Finding Ella (my search for The Camel Girl)

Ella Harper, taken about 1885-1886. There are more of them at the bottom of my blog in the Update section. 


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 the 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 that 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

This is the Masonic Home that Ella's mother lived in.
This is the Masonic Home that Ella’s mother lived in.

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.

Ella's tombstone. Gertrude's is the small one leaning against it.
Ella’s tombstone. Gertrude’s is the small one leaning against it.

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 Syndrome (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 turns 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.

Harper Family Plot. Ella's stone is the small one towards the left side of the picture, behind the tall obelisk.
Harper Family Plot. Ella’s stone is the small one towards the left side of the picture, behind the tall obelisk. Gertude’s stone should be located in front of the larger tombstone that is at the far left of the picture.
Harper Family Plot. Just another view. Gertrude's grave would be in the bottom left section of the picture.
Harper Family Plot. Just another view. Gertrude’s grave would be in the bottom left section of the picture.

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 old 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 to 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.

Here are some newspaper items about her:  Nov 1884   April 1886   Ella’s Pay

Update 23 April 2015:  Got it confirmed today through the wife of 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 DirectorySo 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 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:

WillieJHarper      JessieHarperWallaceHurt

We were also given photos of their parents, William Harper and Minerva Childress. 

WilliamLHarper                    MinervaChildress

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 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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156 thoughts on “Finding Ella (my search for The Camel Girl)

  1. I’m wondering if Ella was related to my Grandmother. Is there a record of a related William Harper being married to Emma Sharp (born 2/16/1904)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I looked into it a bit (back to 1850) but can’t see any tie-in. That doesn’t mean anything though. They could be further back. DNA would be the best approach.


    2. Hello! I’m very curious about the girl Ella Harper and I’m very interested in her life. Did you ever get contacted from one of Ella’s great great great grandkids or anything if she has any? I would love to hear someone that is related to Ella. Thank you!


  2. When I was looking for my paternal great-grandmother’s middle name I discovered Ella my great-great aunt! I must be part of the not too excited family. I never had heard anything about her and I now understand some of the family’s joint luxation problems-very, very minor compared to Ella’s. THANK YOU FOR INTRODUCING ELLA, what a very strong young person! I see resemblance to my grandmother whose mother died when she was a toddler.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to find out more about Ella. A history account that I follow on Instagram wrote a quick piece about her today. I was very intrigued by her especially because there wasn’t much info on her until I came across your page. It was a joy to read. Thank you for your dedication to finding out all about her.


  3. Funny, in 2014 I was also wondering about Ella’s life, and was disappointed there weren’t more information about her out there. Thank you for putting in the effort, very interesting read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I first was aware of Ella in the 1960’s after acquiring a book: Medical freaks and Anomalies. Published in 1896 It was a most interesting book. I had actually met one of the subjects personally. The Great Lentini, “Three Legs, Four Feet and Sixteen Toes”, he was very nice and patient with me as a 12-year-old. he was completely normal and personable man. It was about 1953. I have always looked at deformities as being people who looked different but were just like me. I admire your persistence in improving the history of this Young Lady. A laudable undertaking.


  4. What an interesting read! I am usually not interested in genealogy, but I am very glad I came across this.

    What bothers me personally is the part of her being a fraud. From the pamphlets you provided we see her dressed as a camel with fake hoofs. Is it possible that she was presented as actually being half camel? Because being publicly called out so quickly could very well be the reason she gave up.

    Just a thought, looking forward to more info ^^

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I think she was being promoted as real (not uncommon in sideshows) and I believe being labeled later as a fake might have been the real reason she quit.


  5. Fascinating account – not just respectful of someone whoin life was treated as less than human, but also an education on how to research and follow trails.. I also learned something valuable about creating my own tree on I have one tree that has gotten all goofed up, and I think now that it is because I trusted other people’s trees too much. Time to start that one over! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. And don’t feel bad about your tree because we all start that way. Of all the trees I’ve done (and that’s a lot), my personal tree is the worst of the bunch. I straightened it out later but it’s still not what it could be or should be.


  6. Your blog is wonderful! I am fascinated by people such as Ella. Thank you for all the time and effort you put into your research. Somewhere, Ella is smiling on you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Amaxing information and your exhaustive research is outstanding. I wish someone would research my family tree. I’d always heard since some ancestors were confederates they changed last names. Plus my paternal grandmother told me we were related to Sir Francis Drake on her side because her maiden name was Drake.


  7. Hi Ray, I am a veteran collector of original American Circus imagery and appreciate your efforts of collecting historical information here on Ella. However, I happen to own the same image at the top of your blog and to allow any and everyone to use it for crediting you, you are giving permission to everyone to use my copy as well. In addition, there are a ton of people pirating images out there in cyberworld & making a profit reprinting these images we have each invested our time in finding. As you know, images of Ella are extremely rare and worth an arm and a leg. I would suggest placing a watermark over these images and not giving permission to just anyone to use these photos of Ella as they please. She was exploited enough in her lifetime, wouldn’t you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Nick. I’m glad to know there are more images of her. That is fascinating! Thanks for letting me know. As far as the photos, my photos are the ones I took at the cemetery and of the documents I obtained there. Some time ago a guy on YouTube used them to make a video about Ella. I told him in the comment section that I didn’t mind as long as he gave this blog credit for them. His response was to disable his comment section. So I contacted YouTube and had them removed. After that I put up the disclaimer in the blog. In the end, I’m not really that concerned about them being used (it is the internet after all) and I don’t have time to scour the web looking for my pictures. As far as Ella’s photos, even though they are on tons of websites around the world I still looked into it before I published the blog. Any photos published before 1923 are in the public domain. Ella’s were all published in the 1880s. You are correct, she was exploited. And to some degree she still is. I find your feelings about Ella admirable, and they mirror mine. By the way, there is a possible movie about her in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Nick, I am a relative of Ella. See above, Virginia. I would love to see images of her even with watermarks and where to find.


  8. In addition, I also own a different standing image of Ella at a younger age than the standing one you have posted. I just thought you might like to know there are others you may not know about.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I periodically receive updates on Ella. So glad I received this one! I discovered Ella through “researching” information several years ago on a young man by the last name of Huddleston who had the same malformation/disability. My maiden name is Huddleston, so this was of great interest to me. I “met” a woman with the last name of Huddleston on Face Book thru our shared interest in a specific breed dog. I believe she lives in Michigan (I could be wrong…can’t remember) & her family was related to the young man (whose pictures showed him to be very muscular & have great upper body strength). Not sure we are related (& I’m in Virginia)….but this has all been very interesting and informative. My 96 year old mother just passed away recently. She was the official genealogist of the family with members of different branches coming from far & wide to gather information from her. She was highly respected & sought after in this regard. Now my sisters and I have the volumes of information that my mother had researched and gathered for the past 50+ years. We hope we can do her justice and keep her good work going. Thank you for your blog!


  10. I’m so glad someone found her! I discovered her picture in a book about the history of Freak Shows that claimed all that was known about her was what she’d written on her pitch card. I thought that was so strange given her striking appearance and how she must have been popular. I’m happy you were able to discover her history.


  11. Did it not seem strange to you that Ella had both a biological and adopted child die in infancy? I know that was a long time ago and medicine was far different than it is today…but ??? Living a life such as Ella’s would have to take a toll on a person’s mental health…is it not possible both those baby girls were the victim of a very damaged mother?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, it always crosses your mind when you encounter multiple deaths, especially for children, but the infant mortality rates were very high. Doing this for 20 years has shown this to me consistently. Take Jewel’s death. The year she died, 20% of child deaths were from premature birth and 20% from diarrhea/enteritis. Bronchopneumonia, pneumonia, and influenza accounted for 21%. The death rate that year was 13%, which was actually quite an improvement from 1906, when Mabel died. In the end, could your theory be right? Absolutely, but for my blogs I have to go on documents as much as possible. In lieu of that, I have to go with my gut. Here’s something else. Assuming the child abuse is correct, why couldn’t it have been her husband? I think men were more likely back then to be more abusive than the wife.


  12. I believe that photo is of Lucy Elvira jones a contemporary of Leonora. She was at the Texas state fair in 1894. I hope someone finds more info on her as this is certainly not Ella Harper in my humble opinion

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think it’s her either, but as far as Lucy goes, I can find nothing of her. no documents, newspapers or anything else. The only thing I find are websites that talk about but no proof. There is mention in a couple of books but their versions vary and are very vague. I wish I COULD find something. The idea fascinates me.


      1. If you look up Lucy Elvira jones paranormal 01 on google images you can view a rare pitch card of Lucy Elvira jones in the sitting upright position. Did Ella Harper play any musical instruments? As in the pitchcard there is a instrumental on the chair behind her. Maybe this is Ella Harper? However if not I wonder who this Lucy mystery girl really is?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’d seen that one somewhere else at one time but it’s just not clear enough to tell anything. As I got into this I found zero sources. Everything I found was copied from or based on Daniel Mannix’s book, and even he shows no proof in his book. I wish someone could show proof. It would be great to research her.


        2. The girl who is known as “Lucy Elvira Jones” is actually named Johanna and was double jointed in the knees so she could be in that positsiton. Ella had genu recurcatum. Also, both she and Ella have elsewhere been identified as “Miss (or Mrs.) Violet”.


  13. The girl who is known as “Lucy Elvira Jones” is actually named Johanna and was double jointed in the knees so she could be in that positsiton. Ella had genu recurcatum. Also, both she and Ella have elsewhere been identified as “Miss (or Mrs.) Violet”.


  14. This is so fascinating! I’m an amateur genealogist, and I believe Ella may have been my 2xgreat grandmother’s 1st cousin. Thank you for doing so much work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you can give me the name/dates I might be able to confirm it for you. Please email me (via the Contact Me link at the top of the page). -Ray


  15. I’m so glad I stumbled on this – somehow – today. I got sucked into one of those “people you won’t believe really existed” articles, and my first thoughts were of how hard that would have been for someone back then. They didn’t have the medical knowladge, or acceptance, that we do now. People would not have understood her. It makes you wonder if she quit school for that reason, or even went to school at all? Did her mother stay with her to care for her, or did she support her mother with the small fortune she made from the circus? Is that why her husband married her? A fourteen year old girl making what is comparable to $5000 a week for a years or more would have had a nice bit of money saved up, unless it was spent on medical bills and such. So many questions …. very sad life. I wonder if the twin was deformed, or if the fact that it was a multiples pregnancy had anything to do with the deformity. Interesting …. I’m so happy to have found this blog! That was nice of you to take the time to fill in the blanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi! So sorry for the late reply but I am not getting much time online right now. Hopefully I can get back to researching soon. As for your many questions, every one of them are the same questions that I and other researchers have asked. Sadly, we’ll never really know. I do think though that Ella may have been helping her mother financially because the family was fairly wealthy at one point, but by the time her mother died she was living on assistance from the Masons. Ella’s money had run out at some point because she and her husband had a very modest small home. Regarding her twin, it’s easily possible he was deformed also in some way. I know of current family members that were born with joint issues that were able to be corrected with with modern medicine. We’ve also been able to determine that it comes from the Harper side of the family.


  16. Wow! You saved me a tremendous amount of digging and questions. I am so happy I found your page here. I just recently realized that Ella’s Mother – Minerva Ann Childress Jackson, was the adopted daughter of my Great, Great, Great Grandparents. I have a lot of Jackson’s in my mothers tree. I did not know the story about the adoption, and I had so many questions that you researched and cleared up for me!! I will copy this for my other to read. I am so happy to have found this because I was doubting the connection, I saw the Lutrell line also and was getting confused.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome, Christie. Glad my blog helped. I’m still wanting to find out whatever happened to the sister of Minerva that we found. I have Ella’s tree up on Ancestry on two different accounts. Do a search for her trees and use the one that belongs to member kimmullins75


        1. I don’t see a sister of Minerva anywhere unless it was one of the Jackson’s daughters? Do you have a name for her?


  17. Hi, I am currently writing about freak shows for a university essay and I am using Ella as one of my case studies. I was wondering if you could tell me which newspapers you found her advertisements in/the citation for them? By the way, this blog was great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Michelle. Thank you for the praise. She was and still is my favorite subject to date. As far as the newspaper clippings, they came from papers all over the country. My wife and I are currently living in an RV and traveling around the country so my access to my records is unfortunately very limited. You are quite welcome to save copies of them from my blog though if that will help. I would assume also that my blog itself could be used as a source since it is also the main source for the Wikipedia entry for Ella. One thing I can do is check her family tree on Ancestry and see if I have the info posted there. If so I will let you know today or tomorrow. Regardless, the best of luck to you with the essay. -Ray


      1. That’s great, I will just cite this blog post and use the screenshots of the newspaper clippings in my essay! Thanks again and best of luck on your trip 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you. We are enjoying it so far. I checked the tree and I had only the city listed for the clipping. Let me know if you end up needing the citations though. Just show me which one and I can find it again.

          My best,



  18. My cousin sent me this, it’s been utterly fascinating to read about. I love going on tangents looking up unusual things like this myself. You did an incredible job! I will say I’m not sure (other than having a disability and all that goes along with a physical difference) that her entire life was as bad as we think. First off, death was so common ‘back in that day’ that though it would have been heartbreaking to lose children, it was also probably beyond what she/her family may have thought would even be possible when she was young. Secondly, she did have family and husband protecting her all of her life and left the sideshows when she had gotten enough money to sustain herself. At this time, not many women had their own means of support and especially ones with a physical deformity. So, she had money, a husband, a family around her, and got to love two children of her own, though both passed on, she got to experience a lot of a ‘normal’ life for a while. Sad yes, but maybe not so far out of line with what many other people experienced at the time. Rest in Peace, Ella.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I am so glad for your very careful and devoted research on this woman. I am also my family’s historian. I was reading my online news and her face and the dreadful “camel girl” quote were on the sidebar as a sponsored ad. I read that snippet and started a Google search for her – got the regular results Then decided someone must tell her story and finally got a link to your blog entry.

    Thanks so much for your time and effort in documenting Ella’s life, which was far more than just her appearance in the circus.

    Everyone has a story. As family historians, we are the story-tellers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Dee. This is one of the nicest comments I’ve had on any of my blogs. I also concur with your thoughts about being a family historian. Fortunately there are always that two or three family members that enjoy the information you dig up, which helps your motivation to continue the researching. Saw your blog and noticed that you haven’t been active in a couple of years. Are you planning on going back to it?


      1. Yes, I am. Sometimes life has a way of interrupting our best laid plans. I still get comments on it, as people are continually searching for their roots. I call genealogy blogs “cousin bait,” and have made connections with several members of my extended family tree.


  20. I became drawn to Ella and enjoyed your research and writing very much!
    Of course I would find my deceased Mothers (Adopted) half brothers Name Lee Pence’s Name as Family/friends/pallbearers to attend Ella’s funeral from Obit!

    I was lucky to have both sides ancestors traced but I am courteous about my mothers Grandmother who came over to America from the Isle of Mann! (McGlone)
    This would be a lot for me to do on my I-phone!
    But I have a Library, so no excuses!
    Thank You!❤️ Immensely 🦋


  21. Thank-you: this is really fascinating.

    As a person with a disability, I have a different perspective on this. I came across Ella Harper when researching my own condition, and I was intrigued by her precisely because she neither looks nor sounds (in her pitch card) degraded or dehumanised. She looks to me like any performer enjoying showing off an unusual skill to an interested audience. The fact that this skill is the result of a physique which was probably, um, highly inconvenient a lot of the time, should perhaps not dominate our view of her too much?

    I’d also be wary of assuming things have changed that much. As a visibly disabled young woman living in a Western country, I have frequently been grabbed, touched, pushed around, and indeed often knocked over (including by men who are complete strangers to me) in public places by people who assume that because I am disabled, they can touch me without the courtesy they would automatically show anyone else of asking if I want them to. It is the worst barrier to my moving around alone safely. Most of these people genuinely mean well, but they don’t realise how dehumanising it feels (let alone how dangerous it is given my balance is poor) to be handled in a socially unconventional manner by strangers, without being given any choice in the matter. And there is still a strong habit of disbelieving the disabled person when they say something about their capacities/difficulties, but instantly believing anyone they are with (which is analogous to not taking any notice of what a female student has said in a class discussion, until it is repeated by a male student). I do accept the real difficulties of people who aren’t disabled and/or aren’t very experienced with people with disabilities in responding appropriately (I’ve got it wrong plenty of times myself with others), and sometimes there really is no way of telling whether the person you are speaking to is an Oxbridge graduate with a physical speech impediment or a man/woman with a permanent developmental age counted in months, but we are very far from being there as a culture.

    Has anyone who has done deeper research into freak shows been able to find anything written by the performers talking about how they felt about it? I think that part of finding a deeper respect for disabled people is looking for their story as actually lived by them, allowing their physical and social experience, their narrative, to be accepted as part of human experience and a wider cultural framework.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Cherry. I’m very intrigued by your comment and am trying to get you in touch with a Canadian radio person who interviewed me about Ella. I think she’ll be very interested in you.


    2. @handmaidsdistaff
      dear cherry,
      i agree.
      but could not quickly find any good reference for your inquiry.
      just found reference for enough for me:
      i lived a while with a few mentally retarded people (i find no better words to describe them, that’s literal, descriptive, simple). they’re always lovely, loving, caring, childish. one of them lived to over 70 years old because he was taken good care from a rich family, who paid for a great care taker i also lived with.
      if schlitzie lived to 70 years old as someone who volunteered to be filthy rich famous in that time, i have no doubt in my mind it was an amazing life he lived! and probably everyone else in that page, exactly as you stated.

      thanks ray for your exquisite research. i had zero interest in it (just found you on wikipedia, wanted to know more about the genetic condition and is her children would also have had it, and was glad to see at least the video you posted), but it allowed me to find this incredible comment. 😆😘

      ps: i won’t monitor replies to this page.


  22. Thank you so much for this. I doing research about ella harper for my channel, i really interesting with ella since i see her photo on google. i do research but it’s so hard, even wikipedia just know when she born and died. this is make me frustrated but then i find this and THANK YOU SO MUCH…. i got all what i want to know. Btw sorry if my english is bad, because i’m from Indonesia 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re quite welcome! I am glad it helped you out. The wikipedia site used to have a lot of the information from my blog for quite some time but somebody changed it. This is why Wikipedia is unreliable and a waste of time.


  23. OH i had no idea why somebody want to do some stuff like that. can i screenshot this, and put it in my video youtube?
    it’s okey if you feel objected, i’ll understand 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Followed a weird history blog and found myself wanting to know more about darling Ella and found this. Thank you! I was spellbound by your research. Thank you so much for sharing. I wish I could get a deeper detail of my own genealogy. Time is hard to find.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Julie, You are right. Time is definitely hard to find to work on genealogy as it only takes forever. However, it is really worth it. The stories you come across, the strange things you come across, and the sadness you’ll come across. Also, I thank you greatly for your kind words to me.


  25. I came across a post on InstaGram that said she left the circus and no more was ever heard of her. I found that sad and also thought that couldn’t be true. It lifts the spirits to know that someone did have the care to learn about and appreciate her life. I really admire the the time and energy you put into researching all of this. The least I could do was extent my gratitiude by leaving a comment. You do good work with good will. I wish you all good things in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry, Bailey. Somehow your comment slipped through cracks and I just found it. Thank you so much for your very kind comment!


  26. Thank you so much for the research. Like another mentioned, I learned of Ella from an Instagram history account. My wife and I visited her grave yesterday as we live nearby. I wish we could help get her a proper stone with dates, etc. Ella’s current stone is practically illegible. We would certainly be happy to chip in! Thank you again for all the research!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like the comment above yours, it somehow slipped through the cracks, as did the next one. As for the stone, the Harper plot is still owned family and as such nothing can be done without their permission, which is extremely unlikely. Such a shame though as I would love to see more light and appreciation shown to Ella.


  27. Excellent work. Fair and balanced, done with respect and truly informing. I give you kudos as a writer and as a man. You were careful to focus on Ella and her life as a person and woman. Perhaps it was a sad life and maybe, just maybe, she had a determined love of life. That instinctual drive to survive and even survive! The fact that she left that circus, even profitable as it was shows Ella had a pride, a sense of self that lifted her beyond her condition. She was, and is, an inspiration for us all. You as a writer gave her that. Thank you. I have fought adversity all my life so I know just how much your efforts would have meant to her. God Bless you and R.I.P Miss Ella.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As with the previous two comments, yours slipped through the cracks. My fault for the lifestyle I now lead. You have definitely nailed it on the head with your insight and I really appreciate it. I couldn’t have said it better. My best to you, sir!

      Liked by 1 person

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