The Camel Girl: A 19th-Century Oddity Who Escaped The Circus

Ella Harper. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

During the heyday of American circuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, circus promoters sought out people with strange deformities and birth defects. These human oddities brought in crowds of gawkers to the big tops, all willing to pay a small price to stare at an unfortunate disabled person. One was Ella Harper, also known as the "Camel Girl."

Ella Harper

Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee on January 5, 1870 to Sumner County farmers William and Minerva Ann Harper. She suffered from a rare condition called congenital genu recurvatum, which meant her knees bent the wrong way. It was quicker and easier for her to walk on all fours, which is what caught the attention of local circuses. She began performing around town at age 12 but eventually traveled to bigger nearby cities like New Orleans and St. Louis, where showman W.H. Harris recognized the potential of the girl with the backwards knees and invited her to join his traveling circus, the Nickel Plate Circus, in 1886.

A domestic dromedary, Camelus dromedarius, in south-eastern Morocco. (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons)

The Camel Girl

During performances with the Nickel Plate Circus, Harper appeared onstage with Harris's camel, bearing the new nickname "The Camel Girl." As her popularity grew, Harper posed for circus posters and pitch cards that explained her medical condition and her intention to earn enough money from the circus to put herself through school, though many circus attendees came away from shows believing she was half camel. Biology wasn't so well understood back then.

Hendersonville, Tennessee. (Ed!/Wikimedia Commons)

The 16-Year-Old Retiree

At her peak, Harper earned a salary of $200 ($5,000 in today's money) per week, affording her the opportunity to retire from the circus just four years after she began performing. After she finished her schooling, she returned home to live with her widowed mother and one of her nieces, and when she was 35, she married a schoolteacher and bookkeeper named Robert Savely. The couple had two children, but tragically, both died in infancy. Harper followed them in 1921 at the age of 51 as a result of colon cancer.