The Beautiful Jim Key.


Had you ever heard of him?  Me, neither.  Jim Key is a horse.

The Beautiful Jim Key

The Beautiful Jim Key (that was his full name) was perhaps the first horse to have been trained, publicly, by a horse whisperer named William Key.

Oh, I’m sure there were horsemen before this pair, but what sets these two apart was the national campaign to teach everyone to treat animals with kindness.  In fact, two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed his pledge, “I promise always to be kind to animals”.

I may not have ever heard of The Beautiful Jim Key… but I knew that phrase, “be kind to animals”….

William Key was a forerunner, for sure.

Here he is...


This story unfolds many stellar achievements.  The first event of huge proportions was the fact that William Key was born a slave.  Yup.  A slave.

Bill was into slavery in 1833 and had a master.  He grew up on his master’s farm in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

As a child, Bill was always known as a horse whisperer.  He never used force, only kindness.  And with that kindness, Bill had made quite a name for himself as a horseman.

William Key

When the war broke out (The Civil War), Bill decided to stay behind and protect the sons of his master.  Huh?  Wow.  And, he also worked for the other side on the Underground Railroad.  Bill was caught and sentenced to hang.  But, somehow, as the story goes, he won his freedom during a poker game.

The reporting of Bill’s history was a little gray in some areas… but again,he managed to make a huge name for himself as a home-taught veterinarian.  During that time, Bill was quite successful and he opened a racetrack, hotel and restaurant as well as creating a fortune selling Keystone Liniment in his traveling medicine show.

Another epic achievement for Bill was that after he created his empire, he went back to Shelbyville, paid off his master’s farm and supported his master’s family for the rest of his life.  Wow again.

I think the part that really got to me was that at the World’s Fair in Charleston, South Carolina, Bill convinced the fair’s planners to open its doors to African-Americans for an entire day – to overwhelming financial success.  Right on.

William Key became arguably the most recognized African-American of his time, seen by more white audiences than the more well-known black orators or performers. He made significant strides in breaking down color barriers – with special performances and discounts for black audiences.

Here is a link to a website will much formidable information on William Key.

Dynamic Duo


So who is Jim Key, then??  He is a horse.  But, not just any horse.  He was the smartest horse in the world who could read, count, spell, sort mail…  Here is how he was described:

Jim was an educated horse, whose abilities to read, spell, do math, and more, made him more valuable than any racehorse of his time. Together with Doc Key –- an ex-slave, Civil War veteran, horse whisperer, entrepreneur, perhaps the most famous African-American of his day –- Jim became the number one box office star in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement, making the phrase “be kind to animals” a household ideal.

His show booth


After Bill had acquired some success, he dabbled in horse racing.  An opportunity came along to own a very famous Arabian mare (Lauretta) who was in foal to a very famous Hambletonian horse (Tennessee Vounteer).

I didn’t know what a Hambletonian horse was either… it is the name of the foundation stock of the Standardbred.

Anyway, Bill thought this cross would create the best race horse ever.

Alas, he was wrong.  The ensuing foal was sickly and weak and could barely stand for the first several weeks of his life.  So, Bill called him “Jim” after the town drunk.  Nice.  I guess it was funny at the time…

Bill added his own last name on the colt’s papers so he would be known as Jim Key.  The “Beautiful” part was added by his stage manager in later years.

His best trick... stealing the apple and shutting the drawer


Because the foal, Jim,  was so sickly, the Key family allowed the baby into their house.  And, so it began.  Basically, he never left…

Jim was incredibly smart by horse standards.  His crowning baby achievement was to steal an apple out of the cupboard and close the drawer behind his thievery.  No one could believe it!  And so the love story began.  Bill taught Jim everything he could through patience and kindness.  And Jim learned.  He learned to read, spell, do math, tell time, sort mail, use a cash register and a telephone, cite Bible passages, and engage in political debate – don’t ask me how…


Jim learned so well, that in 1897, they started touring.  Bill insisted that he never raised his voice or struck Jim.  He only taught this horse through kindness.  That was his campaign.  Animals think and feel.  Bill Key was the first to openly stand behind the idea that animals have thoughts and emotions.

(You could probably imagine how much business this horse drew to Bill’s medicine show…)



Here is an excerpt:

From 1897-1906, over nine years of continuous performances, Doc Key and Jim captivated the nation by demonstrating the “power of kindness” employed by Bill Key in cultivating Jim’s inexplicable abilities.

Known as the “Marvel of the Twentieth Century” and “The Greatest Crowd Drawer in America,” the two were seen by an estimated ten million Americans and written about in every major newspaper. Fans collected his promotional pamphlets, souvenir buttons, postcards and photos, bought Beautiful Jim Key pennies, danced the “Beautiful Jim Key” two-step, wore Jim Key gold pinbacks in their collars, and competed in Beautiful Jim Key essay contests, while millions signed up to join and support humane groups around the country.

Jim performed in the top expositions, theatres and music halls of the nation and was a hero everywhere he went, collecting keys to cities and endorsements from elected leaders, city councils and school boards. The top moneymaker at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, he performed in front of then-President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. When asked to spell her name, he cunningly attached the surname of her escort, Congressman Nicholas Longworth, setting up letters to read: “Alice Roosevelt Longworth”. When the couple was married two years later, Beautiful Jim Key was declared to be psychic as well as a genius.

Jim's letter rack


A man named Albert Rogers tried to buy Jim for a million dollars.  A MILLION DOLLARS.  At that time, a million dollars was a million dollars!

Anyway, Bill declined.  But, the two men established a relationship which made them both very rich.  The lovely part, too, was that neither man ever forgot who was making them wealthy – Jim.  Jim was treated like a king and lived in a stable attached to Bill’s new house – erected by Albert.  Incredible.  In fact, Jim, Bill, Bill’s wife and Albert are all buried at the homestead in Shelbyville.

Jim's monument in Shelbyville, TN


I didn’t want to leave out “Monk”.  Monk was a stray dog who appointed himself as Jim’s bodyguard.  He wouldn’t let any reporter next to his famous horse friend – unless they took his picture and put it in the paper! – or so the story goes…

Jim and his bodyguard, Monk


A few years ago, Mim Eichler Rivas wrote the story after a Key relative opened the history books and revealed all of the family scrapbooks and memorabilia from that era.

This weblink has a special promotion where you can purchase a signed version.

The book!

Click the image to purchase a signed book!


I hear there is a documentary in the works!  How fun would that be??  I understand that the filmmaker is David Hoffman.  Here is a link to that information.

Jim typing... (writing the screenplay?)


As with Clever Hans and the other “smartest horse in the world” candidates, people are sure that there was some trick involved.  Most feel the horses were very sensitive to their handlers and could sense what they wanted during a performance.

With Clever Hans, if his handlers didn’t know the correct answer, Clever Hans didn’t know either…

But, no one ever disputed The Beautiful Jim Keys.

Trained through kindness

Trained through kindness


Bill passed from Rheumatism in 1909.  He was 76.  Jim passed in 1912.

Luckily for us, the story lives on…

The Beautiful Jim Key

HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!


To learn all about the Bucket Fund and to donate the the ‘Saved from Slaughter Orphan Foals’, please click on the photo (photo credit, Trish Lowe)

HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth... if you like this, please pass it around!

9 comments have been posted...

  1. Peter ross

    This has to be the most heartfelt true story ever a man who conquered slavery also gave him the all the survival instincts to show even remorse when it was not present William Key must be the one of the most beautiful and iconic human beings ever and with Jim Key the most beautiful love story I’ve ever heard and mr monk god bless them truly inspirational love to all X

  2. Honestly

    Nubians are a gift to the world. Dr. William Key is one of many.

  3. lucille

    I think jim key and doc key are great i love horses jim key is a great wonderful smart horse and i enjoy the book. jim and doc key are great people and animals.

  4. Carla

    I first heard of this story about 2 years ago when the book was considered for the Texas Bluebonnet list. It is now a nominee for the 2018-2019 Texas Bluebonnet Award, a literacy award for excellence in childrens literature. The children of Texas get to choose the winner. I read the book to my students in my library and they fell in love with Doc and Jim Key. We, also, read a book about another horse, Sargent Reckless, who became a Staff Sargent in the US Marines for her service in the Korean War. Both horses were trained with kindness. I encouraged my students to take the Kindness Pledge and they voluntarily signed it on a bulletin board in the hallway outside the library. I just love the bond that humans and animals make through kindness that brings about the best in both!

  5. Robin

    Thank you for sharing this with so many more people! I read this book in ’09 and was deeply moved. I would love for more modern-day African Americans to see it and know that the harsh and cruel methods I see so many black cowboys using are not just unnecessary but counter-productive!

    Don’t try to make this something it’s not – of course I know that abusers and bad people in general come from every background! Just that having a hero with a common background might make a particular impact on that group, and I’ve had my concerns about cruelty blown off as “You do it the white folks way, this is the black folks way!”

  6. Anna Virgini

    What a beautiful story,of such a magnificent horse!I can’t wait to buy the book and…
    Thank-you for sharing!I love horses very much!!!!

  7. Rachel

    Such a cool story! great blog! I always learn so much from your blog! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Casey

    Sadly, not one single picture would load. Is that part of the problem? Off topic, I’ve got a lady who needs the information about the purple stuff for canker … do you have that link handy? Thanks! She’s got a vet telling her $3,000 for a surgery….!

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