Back in November of 2014 I was going through my usual morning routine of coffee and internet news when I came across an article about the new season of American Horror Story: Freak Show. I normally would have just passed it by since I’ve never watched the show nor am I a fan of the exploitation of sideshow “freaks”. Believe it or not, I’ve never even been to a circus. However, this one was an article about some of the real people on which the Freak Show title was supposedly based.
When I got to the article there were links to related sites that had various pictures and one that caught my eye was a young Ella Harper. Two things stood out. One was her obviously rare and unusual deformity of backwards knees (also called Genu Recurvatum), causing her legs to bend the other way and the other was her being from Tennessee, where I currently live.
Her bio had very little information, other than being born in 1870 or 1873 in Tennessee, performing only a few years, getting out of the business early and basically disappearing from history. There was also the statement coming from her pitch card (used to hand out to sideshow customers) that stated she was getting out of the business and going back to school to learn a trade.
She intrigued and impressed me but very little was known about her. Every site I went to were basically copies of each other. What was known was that she only performed for 2 to 3 years (1884-1886) and was the headliner for W H Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus. At some point she was earning $200 per week, which is comparable to about $5000 per week today. She gives it all up and goes home, ostensibly to go to school and have a more private life. There were occasional references to a possible marriage later back in Tennessee but nothing concrete.
The fact that so little was known bothered me because as someone that has done genealogy for twenty years I know that Tennessee is one of the better states for online records being available. This showed me that apparently no one had really bothered to dig very deeply into her life, which I found sad. To me she had a story to tell and I was surprised that growing up in Tennessee, and not very far from her hometown of Hendersonville, I had never heard of her. Essentially I ended up with a case of “whatever happened to….” and, as I had no pressing need to work further on my own family tree, I decided to find Ella.
Using the basic information on her I went onto Ancestry.Com and created a new tree. When I did a search on her I found an Ella Harper in the 1880 Census who was 10 years old and living in Sumner County, Tennessee. Hendersonville is located in Sumner County. However, was this my Ella Harper?
The information contained in each census varies from census to census. Fortunately in the 1880 Census there is a Health category. There are separate columns for “Blind, Deaf and Dumb”, Idiotic, Insane, and one for “Maimed, Crippled, Bedridden, or otherwise disabled”. This last category was checked for Ella. There is also a column under Health that asks that if the person was disabled at the time the census enumerator visited, then what was the disability. For Ella it was listed as “deformed”. I knew then that this was MY Ella. 1880 Census
Now I had Ella’s family; her father William, mother Minerva, sisters Sallie, Willie, and Jessie, and brother, Earl P. The census also showed Ella as being 10 years old. Ages in the census are never assumed to be correct and on average tend to vary a year or two, but if this one was accurate she might be on the 1870 census, depending on what month the census was taken. This might help settle the 1870 or 1873 birth dates that the other sites listed with her skimpy bio. So next I searched for her in the 1870 Census.
Found her in the 1870 Census in Sumner County, near Gallatin, Tennessee. She and her family are living with what turned out to be her paternal grandparents. When infant children are listed in most censuses their age is usually listed as a fraction of the year, such as 2/12 or 9/12. Ella is listed 6/12, meaning she is about 6 months old. Since this census was taken there in August 1870, this means she was born about February, let’s say the January-March time-frame. As inaccurate as the ages can be in the censuses she could even have been born in 1869. However, she was most definitely NOT born in 1873 and this error could be eliminated from her bio. Here are the links to the census. You’ll find Ella at the top of the second page and the rest of her family at the bottom of the first: 1870 Census 1 1870 Census 2
At this point I went ahead and did the basic genealogy research to create her family tree. I wanted to do this from scratch, not copy someone else’s family tree like so many amateur genealogists do on Ancestry.Com, especially when they are first learning. One of things you’ll discover is that so many of their trees are inaccurate, and many times horribly so. This copying leads to mistakes being so widespread and copied that the mistakes are eventually taken as fact. I wanted documented proof, as I require in my own family tree.
Over the next couple of weeks I added her siblings, parents, grandparents, family marriages, children, etc. When I did run across other trees for this family most of them had a William Harper and Minerva Luttrell as Ella’s parents and that they were married in Knox County, Tennessee. Ella’s William and Minerva were always in Sumner County. So what you found was the other tree owners tended to combine both families, resulting in many children.
One of the things I discovered was that Ella’s mother, Minerva Childress, had actually been raised by a family named Jackson (William and Nancy) because by the time she was seven her parents had supposedly died in a house fire. She appears in the 1850 Census with the Jacksons.
At the grave site of William and Nancy Jackson was another brother of Ella’s named Everett who was born 5 January 1870, died 4 April 1870 and is buried next to his adoptive grandparents. Now this was a problem because of Ella being born near this time. This led me to believe that Ella may have been born in 1869. Of course the other possibility was that Ella was also born 5 January 1870 (which fits her 1870 Census stated age) and was Everett’s twin sister. This was a problem for later. Meanwhile I continued my online searches.
Since Ella quit the show business in 1886 the next logical step would have been to look for her in the 1890 Census. Unfortunately the 1890 Census, for the most part, doesn’t exist anymore due to a fire that destroyed almost all of it. So off to the 1900 Census I went. If she hadn’t married or died since 1886 then I should be able to find her back home. At least, that was the best place to start.
Sure enough, she popped up living with her widowed mother and a niece back in Sumner County. In the 1900 Census two things I like that are new are that the birth year is now listed as month/year born (instead of just their age) and mothers are asked how many children they’ve borne and how many are living. Ella’s mother states that she had 5 children and that three are living. These five children would be Sallie, Willie, Everett, Ella, and Jessie. Everett had died in 1870 and Willie died in 1895. So this verifies her tally. This does not account, though, for the youngest (Earl P) who was born in 1877. Family lore (I found out later from a descendant of Earl’s) had it that Earl was a foster brother, but there was no proof. Minerva’s 5 and 3 statement appears to back up the foster brother story. And as far as Ella, her birth is listed as January 1870 so the twin story now appeared more credible. It also shows her with no occupation at this time. 1900 Census. More searching revealed a marriage license in Sumner County on 26 June 1905 between an Ella Harper and a Robert L. Savely and the marriage being performed on 28 June 1905. Marriage License Marriage Record
This marriage had been mentioned on a few sites as possible but not confirmed. Assuming it was her I then searched for the 1910 Census for them as a couple. They appeared in Davidson County, Tennessee (Davidson and Sumner Counties are next to each other). It shows Ella, her husband, and her mother living together in Nashville. Minerva living with them confirms this “possible” marriage for Ella as the correct Ella. On a side note, they started appearing in the Nashville City Directory starting in 1909 so I assume they lived in Sumner County prior to that. Like all censuses, the one done in 1910 had differences from the others. One was the marital status block. Not only would it show status but if you were married it also listed which marriage, such as M1 for first marriage. Both Ella and her husband were listed as M1. A carryover from the 1900 Census was the one about children born and living. Ella is shown as having borne one child but none living. This census also shows her husband as a public school teacher. Now I had to wonder if she had met him going to some school like she had said she was going to do when she got out of show business. 1910 Census
At this point I went to her death certificate which I had seen earlier during the search for birth, marriage, and death records. The first thing of note is her birth being listed as 5 January 1870, the exact same day as her brother Everett who had died as an infant. So she had been a twin after all. Ella died 19 December 1921 in Nashville, Tennessee from colon cancer. Her husband was the informant on the certificate and it shows that she was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. With this I planned a trip for that weekend to go visit her grave-site. The kind staff there agreed to leave me a map of the cemetery showing me where she was buried. Meanwhile I went back to the family tree to find more info on her. Ella’s Death
They appeared again in the 1920 Census in Nashville at 1012 Joseph Avenue, the same house in which they had almost always been residing, and still stands today. Nothing else extraordinary was gleaned from this census with two exceptions; her husband is now a bookkeeper for a photo supply company and her mother was no longer living with them. Assuming she had passed away I did a quick search and found Minerva had not died but was in the 1920 Census living in the Home for Masonic Widows and Orphans in the Inglewood section of Nashville. This made sense as Ella’s father had been a Freemason. During this time the Masonic home provided a place to stay, work, financial assistance, etc. to wives and children of Masons. I also found her there in the 1922 city directory. Minerva went on to pass away in 1924. Ella’s 1920 Census Minerva’s 1920 Census
1920 was the last census for both Ella and her mother so I turned my attention to finding the child that Ella had mentioned in the 1910 census who had been born and died sometime between Ella’s marriage in 1905 and the census in 1910. Unable to find anything in Sumner County and since Nashville city records are more likely to show up than county records I had to assume that the child was born and died while they lived in Sumner County, especially since they apparently didn’t move to Nashville until 1909 (recent findings about this in updates below). Since I was going to the cemetery that weekend anyway I placed hope in the possibility of finding her child buried near her.
As much as I hate driving in city traffic, that Saturday I made the drive to the Spring Hill Cemetery. It is located on Gallatin Pike directly across from the Nashville National Cemetery. Spring Hill is a large cemetery that has actually been around in one form or another since the early 1800s but has only had a funeral home since the 1990s. The grounds are very well maintained and the staff very helpful. The first thing I noticed in the main building was a beautifully restored horse-drawn hearse in the lobby area. The receptionist had my map waiting for me and off I went. It made the drive through the meandering drive paths easy.
Ella’s grave is located in Section B of the old historic section of the cemetery. It’s a family plot with a large obelisk that has her parents’ names and info. I found Ella’s stone fairly quickly and was surprised by two things. One was that the only thing on her stone was her name, and it was located on the top of the stone instead of the front. And there was a small stone, about footstone-sized, leaning against it with the name Gertrude etched along the top edge. Was this her child’s stone? It’s not that unusual for a young child’s stone to be with their mother’s so I had to assume it was the child I had been searching for. I got a few pictures and stopped back by the office to thank them and let them know about this loose stone leaning against Ella’s stone.
Back home I began my search for this child, Gertrude. Not able to find a Gertrude Savely that matched the 1905 to 1910 time-frame, I expanded the date for the possibility that it was a child born after the 1910 Census. I really didn’t think it was likely though as Ella was already 40 by the 1910 census. Immediately in the search a death certificate from 1918 appeared for a Jewel Savely, with the informant being Ella’s husband, Robert. Jewel was only a bit under 3 months old when she died. The fact that Robert Savely attested in the certificate that he did not know who her parents were led me to believe that this was a recently adopted child. She died from “status lymphaticus”, which at the time was believed to be the cause of Sudden Infant Death (SIDS).
Previously, on a Google search, I had found a short obituary for Ella in a newsletter for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Nashville from 1921. It mentions that she had joined the church in 1916. I am curious now to know if the adoption was arranged through the church. Yet another trip to Nashville I’ll have to make in the future….(sigh) Jewel’s Death Ella’s Obit
So I still didn’t know who Gertrude was. And there were still gaps in Ella’s life. When this kind of thing happens to you doing genealogy the best thing to do is to move on and work other areas/family members that do have information available. Besides needing to flesh out her siblings in the tree, sometimes going other directions turn up items you had been searching for anyway.
The next couple of weeks went by with the filling in of the lives of Ella’s grandparents and siblings. In the process I discovered that her youngest brother (Earl) had married a Gertrude Hurt in 1905 and that she had died in 1906 or 1907. Could this be Gertrude?
At about this time I planned another trip to the cemetery to check out the rest of the family plot. Calling ahead I talked to a wonderful lady in family services there named Gretchen about the family plot and she told me she would pull everything she could find on the family and then meet me that Saturday. This time my wife enthusiastically joined me on the trip to help me prep the stones for pictures. She has been doing genealogy for 20 years also and was really looking forward to the visit.
When you do not own the plot there is actually very little you are allowed to do to a tombstone but there are non-invasive techniques that can be used to be better able to read old tombstones. So we packed the necessary items and headed out. When we arrived we met with Gretchen in a conference room, had a great meeting and were tickled to death by the documents she was able to provide to us. Gretchen is bubbly, very knowledgeable, and a pleasure to meet.
The one document that got most of my attention was the family burial card. The plot that Ella’s parents owned was almost full and was centered on a tall obelisk in the center. This was essentially the headstone for Ella’s parents. The rest were buried all the way around this obelisk but I was and am still unsure as to which direction they face (whether head or feet away from the obelisk). The other tombstones all seem to me to be more of a footstone so my gut tells me heads are at the obelisk end. The burial card also contained a layout of the graves and included a numbered list of the interred which corresponded to the layout. The names were not in burial date order, but filled in at a later time.
First on the list of the interred was Jewel Savely, Ella’s adopted baby girl. Next was Gertrude Harper, the first wife of Ella’s brother Earl. She was buried next to Ella. It was HER small stone that I had found leaning against Ella’s stone. Then came Ella’s name. This was followed by her father and then her sister Willie, who had died in 1895. Next was Ella’s mother and then followed by a William Hurt Harper, whose mother turned out to be Ella’s sister, Jessie. He had died 13 May 1904 at the age of one month. The next name was special to me. It was for a Mabel E. Savely, who had died in 1906. This was that elusive first child of Ella’s that I’d been searching for. The next two listed were Dan and Sallie King. Sallie was Ella’s oldest sister and Dan was the husband. Lastly came Ella’s youngest sister, Jessie. Burial Record
After the meeting my wife and I headed back to the family plot and began the work of locating each of the graves, cleaning them a bit (gently) and for some of them pressing aluminum foil to the engravings for the pictures. Afterwards we stopped back by and told Gretchen about confirming that Gertrude’s stone was not at her grave and that it was definitely the one that was leaning against Ella’s grave. She was going to arrange to get it returned to the proper location. All in all it had been a fantastic day.
It was the following week that I was contacted by message on Ancestry.Com by a great-granddaughter of Ella’s brother, Earl. She was looking for some possible photos dealing with her direct line and since the family tree I have on Ella is private she was unable to tell if I had anything. I had enough info on this lady from her message that I was able to fairly quickly do some Googling and confirm that she was related as she said, so I replied. I am so glad I did. Jeanette is now a dear friend, great fun, and like me, the family genealogist. Unlike me, she is one of those lucky ones that get a ton of family documents and pictures handed down to her. It was through her that I found out about the family lore of Earl being Ella’s foster brother, although we both believe he may be related by blood to the Harper family somehow.
For now this is where it ends for me, temporarily at least. I still have research to do, specifically a trip to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Nashville I mentioned earlier and also one to the Sumner County Archives. Unfortunately the Archives is only open on weekdays and my work schedule just doesn’t fit that time-frame for now.
At the beginning of this blog I mentioned that I thought it was sad that not much was known about Ella. Now I feel she had a sad life also. She is born with a deformity that had to be tough to deal with. Loses her twin brother when he is only a few months old. While probably a typically emotional 14 year girl, she takes a job where the customers are at times cruel in their reactions to her, so you know her self-esteem had to be near rock bottom. I believe this why she quit the business so early, even though she was making great wages. She goes home to be normal again and ends up being a spinster until she was 35, another embarrassment for that time. Ella has a child right away who only lives a few months and then adopts one later only to have this child die within two or three months. And finally, she herself passes away three years later from cancer.
I am glad though, that I took this journey and got know her a little. RIP, Ella. You sure earned it.
A huge Thank You! to Kim (my wife), Jeanette Daeschner and Gretchen Skaggs for taking some of this journey with me.
Update 23 April 2015: Got it confirmed today through the wife a descendant of Ella’s sister Jessie that this Ella was the correct Ella. Her husband was told about his great aunt Ella by his mother. Also, she confirmed that Ella’s brother Earl was a foster brother. Not only that, but apparently he was literally found on their porch in a basket and the family still has the basket.
Update 7 May 2015: Sometimes you should take your own advice. I normally tell beginning genealogists to always scour over your documents. Many times they leave valuable clues. For example, you will often find family members living near by. Well, while creating this blog I had noticed on the 1880 Census that there was a farmer named W. Hooper Harris and his family at the top of the page. I couldn’t believe my luck. The name of the sideshow she performed with was the W.H. Harris’s Nickel-Plate Circus. So apparently he was a neighbor and had convinced them somehow to let him take her and make them all some money. My feelings towards this guy were not good at this point. But just to make sure I went ahead and started his tree to see what I could find. Without getting into the details, it turned out to be an entirely different W.H. Harris. It was just some weird coincidence, which actually happens quite often in genealogy. The one who owned the circus was from Canada and lived and died in Chicago in 1901.
Update 5 Jul 2015: I had assumed that Ella and Robert met in some school but I don’t believe so now. Just discovered that she and her mother were living in Nashville earlier than I thought. Ella and her mother (Mrs M A Harper) are located near the bottom right of the page. Note the address as 24 Edgefield. 1903 Directory. So now we know Ella was here at least six years earlier than previously thought. But what about Robert? So I searched the same directory for him, He wasn’t in it but I found a whole family of Savelys living at 24 Edgefield, the same address as Ella. It was a boarding house or hotel. I assume she met Robert through these Savelys. City Directory. Unfortunately the street is no longer known by this name and not listed on maps. I will have to do further research to find out if the place still stands and possibly get a picture. This city directory also means I need to do more searching for a death record in Nashville instead of Sumner County for Ella’s natural-borne daughter, Mabel.
Update 5 Jul 2015: After the previous update I had to run some errands but when I got back I checked the other city directories. These must be newly posted by Ancestry. Turns out that she is only on the 1903 one and Robert is not on it. They both show up in 1909, as I stated in my original research. So I have to assume again that they moved back to Sumner County. Oddly though, her mother is still living at the 24 Edgefield address in 1905 but no Ella and no Savelys.
Update 20 Nov 2015: I received some great information last night. Jeanette Daeschner, my friend who is a direct descendant of Ella’s foster brother Earl Phelan Harper, recently received some information from her DNA testing. It not only confirmed her ties to Earl, but also directly to Ella’s father, William! Jeanette’s theory, and I totally agree with her, is that William had a dalliance with some local lady and this young lady left Earl on his porch in that basket for him to raise. I am hoping that it also eventually leads to the identity of Earl’s birth mother.
Update 20 Jan 2016: Until now the only picture I had posted of Ella is the one at the top of the blog. It shows her at the height of her popularity and 16 years old. To me it also shows best how pretty she really was. Tonight I got a comment from a reader asking about other pictures of her. Originally I didn’t post the others because they are easily found by Googling, but the comment reminded me of something that needed to be cleared up about one of the other pictures. First off, here is the only picture of her standing I’ve seen. It was taken when she was about 13 years old:
The next two are similar to the pose at the top of the blog, but facing the other way and taken a year or two earlier than that one:
If you study these two in detail you’ll see that the bottom one is the exact same photo but someone has photo-shopped someone’s smiling face into it. Here is a close-up of the two faces:
As you can see, the one on the right is someone older, maybe in her twenties and obviously not Ella Harper at 14.
Update 28 Feb 2016: A reader posted some videos from YouTube of a young lady in France who currently has the same condition and they will give you a very good idea of what Ella’s life would have been like. Here it is: Video
Update 28 Feb 2016: Stumbled across some family bible records of Ella’s family today that are now owned by the Hurt family (two of her sisters were married into the Hurt family). There were many great items in it, and among them was the fact that the middle name for both Ella and her daughter Mabel was Evans. It also gave me Mabel’s birth and death dates. She was born 27 April 1906 and died 1 October 1906. Since she was not buried in Spring Hill Cemetery until 17 November 1906 I have to assume that she was re-interred on this date.
Update 12 Apr 2017: I was contacted by Virginia, a great-granddaughter of Ella’s sister Willie. Willie is the one that had died in 1895 at the age of 27. Through her I found out that Willie had died from TB. Also, her family has many photos and she was kind enough to pass on several of them. So here are pictures of Ella’s sisters. The one on the left is Willie and the right is Jessie and her husband:
We were also given photos of their parents, William Harper and Minerva Childress.
Update 8 May 2017: My friend Jeanette (mentioned earlier in the blog) made a major discovery recently and we’ve been tracking it down. She found a sister of Ella’s mother, Minerva. Her name was Susan Margaret Childress. They had been raised by two different families after the loss of their parents (in the fire) and Susan’s adoptive family then moved to Missouri. We’ve been able to track her up to 1902 in Missouri but can’t find her after that. Hopefully more to come.
Update 18 May 2017: Back in December of last year I was contacted by a curator at the Tennessee State Museum about Ella. He informed me that they were planning and researching for an exhibit on Ella and other Tennesseans that faced adversity back in the day. I was quite pleased with the idea and have been looking forward to going there to see it. The problem is that recently I was informed by Virginia (the lady with the pictures you just saw) that she found out that the exhibit on Ella was not going to be done at the request of surviving family members. Jeanette and I are fairly certain we know who this is but in the end it really doesn’t matter. They are obviously out of touch with modern media and do not realize the impact of the internet.
Update 6 August 2017: Found Ella’s actual full obituary today. It says that she died at home at 8:15 in the morning. Ella’s Obit Also found several more newspaper stories and ads for her performing. It appears she began around October of 1884, and this was mostly in the St Louis and New Orleans areas. She didn’t seem to start the traveling shows until the her last year of performing. Here are some examples from October to December of 1884: 01 02 03 04 Keep in mind that many of the ads I found for refer to her as being “part camel”. In May of 1886 though there was mention in a paper of her being a fraud and that she was “actually just a pleasant-faced young girl with backwards knees”. Since this is the year she appears to have quit performing maybe this was part of the reason. Here is the story: May 1886
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Thanks for stopping by! -Ray
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