Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Ben Williams rode to his niche on the backs of elephants

RUSKIN — The crowd hunkered in the dark as smells of cotton candy and peanuts filled the air.

"And now, please welcome …" the ringmaster intoned over a drumroll before the payoff: "Ben Williams and Anna May!"

The curtain opened, and in trotted an elephant carrying a blond man in a loincloth.

"The crowd would scream," recalled Michael Christensen, a co-founder of Big Apple Circus, where Mr. Williams and his elephants performed.

Mr. Williams was a star, and the act never failed. He was so attached to Anna May, an Indian elephant several years his senior, he nearly went to prison for her in 1982 after the animal killed a woman.

Mr. Williams, who combined his training ability with acrobatic skill for Ringling and Big Apple circuses, died Friday at Tampa General Hospital of gastrointestinal cancer. He was 56.

His mother and stepfather, Barbara and William "Buckles" Woodcock, were well-known circus performers. "The Woodcock family is to the world of circuses what the Fonda family is to acting," Christensen said.

Young Ben, who grew up in Ruskin, took his first elephant ride at age 4 months. He played with the large animals as a toddler, jumping from one leathery back to another.

"They raised him," said Barbara Woodcock, 75, a former aerialist. "He knew their moves, and they knew his moves." He bathed them, trimmed their toenails, talked to them.

Mr. Williams' father, Rex, was also a circus performer. When Ben was 5, his mother married Buckles Woodcock, whose family had been training elephants since 1853.

Mr. Williams was president of the National Honor Society at East Bay High School and passed up multiple academic scholarship offers, his mother said.

"It broke my heart," she said. "He said, 'Mom, I know what I want to do, and I can't waste the time.' "

Buckles, Barbara, Ben and his siblings, Dalilah and Shannon, all performed together with Marlowe's Mighty Hippodrome Circus, started by Barbara's parents. But Ben quickly emerged as a crowd favorite.

"He entered on the back of a very large elephant in a Tarzan costume," said Bill Powell, a longtime friend whose family also trained elephants. "He was physically imposing, he had a long mane of hair. He did this incredible act with this wonderful elephant that was literally a family member. It was an act people remembered and talked about."

The family worked with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus in the 1970s, and with the Big Apple Circus in New York in the 1980s and 1990s.

Before audiences ranging from Madison Square Garden to the Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Palace, Mr. Williams coaxed Anna May — billed as the "world's smartest performing elephant" — through hoof- and headstands, playing the tambourine, carrying people in her mouth or serving as a springboard for leopards. It was a bond for the ages. But in 1982, a bizarre incident nearly dissolved the partnership with Anna May and ended Mr. Williams' career.

The body of Mary Herman, 30, a friend of Mr. Williams', was found dead of a "crushing-type injury," authorities in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., said. Authorities charged Mr. Williams and another trainer with first-degree murder.

They later found the real culprit was Anna May, who had been startled by Herman's visit to her trailer. Anna May swatted the woman with her trunk, killing her. Authorities dropped the charges, even though Mr. Williams admitted hiding the body.

"He was afraid they were going to kill the elephant," said Buckles Woodcock, 74. "He carried that with him."

Later, Mr. Williams brought his daughters, Stormy and Skye, into his act, and they proved just as fearless as he had been.

The family retired the elephants to an Arkansas farm several years ago. Anna May died in 2002; she was nearly 60.

The entertainment form she starred in may also be dying. Ringling Bros. is defending an animal-cruelty lawsuit brought by several animal-rights groups. Meanwhile, protesters stand outside circuses, making arenas skittish of bad publicity.

The Big Apple Circus stopped using them after Mr. Williams and his family left in 2000. "We knew we weren't going to get elephant training like the Woodcocks again, ever," Christensen said. "We were saddened by the end of an era."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Ben Harold Williams

Born: Jan. 18, 1953.

Died: Oct. 2, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Darlene; daughters, Stormy and Skye; mother, Barbara and stepfather William "Buckles" Woodcock; sister, Dalilah; brother, Shannon. Ben is also survived by his sisters Darlene Ava Williams, Renee Williams Senn, his other daughter Jennifer Williams Doby; three grandchildren; one great-grandson.

Memorial gathering: 4 p.m. Nov. 14; Showfolks Club of Sarasota, 5204 N Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota.

Ben Williams rode to his niche on the backs of elephants 10/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 4:31pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. CBO analysis: 23 million would lose health coverage under House-passed bill


    WASHINGTON — The Republican health care bill that passed the House earlier this month would nearly double the number of Americans without health insurance over the next decade, according to a new analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

    President Donald Trump held a press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House with members of the GOP on May 4 after the House passed legislation to roll back the Affordable Care Act. [Cheriss May | Sipa USA via TNS]
  2. Tarpon Springs psychic charged with defrauding veteran, widow out of $155,000


    TARPON SPRINGS — A psychic was arrested Tuesday after police said she scammed two clients out of more than $150,000.

    Gina Wilson
  3. St. Pete Economic Development Corporation lures marketing firm MXTR to town

    Economic Development

    St. Petersburg Economic Development Corporation has lured its first big catch to St. Petersburg — MXTR Automation. The digital marketing company announced Wednesday that it will fill 20 "high-wage" creative positions within the next 18 months, as well as open an office in downtown St. Petersburg this year.

  4. Hernando sheriff: Middle school staffer accused of sexually assaulting student


    SPRING HILL — A staffer and coach at Fox Chapel Middle School was arrested Tuesday, accused of sexually assaulting a student on the school's campus.

    Marcus Wells, 34, an in-school suspension monitor at Fox Chapel Middle School, was arrested Tuesday on allegations that he sexually battered a student, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. He was fired by the school district. [Photo courtesy of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office]
  5. Memorial service sparks wistful memories for daughter of slain Hillsborough deputy

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — As the somber notes of "Taps" sounded in a stiff breeze, Sherri Longway thought about her father.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, far left, stands with his hand over his heart along with others during the HCSO's annual Law Enforcement Memorial Service Wednesday, May 24, 2017 in the Ybor City area Tampa. Sheriff David Gee along with dignitaries and members of the sheriff's office paid tribute to members of the Sheriff's Office who have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.