This Mormon woman was imprisoned (and so was her baby!) for refusing to testify against her ex.

So why didn't she just testify and let that deadbeat go to jail?

In 1883, federal authorities summoned a Mormon pioneer woman named Isabelle (Belle) Maria Harris to testify before a grand jury.

“Were you ever married?” they asked her. “If so, to whom were you married and where?”

Belle had married Clarence Merrill in 1879, a polygamist who already had two other wives. Her marriage to him was blessed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which practiced polygamy at the time, but illegal under federal law. Clarence was one of many Mormon polygamists targeted for prosecution.

The Prison Journal of Belle Harris

Belle refused to answer their questions. Without Belle’s testimony, they lacked evidence to convict Clarence for bigamy. Instead, the judge sent Belle to prison for contempt of court. She was a nursing mother at the time, so authorities imprisoned her baby, Horace, along with her. The mother and infant spent 106 days in prison, and Belle never relented. Clarence remained free.

It sounds romantic, a woman going to prison to defend her lover, but Clarence was actually Belle’s ex. He was a pretty lousy husband who didn’t support Belle financially and hadn’t even show up for the birth of their first child, Albert, in 1881. We don’t know whether he made it to the birth of Baby #2, Horace, in 1882, but whatever happened during that second chance must not have impressed Belle. She divorced Clarence shortly after their second child was born.

So why didn’t she just testify and let that deadbeat go to jail? According to Belle’s own words, she was acting on principle.

“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. Those who accuse me of cowardice are in my estimation not worthy the notice of a woman who is not afraid to assert her rights and the rights of her people.”

— Belle Harris, May 24, 1883, The Prison Journal of Belle Harris *
loose pages of Belle Harris journal
Loose pages of Belle Harris journal

We have Belle’s words because the Church Historian’s Press recently published The Prison Journal of Belle Harris. It’s the only document uncovered by a Mormon woman written in her own hand while imprisoned for marrying a polygamist. More accurately, it’s a set of documents. Belle didn’t have a journal with her at jail; she wrote her diary on various looseleaf sheets of paper gifted to her by prison visitors.

The Belle Harris project is the first project by the Church Historian’s Press devoted to the life of a rank-and-file Latter-day Saint woman who was not an auxiliary leader. Lead historian Ken Adkins pointed to this project as evidence of the Church History Department’s ongoing commitment to chronicle the lives of women and members who were not general officers of the church. Belle caught their attention because they found her mentioned in the diaries and memoirs of some of her more prominent Mormon allies, including Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells, who were the subjects of another recent Church History Department project.

  • * Spelling and grammar standardized
April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett
April Young-Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at


  1. Interesting story and I empathize with her but hate everything about polygamy and the fact that she felt some kind of moral compulsion to support the situation.

    • Yeah, I get that. Belle said the problems with her marriage weren’t about polygamy, but they sound like polygamy problems to me: Clarence did not have enough time and money to support his wife because he already had two other families. And while I don’t agree with Belle about polygamy, I do admire the lengths she was willing to go to stand up for what she believed in and protect others in her circle.

  2. I admire Belle for her conviction and willingness to protect those around her. I just hate that her ex got away with being a horrible husband and father while she and her child were left to rot in jail.

    I hate everything about polygamy and how it throws women and children under the bus. There is nothing holy about it at all.

  3. Belle’s older child, Albert, age 2, whom she had with Clarence was likely traumatized by the separation from his mother while she chose (or was pressured) to languish in jail with a little baby who became repeatedly ill.
    I see Clarence with a large millstone awaiting for his treatment of his wife and children. Belle sounds brainwashed or emotionally/religiously coerced to shield an ex who she was not legally married to. Only the people involved can know what went on. Very sad situation for the children.

    • Great point and now I’m curious about how it affected little Albert. As I dive into the history of my Mormon female relatives, a recurring them that travels through 6 generations is trauma that begin with my great, great-grandma and her polygamist marriage. I can trace threads of that all the way to me and then to my daughters. And it is always on the backs of the women and children.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Click to subscribe for new post alerts.

Click to subscribe to our magazine, in circulation since 1974.

Related Posts

“I Gave Her a Name” Bulleted List of Poems

Please see the bulleted list of poems according to the four themes discussed in the Exponent book review of "I Gave Her a Name."...

Book Review Series: The Bishop’s Wife (Plus: ebooks that read out loud and giving ebooks as gifts)

  This mystery novel by Mormon feminist Mette Ivie Harrison is told from the perspective of Linda Wallheim, an LDS bishop's wife in a predominately Mormon...

This Bridge Called My Back

You didn’t think I was going to stand on that corner by myself(arms and legs like board, mouth full of cement) forever, now did...

It’s Not All About Money

There are some women (it has become very many in fact) who have to work to provide for the needs of their families. To...
submit guest post
Submit a Guest Blog Post
subscribe to our magazine
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Social Media Auto Publish Powered By :