The Prison Journal of Belle Harris

I remember a somewhat funny story about the anti-polygamy raid in Utah that I was told once. In the story, a marshall responds to an anonymous tip that a man is a polygamist and goes to his home. When the marshall knocks on the door, no one answers, but he catches a child in the yard and demands that he take him to the polygamist that lives there. The boy says, “okay, he’s just hiding in the barn over there!” When the boy and the marshall arrive at the barn, the boy points at a rooster inside and said, “there’s your polygamist! Go get him!” before running off.

We talk about the Raid as a difficult time for many Latter-day Saints, but often focus on the men who were imprisoned, like George Q. Cannon or George Reynolds (and all the other Georges). Sometimes, as a result, the stories of the families and women who were deeply impacted by the Raid can get overlooked. But, when Leonard J. Arrington spoke of the Raid as being “a trial even greater than that of Jackson County, Far West, and Nauvoo” that forced “the goal of the Kingdom… to be tragically revised, or largely abandoned”, he was referring to the impact on Latter-day Saint society as a whole (Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints 1830-1900 [Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1958], 354).

This morning, the Church Historian’s Press announced the publication of the prison journal of Belle Harris, a small but fascinating document that highlights the experience of a Latter-day Saint woman during the raid. As the press release explains:

The Church Historian’s Press is pleased to announce the online publication of the Prison Journal of Belle Harris. This brief but compelling document is an intimate record of Harris and her baby Horace Merrill’s time in the Utah Territorial Penitentiary. She was imprisoned for refusing to answer questions by a grand jury concerning her plural marriage to her former husband, Clarence Merrill, during the period when such marriages were authorized by the Church.

The journal offers a view of a nineteenth-century woman’s life in prison and the challenges of an ordinary Latter-day Saint who found herself at the center of the struggle between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint and the United States government over plural marriage and the free exercise of religion. …

The journal can be read and searched online free at


At the publication event this morning, Kenneth Adkins (a church history specialist at the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who is the lead historian of The Prison Journal of Belle Harris) spoke about the project and the context of the journal. He joked that when he began work on his graduate thesis or dissertation that his advisor told him he couldn’t just say “look at this cool journal I found”, but that was the basic summary of what he was going to present.

The journal is small (only 72 pages, which would come out to be something like 25 pages if printed in a book format), but intense. Belle was the third wife Clarence Merrill, but divorced him over concerns about his capabilities as a provider, shortly after her second child was born. Around that same time, due to her recent pregnancy, she was called on to be a witness against Merrill for being a polygamist. Rather than going into hiding or testifying against her ex-husband, Belle refused to testify. As a result, she was sent the state penitentiary in Sugar House for a few months with her 10-month old son Horus. At the time, having a woman in prison was something of a scandal, and particularly one with an infant, so there was significant press coverage as well as outreach from the Relief Society in Utah. While she received better treatment than the men in the prison, it was still uncomfortable and she was repeatedly challenged for her faith and choices. She was, however, a very gritty and “plucky” individual who stood firm in the face of being held in prison longer than most (if not all) other cases of women being arrested for similar reasons, being released when the grand jury that had been convened to convict her ex-husband dissolved. The journal covers her time in prison.

One of the key points that was emphasized in the meeting was that the publication of the journal is the first in a new area for the Church Historian’s Press. Up until now, the CHP has published large-scale projects focused on high-profile members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., the Joseph Smith Papers, the George Q. Cannon journals, the Eliza R. Snow discourses, etc.). Belle Harris, however, was an everyday Latter-day Saint rather than a noted leader in the Church, and the publication of her small journal is the first of a number of smaller-scale projects that are representative of a broader cross-section of the Latter-day Saints. It is also an indication of an ongoing commitment to publish women’s history.

Future projects they mentioned might happen include the missionary journal of one of the first woman missionaries in the Church (i.e., either Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall) and non-English documents that reflect on important events or themes in our history, though they are still early in the process of moving forwards on those. I’m excited to see what they do in the coming years, and also excited to explore the prison journal of Belle Harris.