Ella Harper – The Untold Story Of The Camel Girl

For centuries, people around the world have been fascinated with human freaks. From medical museums to circus sideshows, these rarely unusual human appearances could be found everywhere to make us wonder. Some of these sideshow performers were born with conditions that many of us are familiar with, like conjoined twins. But some performers have conditions that are quite rare and might still inspire curiosity today. Ella Harper, the “Camel Girl,” had a rare medical condition that caused her knees to bend backward. Because of the unusual structure of her anatomy, walking on all-fours proved more comfortable for Ella Harper.

Life Of Ella Harper – The Camel Girl:

Ella Harper the camel girl
Ella Harper, The Camel Girl

Ella Harper was born on January 5, 1870, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Her father was William Harper and her mother was Minerva Ann Childress. William was a farmer, as well as a well known stock raiser in Sumner County at that time. He died in a fire on August 26, 1890. It has been later also revealed that Ella had a twin brother named Everett Harper who died on April 4, 1970, three months after his birth.

William and Minerva had total five children: Sallie, Willie, Everett, Ella, and Jessie. Everett had died in 1870 and Willie died in 1895. They lived in Sumner County, Tennessee. Although not many people know about it, Ella had also a middle name, her full name was Ella Evans Harper.

Ella’s father William Harper and mother Minerva Ann Childress

Ella was born with a rare and unusual deformity of backwards knees condition, resulting in her legs to bend the other way. The nature of this unusual affliction is exceedingly rare and relatively unknown, however, most modern medical types would classify her condition and a very advanced form of Congenital Genu Recurvatum – also known as “back knee deformity.” Her unusually bent knees and preference of walking on all-fours fo resulted to be called her “The Camel Girl.”

Ella Harper And Her Carrier In The Circus Sideshow:

It appears she began her carrier in circus sideshow around October of 1884, and this was mostly in the St Louis and New Orleans areas. She didn’t seem to start the travelling shows until her last year of performing.

In 1886, Ella was the popular star of W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, often appearing accompanied by a camel when presented to audiences and she was a feature in the newspapers of every town the circus visited. Those newspapers touted Ella as “the most wonderful freak of nature since the creation of the world” and that her “counterpart never did exist.”

W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus

Many of the newspaper ads referred to her as being “part camel”. Later in May of 1886, some newspapers mentioned her being a fraud and that “she was nothing more than a pleasant-faced young woman whose knees turned backward instead of forward.” Perhaps, for this reason, Ella quits her job in the circus in late 1886.

The back of Ella’s 1886 pitch card – used to hand out to sideshow customers – is far more modest in its information:

I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have travelled considerably in the show business for the past four years and now, this is 1886 and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.

It appears that Ella did indeed move on to other ventures, and her $200 a week salary, which is comparable to about $5000 per week today, likely opened many doors for her. It is said that, after quitting the show, Ella goes home, ostensibly to go to school and have a more private life. Following 1886, no further information is available about Ella’s life for quite some years. It seems that she just disappeared from history.

Ella Harper’s Afterwards Life:

On 28 June 1905 Ella Harper married a man named Robert L. Savely in Sumner County. Savely was a school teacher and later a bookkeeper for a photo supplies company.

Ella gave birth to a baby girl on April 27, 1906, and named her Mabel Evans Savely. The middle name for both Ella and her daughter Mabel was the same. Unfortunately, Mabel had died on October 1, 1906, at the age of only six months.

In the late 1900s, Ella and her husband moved to Davidson County – which is next to Sumner County. Ella, her husband, and her mother were living together in Nashville at 1012 Joseph Avenue.

Later in 1918, Ella and Robert adopted a baby girl named Jewel Savely, however, she also died within three months.

On December 19th, 1921, Ella died at 8:15 in the morning at her home from colon cancer. Her husband was the informant on the certificate and it shows that she was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville.

Ella Harper’s Grave In The Spring Hill Cemetery:

Spring Hill Cemetery is located on Gallatin Pike directly across from the Nashville National Cemetery. Spring Hill is a large cemetery that has actually been around in one form or another since the early 1800s but has only had a funeral home since the 1990s. Ella’s grave is located in Section B of the old historic section of the cemetery within the Harper Family Plot. Ella’s mother, Minerva went on to pass away in 1924.

Below is a YouTube video of a young lady in France who currently has the same condition as Ella had and it will give you a clear idea of what Ella’s life would have been like.

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