Most sources indicate that Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee around 1870 – although there are some conflicting reports. 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. After 1886, no further references to Ella ‘The Camel Girl’ can be found. An Ella Haper from the same county does appear on a marriage certificate in 1905 and a death certificate dated 1921 for that same Ella exists but it is currently unclear if this Ella is indeed the same Camel Girl of sideshow fame.
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.