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

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

Ella Harper

Harper was born on January 5, 1870, in Hendersonville, Tennessee, to Sumner County farmers William and Minerva Ann Harper. She suffered from a rare condition called congenital genu recurvatum, which meant that her knees were bent incorrectly. It was quick and easy for him to move around, which caught the attention of the local circus. She began performing around the city at the age of 12, but eventually traveled to larger cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis, where showman W.H. Harris recognized the potential of a girl with back knees and invited her to join his traveling circus, the Nickel Plate Circus, in 1886.

Camel Girl

During a performance of Nickel Plate Circus, Harper appeared on stage with Harris' Camel, whose new nickname was "The Camel Girl". As her popularity grew, Harper posed for circus posters and pitch cards explaining her medical condition and her intention to earn enough money from the circus to put herself through school, though Many circus attendees turned away from the show believing that he was half a camel. Biology was not so well understood at the time.

16 year old retired

At its peak, Harper earned a salary of $200 ($5,000 in today's money) per week, allowing her to retire from the circus just four years after she began performing. After finishing 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 unfortunately, both died in infancy. Harper followed him in 1921 at the age of 51 due to colon cancer.

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