Ella Harper – the forgotten story of the ‘Camel Girl’

Ella Harper, the 'Camel Girl,' had a rare medical condition that caused her knees to bend backward.

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 had conditions that were quite rare and might still spark the 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’s name was William Harper and her mother was Minerva Ann Childress. During that era, William gained recognition as both a farmer and an esteemed stock raiser in Sumner County. Tragically, he perished in a fire on August 26, 1890. Years later it came to light that Ella had a twin brother named Everett Harper who passed away on April 4th of the same year – merely three months after their birth.

William and Minerva were the proud parents of five children: Sallie, Willie, Everett, Ella, and Jessie. Unfortunately, they experienced the heartbreak of losing Everett in 1870 and Willie in 1895. Their family resided in Sumner County, Tennessee. Interestingly enough, not widely known is that Ella had a middle name – her full name being Ella Evans Harper.

Ella Harper – the forgotten story of the 'Camel Girl' 1
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 earned her the famous nickname ‘The Camel Girl.’

Ella Harper and her carrier in the circus sideshow

It seems that she began her career in a circus sideshow in October of 1884, primarily performing in St. Louis and New Orleans. However, it wasn’t until her final year of performing that she began traveling with shows.

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.”

Ella Harper – the forgotten story of the 'Camel Girl' 2
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 life afterwards

On June 28, 1905, Ella Harper tied the knot with Robert L. Savely in Sumner County. Initially a school teacher, Savely later became a bookkeeper for a company specializing in photo supplies.

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. Remarkably, both mother and daughter shared the same middle name. Tragically, little Mabel’s life was cut short at just six months old when she passed away on October 1, 1906.

In the late 1900s, Ella and her husband moved to Davidson County (Nashville) – 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 passed away just three months later.

After seeing so many ups and downs throughout her life, Ella passed away on December 19, 1921, at 8:15 in the morning at her residence due to 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.

Information taken from: Finding Ella by Ray Mullins, Wikipedia and Boldsky