Most sources indicate that Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee around 1870 – although there are some conflicting reports. It has also been revealed that Ella had a twin brother, who died quite early. What is not argued, however, is the fact that Ella was born with an unusual orthopedic condition resulting in knees that bent backwards. 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, coupled with her preference of walking on all fours resulted in her moniker of ‘The Camel Girl’.
In 1886, Ella was the 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’.
The back of Ella’s 1886 pitch card 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 traveled 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 likely opened many doors for her. For quite some time no further information was available on Ella following 1886, but recently a genealogist managed to not only trace Ella’s family tree, but also provide some information regarding her life after sideshow.
On 28 June 1905 Ella Harper married a man named Robert L. Savely. Savely was a school teacher and later a bookkeeper for a photo supplies company. A 1910 Census shows Ella and her husband living in Nashville, Tennessee with Ella’s mother and it also revealed that Ella and her husband had adopted a 3 month old child, but that the child passed away only 18 days later.
We also now know that Ella died of colon cancer on 19 December 1921 in Nashville, Tennessee and that she buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. A simple gravestone marks her plot, but she is surrounded by family.
image: 1. Ella Harper’s 1886 Nickle Plate Circus Pitch Card from the author’s collection.
2. From the book We Who Are Not As Others.
3. An excellent genealogical odyssey of Ell’s life that is certainly worth reading: http://bit.ly/1FRoilZ