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Series Feature #2 – Life In The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Ella Harper (The Camel Girl)

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue on our journey to future modern circus entrepreneurs. We last visited with John Ricketts of 1793, who became of the first to head to America to bring us the modern circus. But of course there are more pioneers that we will certainty visit which includes the great P.T. Barnum.

The Modern Circus Evolving After Rickett Death

After Ricketts death the popularity of the circus waned in the United States, although there were sporadic success during the early 19th century. The European circus of Pepin and Breschard was well received at the turn of the century.

The Introduction of Animals

It was about this time that the popularity of exotic animals arrived along with the first elephant on the northern continent of 1796.  The animal owned by the Capitan Jacob Crowninshield, became the first elephant to be exhibited with a circus when it joined the Cayetano, Cadet, Menial, Redon Circus of New York in 1812.

The second elephant on American shores, Old Bet, was even more popular and is credited with having established the circus tradition of the animal menagerie. Old Bet was owned by Hackaliah Bailey of Somers, New York. Between 1809 and 1816 Baily toured with the elephant, walking with the animal from town to town under the cover of night to prevent anyone from having a free look.

Old Bet’s popularity inspired Bailey’s farmer-neighbors to set out with menageries on their own. In a very short time there were noteworthy traveling collections of wild animals, such as the Zoological Institute of the June Brother. June, Titus & Angevine and Van Amburgh’s Menagerie also set up permanent establishments in larger cities.

At this time other important innovations took place such as the circus tent or “big top” which was first used about 1825 in American J Purdy Brown show. This allowed Brown to become the first operator to travel widely with his circus, which he did throughout Virginia in 1826, along the banks of the Mississippi River in 1828.

The American circus lost its most important promotor when Brown died suddenly following a performance in 1834. It would be nearly four decades before entrepreneurs as influential as Ricketts or Brown would emerge and expand the circus to newfound heights of popularity.

Until that time, circuses maintained a fair level of success with traveling shows such as the Mount Pitt Circus, as well as those featuring the animal tamer Isaac Van Amburgh and the famous American clown Dan Rice.

The United States gradually became the world leader in circus innovations, however European circuses in terms of scale and extravagance by adding rings to the performance space and exhibiting shows under larger and larger tents.

P.T. Barnum a Household Name

The American circus truly came to the forefront of International developments through the efforts of P.T. Barnum, who was already a household name by the time he promoted his first circus at age 61.

The soon to be modern day circus that many of us grew up with was on its way but not before those like P.T. Barnum turned the circus into a true experience. As one can see the circus was beginning to bring those aspects that we all loved such as animals and even clowns. I know clowns although incredibly popular in circus are not everyone’s favorite due to the representation of them being evil.

Dan Rice The Innovator of Clowns

But in the case of Dan Rice. Dan Rice was also an innovator as he coined the terms “One Horse Show” and “Greatest Show” whilst becoming a pacesetter for the popularization of the barrel-style “French” cuff. He was also a leading personality in the new American “pop culture” brought on by the technological changes of the industrial revolution and resultant mass culture.

Almost U.S. President Rice

Rice became so popular he ran for President of the United States in 1868. With changes in circus venues and popular culture after the Civil War, his legendary talents under the big top have gradually slipped into almost historical obscurity.

Dan Rice was one of those incredibly individuals who made the circus what it soon became as an experience. But there are were obliviously many others who contributed to its greatness which includes those who were obliviously different.

Last week we have the honor to digging into the lives of the most prolific people in the circus the Beard Women and the many bearded women who made the circus so incredible. This week I think its important to explore those who were different and this week we can explore Ella Harper also known as the “The camel Girl”

Mind you that there many be cases when certain performers may have little or no information about them but that does not mean they were any less important. Its just that many of these performers existed in a time when there was no social media or media for that matter just a camera.

Unfortunately at times history has not been kind to those who were different and certain artifacts get destroyed over time leaving us with little or no record of the person.

Ella Harper (Aka Camel Girl) is Born

Ella Harper was born on January 5th 1870 was born with a very rare orthopedic condition that caused her knees to bend backwards, called congenital genu recurvatum. This condition is also called knee hyperextension and back knee. A deformity more common in women, which can be mild, moderate and severe.

Her preference to walk on all fours resulted in the nickname “Camel Girl”. In 1886 she was featured as the star in W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, appearing in newspapers whenever the circus visited. 

Harper received $200 per week salary that likely opened new doors for her.  $200.00 per week in those days was comparable to $5000 per week today and she was accompanied on stage by an actual camel.

It appears she began her career in the circus sideshow around October 1884, and this was mostly in St. Louis and New Orleans area.

 At the time of her performances  a pitch card would be passed around the read:

I am called camel girl because my knees are backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you can see me in the picture. I have traveled 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.

Ella Harper

Where did She go?

After leaving the circus to pursue an education, Ella disappeared from public life and not much is know about her life after that. What is known is that she turned home to Summer County, Tennessee and was living there with her mother and niece according to a 1900 census. On June 28th 1905 she married Robert L. Savely and a year later she gave birth to a girl, Mabel E. Savely, who sadly died in November of that year.

Ella and her husband moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1909, and in 1918 she and her husband adopted a baby girl named Jewel Savely, who died at less than three months old. At the time of the 1920 census she and her husband were stilling living in Nashville.

The Death of Ella

Ella died on December 19, 1921 in Nashville of colon cancer at the age of 51 and was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, in Nashville, Tennessee at her parent’s family plot.

Ella’s Backstory

Some interesting backstory to Ella and her parents. William and Minerva had a total of five children: Sallie , Willie, Everett, Ella and Jessie. Everett died in 1870 and Willie in 1895.  Her father William Harper and her mother Minerva Ann Childress. William was a farmer, as well as a known stock raiser in Sumner County at the time. He died on August 26, 1890. It was later revealed that Ella had a twin brother named Everett who once again died on April 4, 1870 , three months after his birth.

William Harper and Minerva Childress

Ella would have been one of those individuals would probably draw lots of crowds due to her condition which is why she was paid so well in those times. But none the less she was a human being, but she knew that she could take advantage of the situation and probably earn a good living until she was ready to leave.

At times she was considered a fraud, but how could anyone with her condition be a fraud, but there were those who clearly took advantage of her disability. It’s hard to say how she felt as there was no record, I can only imagine that because of her condition she would be treated much different than you and I so many times so called freaks knew this would be a way they could survive.

Ella Found Happiness

What is quite interesting in the case of the bearded women and Ella Harper is that they both enjoyed matrimony. Strangely enough their differences in appearance did not change them finding some form of companion and love as their husband’s saw past their looks.

I know we tend to all like to say well it’s the hearts that important, but I personally would find it hard to marry a bearded woman. But I will say this that beauty standards where much different than they are today where it was common for woman to not shave especially their arms and leaves where in America it’s pretty much a given that woman do that here.

In the case of Ella she was an attractive young woman despite her differences, she just was dealt a hand in life she had no control over and made the best of it.  She appeared to still live a fairly full life in the long run.

What is most amazing about her story is that she was not treated as an outcast by her family, many times family would disown their own kids who suffered with disabilities.  This example just goes to show you her life was important and that she did not take a route of ending her own life which I would say many would do because they could not and would want to live with such hardships as this kind of condition.

The circus as we know it has always been a welcoming bunch regardless of if you were different. It was very much like a second family to those who were different because many times those who were different were outcasts and I think the term ran away to the circus came from.

History Not Kind To Ella’s

Like mentioned certain individuals may not have a lot of historical information especially pictures, but we I find its so important to put this history out there to the public in different ways such as my blog so others can be exposed to these different topics and people.

I hope you enjoyed today’s series feature on the modern circus and Ella Harper with much more to come as he slowly get into the circus features that are most recognizable to many like P.T. Barnum. Thank you for going through this journey with me and here is some of cites I went to because I think its so important that all of us do our own research and verify what I am telling you can truth and fact.


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