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American West Latter-day Saint History

Why Did Belle Harris Go to Prison?

Her crime was not testifying against her polygamous ex-husband.

Belle Harris was one of very few women to serve time in prison and to keep a journal in 19th century Utah. Her crime was not testifying against her polygamous ex-husband during a time when the United States was attacking the Latter-day Saint principle of plural marriage introduced Joseph Smith. In this interview, Ken Adkins discusses the Prison Journal of Belle Harris.


Learn more by reading the Prison Journal of Belle Harris, published online by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Table of Contents


How did Ken Adkins discover the Belle Harris prison journal?

I was in grad school at Claremont at the time. I was working with Patrick Mason, and I was doing research on N.L. Nelson—a Brigham Young Academy instructor in the tail end of the nineteenth century, a homegrown Latter-day Saint intellectual.

I had been researching his work for years (he and Belle were married for a time), and that led me to the Belle Harris prison journal. Luckily for me, the full text was on FamilySearch and the original was published on the Church History Library catalog, so I was able to begin this project while in California.

I’d like to point out that I’m not the first person to use the journal. For example, Kimball Young used Belle’s story in the 1950s, Anne Butler in the 1990s, and more recently, Lorie Winder Stromberg quoted the journal in an article.


Who was Belle Harris?

Belle Harris was raised in rural southern Utah. She wasn’t wealthy and didn’t come from a particularly prominent family. But she had ambition, loved to read, and was taught by her family to speak her mind.

I tend to think generationally—for better or worse—and I think it is important to note that she is the same generation as Heber J. Grant. They are the first generation of saints to be born in the Utah territory, and they are the last to practice polygamy in the states.

Her parents are Joseph F. Smith’s generation, they were born and raised in the faith, but came across the plains as children. So, we are talking about a third-generation Latter-day saint.


Why are the Belle Harris prison journals significant?

I hate to conflate rarity and significance, but really there isn’t another journal like it. Of the women who were imprisoned, Belle Harris had the longest stay—and she is the only one to keep a journal during that time.

What interests me about the journal is that it has a lived religion quality to it. We see this lay woman pushed into the forefront of a national debate and we get entries about the way she sees her faith community, plural marriage, non-Latter-day Saint men and women, and the Nation.

Belle still refused to testify.

We also get to see her interact with a range of people, most of them are women like Eliza R. Snow or Emmeline B. Wells, coming to comfort her and bring her supplies. Though, it is not only friends that come to visit. She has people like Zera Snow and Marshal Elwin Ireland come to challenge her commitment to her cause, and we get her version of these conversations.

I’m glad she took the time to record them because this is where we really see her passion shine through. Belle also has feelings about her press coverage, so we get to read some of her commentary on different pieces about her case.

I also believe it is significant because the journal was written very early on in the Raids. Most people tend to overlook the impact of the Edmunds Act and lump it in with the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887. While I understand the impulse, I believe this period of church history merits more precise analysis.

Belle Harris kept a journal detailing her experiences as a polygamist prisoner in pioneer Utah, including this entry dated May 18, 1883.
Belle Harris kept a journal detailing her experiences as a polygamist prisoner in pioneer Utah, including this entry dated May 18, 1883.

Why did Belle refuse to testify against her ex-husband?

The Edmunds Act was passed in March 1882, and the federal district courts were eager to test it out. Famously, Rudger Clawson was one of the men to be convicted in 1884.

Less famously, Annie Gallafant a young pregnant woman was the first woman to be imprisoned, in November 1882. Luckily, she was only in the petitionary for a night. In December 1882, they called Belle to court. She had recently given birth and was able to push off her appearance until the next Spring. When she arrived in Spring, she had just received notice that John Taylor had approved the cancellation of her sealing. I believe this is a difficult moment for her.

Facilities were rough.

At first, I think Belle was trying to control a situation that felt very much out of her control. The Edmunds Act had essentially attempted to remove Latter-day Saints from the body politic. They couldn’t vote, run for office, or sit on juries.

She was a 22-year-old, single Latter-day Saint woman who had likely never been in a courthouse before. The grand jury of men questioning her was about as far from a jury of her peers as she could imagine. And I think that made her very uncomfortable.

She also knew that the testimony she was asked to provide was meant to undermine her faith community, which, especially at this time in church history, meant they were essentially asking her to undermine her faith. Clarence was also the father of her children.

In my estimation of her and other women of that time, it would’ve been undignified to provide negative personal information to strangers.

Belle also got the sense that to admit to her divorce was to give these men the impression that polygamy was a broken system. At first, Belle refused to testify for the sake of her own sense of privacy and “decency,” as she said, but she also did it to defend the “rights of her people.”

She refused to answer.

I find it interesting that Belle sees her faith community as an extension of herself. In the Southern US when people ask you who your family is, they ask you “Who are your people?” The Latter-day Saints are Belle’s people.

The questions that the Grand Jury asked were quite simple, “Were you ever married? If so, to whom were you married and when?”

She refused to answer.

In response she was charged with “willful contempt of court” and placed in the custody of the local marshal. I think that initially, everyone was thinking Belle would crack in a few days, but she didn’t. The court was about to go into recess for about three months—and Belle still refused to testify.


How did the penitentiary handle her?

At the time there were no permanent accommodations for female prisoners at the Utah Territorial penitentiary. This wasn’t uncommon nationally (women in western prisons were rare). At this point the facilities were rough. Reports of the early prison in Sugarhouse give us a picture of a flea-ridden general population, housed in poorly ventilated adobe cells.

The prison grounds were home to one woman, Alice Shelter Dow who was the wife of Warden George Dow. They had with them their two young children. I think Alice enjoyed the company (she was new to Utah and lived in a very isolated situation).

Belle was allowed to walk the grounds.

To avoid impropriety, Alice became an impromptu prison matron and was made the “turnkey” of Belle’s cell. There was a storage room outside the prison walls and the Warden decided to convert it into a cell. Other Latter-day Saint women—and Rudger Clawson—would later stay in this same cell.

One of the things I find compelling is that at the 1870 Great Indignation Meeting, Pheobe Woodruff stated:

If the rulers of our nation will so far depart from the spirit and the letter of our glorious Constitution as to deprive our Prophets, Apostles and Elders of citizenship, and imprison them for obeying this law, let them grant us this our last request, to make their prisons large enough to hold their wives, for where they go we will go also.1

Phoebe Woodruff

And about a decade later, Belle became the fulfillment of that request, as the warden had to expand the prison to accommodate her. Luckily, Belle was allowed to walk the grounds, host visitors, and receive gifts.

She had a very different experience from that of the general population within the walls.

One major difference is that Belle was allowed to bring her second son, 10-month-old Horace Merrill. This really added to the drama of the story. Suddenly a young mother and her baby were in a place that most of American society believes they shouldn’t have been by virtue of their identity. This put pressure on the Government, but it also put pressure on the church.

Both institutions were being publicly shamed for their respective actions: the church for continuing polygamy and the government for being overzealous (to the extent that they came after women and children).

The Utah state penitentiary in Sugarhouse where Belle Harris was imprisoned.
The Utah state penitentiary in Sugarhouse where Belle Harris was imprisoned.

What are some of Ken Adkins’s favorite entries from Belle Harris’s journal?

It’s hard for me to choose, but I’ll give you a couple of the more generally interesting passages.

July 3, 1883

I really enjoy her 3 July entry:

to day I have been visited Zina D. [Huntington] Young and sister Freese [Mary Ann Burnham Freeze] their talk was very pleasant and enlivening Sister Zina also related some of her experience in early rise of the Church at which I felt my suffering was comparatively nothing they brought can[ne]d fruits jellies and other delicacies and were anxious to learn if there was any thing I needed. I received a letter from S[ister] Eliza R Snow Smith in which she expresses herself pleased with my conduct and also bids me be of good cheer and all will be well with me. I have also received a letter from a non mormon lady who expresses a admiration for me and says stay with your determination do not forfiet your dign[i]ty by acceding to such an unjust demand tomorrow is the 4 of July the anniversary of the decluration of independence where in the people of this nation were declared to be free to worship god according to the dictates of their own consciences but I am held here a prisoner for refusing to answer certain questions relative to my family relations this look[s] to me something like oppression However I know that the Lord will overrule for the welfare of his people and I am content. I shall at last have enough to celebrate our independence with a good dinner as I have on hand at the present time can[n]ed tomatoes black berry jam rasberry jelly caned cherries caned pears orengs [oranges] sammon [salmon] oysters sardines pickles butter suggar of lemon candy nuts crackers and cake.

Belle Harris

This passage has a little bit of everything. We have prominent Relief Society sisters visiting her and writing her to reassure her of the nobleness of her cause. We also get a supportive “non Mormon lady” writing in just to encourage her.

Latter-day Saints were outraged.

It also is a great example of Belle’s reflective nature. She’s poetic and she’s passionate about both faith and politics.

Lastly, we get a long list of foods brought to her by the saints. Some of the items, I’ll admit, seem out of place, but I think the saints wanted her to have the best they could offer.


July 29, 1883

Another entry is a particularly tender moment between Belle and the warden’s wife, Alice Shelter Dow. This was after Belle had a rather intense conversation with Alice’s husband, Warden George Dow, and her brother-in-law, Marshal Elwin Ireland—it was quite the family affair.

29 July 1883

Mrs Dow told me when she locked me up that she wanted me to remember that she liked me very much and though she considered me very much in the dark yet she didnt know that she could blame me because she I had always been taught it but she cincerely hoped I would not have to come back here.

Belle Harris

These women are connected by virtue of their womanhood. Though Dow’s view of Harris might be one of pity, I imagine that Dow’s advocacy for Belle behind the scenes made a significant impact on the way Harris was treated.


What were the reactions to Belle being imprisoned?

Latter-day Saints were outraged. They believed her imprisonment was a cruel miscarriage of justice. Many non-Latter-day Saints also believed this. The real question that the public arguments homed in on is: “Who is to blame for Belle’s imprisonment?”

He encouraged her to stay strong.

We find in the journal—and in the press—that people fall into one of three camps:

  1. Most Americans blamed the restored Church of Jesus Christ. They couldn’t see how Belle could have membership or faith in an institution that would put her in this position.
  2. Belle and other Saints couldn’t understand how Americans could have faith in a government that would lock her away.
  3. There was a small group of Americans, mostly women, who saw Belle as a victim of the church and a victim of the courts.

In all three arguments, Belle’s autonomy is virtually absent. To some degree, Belle had chosen polygamy, unchosen polygamy, and chosen prison.


Did Belle interact with any prominent Latter-day Saints?

She did. On her first night in the pen, she is visited by Emmeline B. Wells, Mary Isabella Hales Horne, Ellen Spencer Clawson, and Presendia Huntington Kimball.2

One of the neat things about this project is that you can jump to the Church Historian’s Press’s Emmeline B. Wells Diaries and see entries she wrote about visiting Belle.3

But they didn’t stop there.

Some of the most prominent women of the church were aware of her circumstances and visited her with food and supplies in hand. It’s a beautiful example of ministry. I don’t think anyone really wanted to visit the pen, and these women did so regardless of their discomfort with the environment.

George Reynolds also visited Belle a few times. I can’t imagine he wanted to ever see that place again, but he encouraged her to stay strong. Eliza Snow also visited. By this point, Snow was 79 years old. It is incredible that she took the time to visit Belle.

In the journal, Belle records that the stories of persecution from the early days of the church, as told to her by these women, gave her tremendous strength. That connection and mentorship between generations of women is beautiful. This network of women was outstandingly supportive of Belle—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

I’ve spent many long nights digging in family histories.

They were very upset that one of their own was in such a place, and so they sought to transform the cell into a home. They brought jams, bread, oysters, pies and other foods.

But they didn’t stop there. They also brought Belle a carpet for her cell floor, a sewing machine, fabric, paper, books, and a bassinette for Horace, who spent his first birthday in prison.

Historian Kate Holbrook talks to Terryl Givens about women in early Latter-day Saint history like Belle Harris.

What makes the journal unique in the Church Historians Press?

Unlike previous projects, the Belle Harris prison journal did not belong to someone who was a general authority or general officer of the church. Belle was a lay congregant that experienced a brief moment in the spotlight.

The publication is also much shorter. Most of our publications are organized by year, or even decade, Belle’s journal is short enough to be organized by month. It is twenty-nine printed pages, so interested parties can read it in a single sitting, unlike, say, the Joseph Smith Papers.


What does Belle’s journal signify for the future of the Church Historian’s Press?

The prison journal of Belle Harris is a sign of the department’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in the catalog and in our publications.

I was part of the Asia-pacific acquisitions team for a short time, and it is encouraging to see the large number of oral histories and journals that the Church History Department is continually collecting from all over the globe. I think we can plan on seeing those documents getting a treatment similar to the Harris journal in the future.


What determines if a project is released as a CHP online publication or as part of the CHL’s digital collection?

The interesting thing about the Belle Harris project is that scans of the original journal have been available to the public for years on catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org. So, I see the two sites working in tandem.

Our next project could be something you could read now, but without the benefit of notes, annotation, or transcription.


What are some of similar projects we can look forward to?

One project that I am aware of is a transcribed and annotated copy of the journal of an early female missionary. Unfortunately, I don’t have specifics for you about that project.


If Ken Adkins could ask Belle Harris one question, what would it be?

Who visited you on 4 July 1883?

I’ve spent many long nights digging in family histories, diaries, and newspapers to identify many people mentioned in Belle’s journal, but there are a few that remain a mystery to me. Two men visit Belle on 4 July 1883. One was the son of George Q. Cannon and the other was the son of John Thomas Caine. If one of your readers think they know the identity of these men they can feel free to contact me, I rather not wait until the resurrection.


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About the interview participant

Ken Adkins is a church history specialist at the Church History Department. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is the lead historian of The Prison Journal of Belle Harris, an expansion of his graduate work. He has contributed to department projects in the form of biographical writing, documentary editing, and oral histories. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Brigham Young University and an MA in religion and archival studies from Claremont Graduate University.


Further reading

Prisoners for polygamy resources

Sources

[1] Belle Harris, Journal, 3 July 1883, The Journal of Belle Harris, Church Historian’s Press, accessed 1 March 2023, https://churchhistorianspress.org/belle-harris/.

[2] Belle Harris, Journal, 18 May 1883, The Journal of Belle Harris, Church Historian’s Press, accessed 1 March 2023, https://churchhistorianspress.org/belle-harris/.

[3] Emmeline B. Wells, Diary, 18 May 1883, The Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, Church Historian’s Press, accessed 1 March 2023, https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/emmeline-b-wells/1880s/1883/1883-05.

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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