Prison Journal of Belle Harris Now Available on Church Historian’s Press Website
SALT LAKE CITY—The Church Historian’s Press today announced the online publication of the Prison Journal of Belle Harris, dating from May to August 1883. This brief but compelling document is an intimate record of Harris and her baby Horace Merrill’s time in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary. Harris was imprisoned for refusing to answer questions of a grand jury concerning her plural marriage to her former husband, Clarence Merrill. A transcript of the journal is now available free of charge to the public at churchhistorianspress.org/belle-harris.
The journal offers church members, scholars, and the public a view of nineteenth-century women’s prison life and the challenges of an ordinary Latter-day Saint who found herself at the center of a political struggle between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the United States government over plural marriage. On March 23, 1882, U.S. president Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, buttressing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. With new tools at their disposal, federal officials in Utah Territory redoubled their efforts to arrest, try, and convict Saints who practiced plural marriage. Clarence Merrill was among those pursued.
In an attempt to convict Merrill, federal officials called his former wife to testify before the grand jury at the Beaver, Utah, courthouse in May 1883. Harris appeared dutifully before the jury but refused to answer questions regarding her marriage to Merrill. The jury found her in contempt of court, after which Judge Stephen P. Twiss ordered that she be kept at the territorial penitentiary until she answered the questions or was ordered released. She traveled to Salt Lake City and entered the prison with ten-month-old Horace on May 18.
From then until her release on August 31, Harris enjoyed regular visits from many 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. Latter-day Saint men also visited her, including George Reynolds, Charles W. Penrose, A. Milton Musser, and her attorney, Scipio A. Kenner. Belle Harris became a household name among Latter-day Saints, and her story was carried in regional and national newspapers.
Despite this support and attention, Harris expressed anxiety and sadness over being held in prison indefinitely. Horace was often ill, and Harris 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.”
The Church Historian’s Press recently completed the online publication of two expansive women’s history projects, the Discourses of Eliza R. Snow and the Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells. The publication of the Belle Harris prison journal furthers the press’s commitment to make important primary documents from Latter-day Saint history widely available.
About the Church Historian’s Press
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.