple on 8 October 1879.[5]

While Merrill’s second wife, Julia Felshaw, lived in Fillmore, Utah, independent of his first family, Harris lived for a time with him and his first wife, Bathsheba Kate Smith, in Richfield, Utah. Though Harris and Smith enjoyed an amicable relationship, Harris became uncomfortable with being supported by the wealth of Smith’s family and requested to have her own home. Merrill agreed, and Harris eventually moved to a home in Monroe, Utah.[6]

Though Harris now had the independence she sought, the new living arrangement brought isolation. Smith often stayed with her mother, Bathsheba Bigler Smith, in Salt Lake City. With Harris living in Monroe and Felshaw in Fillmore, it became more difficult for Merrill to divide his time among the three households. Eventually, the frequency of his visits to Harris became sporadic, and she was often alone. His absence was particularly difficult for her during the birth of their first son, Albert Merrill, in February 1881. By October of the same year, Harris was again pregnant. Upset by Merrill’s absence during Albert’s birth and concerned for her financial well-being, in 1882 Harris moved to her parents’ ranch near Junction, Utah, where she gave birth to Horace Merrill in July 1882. Soon after her baby’s birth, Harris wrote to church president John Taylor requesting a divorce. Her request was granted in April 1883.[7]

Harris’s return to her parents’ homestead drew the interest of federal authorities, who summoned her to testify before a grand jury at the Beaver, Utah, courthouse regarding Merrill’s practice of plural marriage. Because Harris had recently given birth, her court appearance was deferred until the following year. In early May 1883, she appeared before a grand jury. In an attempt to establish that Merrill was guilty of polygamy, the jury requested that Harris answer the questions “Were you ever married?” and “If so, to whom were you married and where?” Determined to protect her family, privacy, and faith community, she refused to answer.[8]

The jury found her guilty of “wilful contempt of court,”[9] and Judge Stephen Twiss ordered her to pay a fine of $25 and remain in the custody of the U.S. marshal until she answered the questions or the court otherwise ordered her release. On 18 May 1883, under custody, Harris arrived at the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, in the Sugar House area of Salt Lake City. With her she brought ten-month-old Horace Merrill, a nursing infant who relied on her for his survival.

By mid-June, Scipio A. Kenner and other attorneys for Harris had filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Utah Territorial Supreme Court to challenge the legality of her imprisonment. The court soon denied the petition, ruling that Harris was guilty of contempt for refusing to answer the grand jury’s questions and that she had been given ample opportunity to change her mind. The supreme court also stated that the fine and prison sentence were appropriate under Utah statutes regarding contempt of court.[10] As Harris and Merrill’s sealing was not recognized as a legitimate union under the law, she, like other women in plural marriages, could not claim the spousal immunity privilege (or adverse testimony privilege), a concept established by common law to protect spouses from being compelled to testify against one another.[11]  

Harriss confinement in the penitentiary lasted 106 days, from 18 May to 31 August 1883. She detailed her experience in regular journal entries, in which she recorded her religious convictions, her feelings about her confinement, and her discussions with attorneys, federal officials, family members, and various Latter-day Saints who visited the twenty-two-year-old mother.

Prominent Saints who visited Harris and her son included Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, Presendia Huntington Kimball, Zina Huntington Young, Mary Isabella Hales Horne, Romania Bunnell Pratt, Bathsheba Bigler Smith, George Reynolds, Charles W. Penrose, and A. Milton Musser. These Saints often tended to Horace and brought Harris donated items to make her stay more comfortable.

Immediately upon Harris’s arrival, local and national newspapers reported the dramatic story of a woman and her baby in a prison.[12] Harris’s imprisonment and legal case became a battleground for the long public debate over the legality of plural marriage in the United States. Latter-day Saints and their supporters pointed to the case as an example of religious persecution and government overzealousness in enforcing the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act. Those who opposed plural marriage and supported government action argued that Harris’s confinement was the result of Merrill’s cowardice, demanding that Merrill surrender himself and confess his crimes.[13]

On 31 August 1883, the grand jury in Beaver was formally discharged, and Harris was released from prison.[14] She was celebrated as a hero by her fellow Saints. Church president John Taylor received Harris at a dinner party at the Gardo House in Salt Lake City. At a party held in her honor by Milton Musser, the Sixteenth Ward brass band serenaded guests and Augusta Joyce Crocheron recited her poem “Belle Harris’ Baby.”[15]

In 1884 Harris attended Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah, where she met Nels Lars Nelson, whom she married in 1887.[16] The couple had four children before divorcing in 1899. Harris remained in Provo as she raised her children and regularly boarded students for income. She married widower Robert Albert Berry in 1915 and helped raise his younger children.[17] Isabelle Maria Harris Merrill Nelson Berry died at her home in Provo on 31 May 1938 at age seventy-seven.[18]


The Belle Harris journal consists of seventy-two handwritten pages on thirty-six lined leaves of paper of varying sizes. Pages 1–24 are recorded on lined pages measuring 10 × 7⅞ inches (25 × 20 cm). Pages 25–68 are recorded on lined pages measuring 9¼ × 5¾ inches (23 × 15 cm). Pages 69–[72] are recorded on lined pages measuring 12⅜ × 7⅞ inches (31 × 20 cm). Seventy-three entries were made regularly over 106 days, from 18 May to 31 August 1883. The journal also includes a copy of an unpublished letter written by Harris to the editor of the Deseret News on 26 June. The paper sheets, if not provided by the prison, would have been donated to Harris by friends and family.[19] The journal is handwritten in a clear script. Most pages are numbered, presumably by Harris. The majority of the text block remains highly legible, though some areas have suffered damage. The top portion of pages 57–[60] is torn away, resulting in a loss of text. Damage has also caused text to be lost on a bottom corner of pages 61–64 and along the side of pages 69–[71].

The journal was donated to the Church Historian’s Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1939 by Sterling Harris Nelson, a son of Harris. It is housed in the Church History Library. Images of the original journal are available online at (call number MS 1818). 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 and in other primary sources.[20]


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Church Historian’s Press (Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The Journal of Belle Harris.

Citing Individual Texts on the Website

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Example Citation

Belle Harris, Journal, 30 May 1883, The Journal of Belle Harris, Church Historian’s Press, accessed 21 July 2023,


The Church Historian’s Press was announced in 2008 by the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Joseph Smith Papers was the first publication to bear the imprint. The press publishes works of Latter-day Saint history that meet high standards of scholarship. For more information, visit the Church Historian’s Press website.

[1] See “Antipolygamy Legislation,” and “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage,” Gospel Topics, (accessed 6 Dec. 2022).

[2] For other examples, see “Ladies’ Appeal,” Salt Lake Herald Republican, 14 Mar. 1886, 12.

[3] See Belle Harris, Journal, 29 July 1883.

[4] Historical Department, Journal History of the Church, 1830–2008, Church History Library, Salt Lake City (hereafter CHL), 19 Oct. 1862.

[5] Clarence Merrill, Autobiography, 1908, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT (hereafter BYU), [54], [68]; “Belle Harris Merrill Nelson Berry,” 4 Apr. 1935, Kimball Young Research Notes, BYU, 1–2; see also “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics, (accessed 6 Dec. 2022).

[6] 1880 U.S. Census, Fillmore, Millard Co., UT, 463D; 1880 U.S. Census, Richfield, Sevier Co., UT, 479B; “Belle Harris Merrill Nelson Berry,” 4 Apr. 1935, Kimball Young Research Notes, BYU, 2–3, [8]–[9]; Belle Harris to John Taylor, 12 Dec. 1882, First Presidency, Divorce Case Files, 1877–1918, CHL.

[7] “Belle Harris Merrill Nelson Berry,” 4 Apr. 1935, Kimball Young Research Notes, BYU, 2–3, [8]–[9]; Clarence Merrill, Autobiography, 1908, BYU, [61]–[62]; see also “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah,” Gospel Topics, (accessed 11 Jan. 2023).

[8] “Belle Harris Merrill Nelson Berry,” 4 Apr. 1935, Kimball Young Research Notes, BYU, 3–4; Beaver County District Court (Second District) Minute Book, Series 5319, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City, vol. 6, 14–17, 24–25.

[9] Beaver County District Court (Second District) Minute Book, Series 5319, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City, vol. 6, 15–17.

[10] In re Belle Harris, 4 Utah 5, 5 P. 129 [1884]; “The Closing Scene,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, 26 June 1883, 8; Belle Harris, Diary, 22 and 26 June 1883; Salt Lake Daily Herald, 23 June 1883, 8. 

[11] See Compiled Laws of the Territory of Utah, Containing all the General Statutes Now in Force [. . .] (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1876), title XX, title XI, chap. I, sec. 1604 (379), p. 506; and David Medine, “The Adverse Testimony Privilege: Time to Dispose of a ‘Sentimental Relic,’” Oregon Law Review 67, no. 3 (1988): 519, 522–23. The spousal immunity privilege did not apply following divorce; it is not clear whether the courts were aware of Harris and Merrill’s recent divorce. (See Medine, “Adverse Testimony,” 529–30.)

[12] For example, see “Utah News,” San Francisco Examiner, 19 May 1883, 1.

[13] “The Scheme Did Not Succeed,” Deseret Evening News, 26 June 1883, [2]; “Latter-Day Martyrs,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), 4 July 1883, 7; Annie Clark Tanner, Mormon Mother: Utah, the Mormons, and the West (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1941), 47–48.

[14] Utonian, Sept 7, 1883, 3.

[15] “Belle Harris Merrill Nelson Berry,” 4 Apr. 1935, Kimball Young Research Notes, BYU, 6; “Belle Harris Released,” Deseret News, 5 Sept. 1883, 12; “Party in Honor of Belle Harris,” Deseret News, 12 Sept. 1883, [8].

[16] Brigham Young Academy Term Record, 28 Jan. 1884, BYU, 80.

[17] Utah District Court, Fourth Judicial District, Court Proceedings, 1899, CHL; Silas Albert Harris, History of Isabelle Maria Harris, 1861–1938 (Place of publication not identified: Dallin H. Oaks, 2005), 81–82, 85–89.

[18] “Noted Woman Dies Unexpectedly at Provo Residence,” Evening Herald (Provo, UT), 31 May 1938, 1.

[19] For example, see Belle Harris, Journal, 23 May 1883.

[20] Silas Albert Harris, History of Isabelle Maria Harris, 1861–1938 (Place of publication not identified: Dallin H. Oaks, 2005).