Ella Harper

Ella Harper: The Camel Girl


Ella Harper (5 January 1870 – 19 December 1921) was a famous circus freak who was known as “The Camel Girl.” According to most sources on the Web, Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Some sources claim that she also had a twin brother who died at an early age.

Due to an extremely rare orthopedic condition called congenital genu recurvatum (also called knee hyperextension and back knee), she preferred to walk on all fours. The reason for her unusual gait was that her deformity in the knee joint caused her knees to bend backwards. Harper’s condition and unusual preference to walk on all fours is what eventually earned her a lucrative career as a circus performer, as well as the nickname “Camel Girl.”

Harper’s Successful Career

Although there is not a lot of information on the life of Harper, all sources state that in 1886, she was featured as the star in W.H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus. She appeared in various newspapers where the circus visited.

How Much Money Did Harper Make In The Circus?

stack of money Based on various sources, Harper earned $200 per week. According to an inflation calculator on DaveManuel.com, $200 in 1886 would be worth $5,128.21 in 2015.

The back of Harper’s 1886 pitch card says that after four years in show business, she planned on quitting, and eventually wanted to attend school so she can focus on another career. With the excellent money she earned during her career, she likely had the financial resources to attend any college she wanted.

To read Harper’s pitch card verbatim, visit Wikipedia.

the camel girl

Screenshot from EllaHarper.wordpress.com shows an advertisement for Harper’s appearance in a circus show in Columbus, Nebraska.

Life After Show Business

After 1886, not much was known about Harper’s life. However, not long ago, a genealogist did basic genealogy research to trace her family tree. The genealogist was also able to gather some information on her life after show business.

Information Gathered By The Genealogist

According to the information obtained by the genealogist, on June 28, 1905, Harper married a man who was a school teacher and bookkeeper. In 1906, Harper gave birth to a baby girl. Sadly, her daughter lived a very short life. She died in November of 1906.

A 1910 Census revealed that Harper, her mother, and husband all lived in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1918, Harper and her husband chose to adopt a baby girl who was only 3 months old. Unfortunately, just like her first child, her adopted child also lived a short life. Less than 3 weeks after Harper and her husband adopted her, she passed away.

Harper’s Death

Records also revealed that on December 19, 1921, Harper passed away from colon cancer. She were buried at Spring Hill Cemetery located in Nashville, Tennessee.

Do The Obtained Records Actually Refer To This Particular Ella Harper?

Although the recent records obtained by the genealogist refer to a Ella Harper, according to Wikipedia, it remains unclear whether it refers to Harper (The Camel Girl) who was once a circus performer with congenital genu recurvatum.

However, in a 1880 Census, there was a category called “Health.” The column for people who are Maimed, Crippled, or Bedridden was checked for Harper. Also, located under the health column was a question that asks if the person was disabled, and what the particular disability was. For Harper, it was listed as using the word “deformed.” Although this information doesn’t confirm that the records refer to this particular Ella Harper, it is definitely convincing.

The Family That Walks On All Fours

The Family That Walks on All Fours is a BBC2 documentary about a group of 5 quadrupedal humans from Turkey who walk exclusively on their hands and feet. The syndrome is called Uner Tan syndrome (also known as Unertan syndrome or UTS). It was proposed by Turkish evolutionary biologist Üner Tan.

When the world first heard about this family in 2006, many scientists speculated their gait was a comeback of a trait that was lost during human evolution. However, according to a new study, this is not the case. After comparing videos of the family’s gait with the gaits of nonhuman primates, they discovered that the gait patterns did not match. The study showed that people with Uner Tan do not represent a backward stage of evolution. Instead, they are just adapting to their disorder.

Of course, a family of five with quadrupedal gait would have made a great addition to a sideshow in Harper’s time. Due to limited technology and resources back then, scientists probably wouldn’t have an explanation for their gait. Therefore, their condition would remain a mystery, which would make them even more of a human oddity that people around the world would be curious to see.

CA8 Mutations Cause a Novel Syndrome Characterized by Ataxia and Mild Mental Retardation with Predisposition to Quadrupedal Gait

Authors: Türkmen S, Guo G, Garshasbi M, Hoffmann K, Alshalah A, Mischung C, Kuss A, Humphrey N, Mundlos S, Robinson P

Attribution 2.5 Generic

Above is a film demonstrating a family with quadrupedal gait.

Of course, Harper did not suffer with the same type of condition as the family of five from Turkey (and others with Uner Tan syndrome). However, one thing they all have in common is their very unusual gait. Luckily for Ella Harper, her rare orthopedic condition, coupled with her preference to walk on all fours, not only made her famous, but also lead her to a career as “The Camel Girl.”

This entry was posted in Human Abnormalities on by .

About Joseph Caltabiano

Joseph Caltabiano is a writer, oddities lover and a former surgical technologist. He left the field of surgical technology to pursue a career in blogging and internet marketing. As clearly shown in his posts, Joseph is very passionate about unusual topics. His two most favorite topics are medical and weird science.