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

By | August 29, 2022

test article image
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.

test article image
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.