Beautiful Jim Key: The Horse That Changed the World

Jim KeyPatience may be a virtue, but it is not one that I happen to possess. That’s why when I heard that Morgan Freeman had signed on to star in one of the world’s greatest horse stories, I knew there was no way I could wait until the movie was made to share it here at The Campfire Chronicle.


Let’s review the reasons why I am so excited:

  1. Hollywood is making an historical horse movie.
  2. The subjects of said horse movie are Dr. William Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key.
  3. Morgan Freeman is going to star as Dr. William Key.
  4. I love history.
  5. I love horses.
  6. I love Morgan Freeman.

Need I say more?  You can easily see why this news thrills my soul and makes my toes tingle. My plan was to get you excited about this news, too . . . a new Hollywood film about horses, YEEHAW!  But, by golly, the more researched this topic, the more I realized that the real story here isn’t about my beloved Morgan Freeman making this movie. . .it’s about the free man he’s set to portray. So let me tell you the story of how an African American slave became one of the wealthiest people in America and how his horse training methods forever changed the way Americans treated their animals.

Freeman’s Free Man

Jim Key PortraitDr. William Key was born a slave in 1833. When his master died, 5-year-old “Bill” was willed to a man named John W. Key, a tanner in Shelbyville, Tennessee. It is there that Bill demonstrated an affinity for animals, particularly horses, and he reveled in the task of training them. His also had a special way with his new master’s disabled father, and was often given the task of keeping his master’s father company. Bill had such a knack with the old man that the family was exceedingly appreciative and Bill was given a gift awarded to few slaves . . . an education. He was taught reading, writing, arithmetic and science. The mistress of the household even taught Bill elocution and etiquette. Following the Civil War, Bill Key was far more prepared for life as a free man than most slaves.

Bill never forgot the John W. Key family, especially when the tides of fortune turned.  When the family patriarch John W. Keys died, the family lost far more than the man . . . they also lost their comfortable lifestyle.  By this time, Bill Key was well on his way to becoming a success in life, so he stepped in to pay off the mortgage on his former master’s home. He supported John W. Key’s heirs and even sent their two sons to Harvard. When asked about his unusual devotion toward his former master’s family, Bill replied, “I was one of those fortunate men who had a kind master.”

ShelbyvilleBill opened a horse hospital in downtown Shelbyville. While he had no formal training, he was considered to be a veterinarian by the townspeople. He also opened a racetrack, a restaurant, a hotel, and operated a successful pharmaceutical business. Within five years, “Dr.” Key was one of the most prosperous men in Shelbyville. This gave him the resources to turn his attention to the sport of kings, horse racing, and his goal was to breed the world’s fastest racehorse. Dr. Key’s grand experiment in race horse breeding was foaled in 1889. . .but things didn’t quite work out as he had anticipated.

Lauretta Queen of HorsesThe foal’s dam was Lauretta Queen of Horses, an Arabian that had once belonged to P.T. Barnum. The sire was a Hambletonian by the name of Tennessee Volunteer. But, instead of the grand racehorse Dr. Key was expecting, out popped a spindle-legged foal that was unable to stand until it was several weeks old. Because of his early stumbling gait, the colt was named Jim after a town drunk. While the colt was not destined to win at the races, he was destined to become Beautiful Jim Key, the world’s most educated horse!

Training the World’s Most Educated Horse

Jim KeyDr. Key’s training methods were notable because he only taught through kindness. This former slave never raised a whip to a living creature. When Beautiful Jim’s dam died, the foal became belligerent whenever he was separated from Dr. Key. Being the patient man that he was, Dr. Key allowed Jim into his home and took him on the road with him when selling his pharmaceuticals!

For seven years, Beautiful Jim Key traveled with Dr. Key on his sales rounds. Throughout those years, Dr. Key continued to train the horse, pretty much to pass the time on long road trips. The horse learned to read and spell. Yes, you heard me right! He also learned to do basic math and to recognize the dollar value on currency. Seriously.

President William McKinleyThe horse was clearly gifted, but performance opportunities were limited by Dr. Key’s race. No matter how eloquent he was, or how talented he was, it was still the 1800s and Dr. Key was still an African American.  But, in 1897, Dr. Key was asked to serve on the “Negro Committee” at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Naturally, Beautiful Jim Key went along! The horse made his stage debut in front of none other than President William McKinley. President McKinley offered high praise for both the horse and the training methods. In fact, he said that Beautiful Jim Key “is certainly the most astonishing and entertaining exhibition I have ever witnessed. It is indeed a grand object lesson of what kindness and patience will accomplish.”

Jim Key - Equine WonderWhen the press made note of the exhibition and the president’s endorsement, and New York promoter Albert R. Rogers was paying attention too!  Rogers and Key came to a promotional agreement, and for the next nine years, Beautiful Jim Key performed for wildly enthusiastic crowds all over the country. Their act was the largest moneymaker at the 1904 World’s Fair!  But more important was how impressive their act was in terms of content . . . they showed the world how the proper treatment of animals can yield amazing results.

Be Kind to Animals

Dr. KeyTo say that Dr. Key was kind to Beautiful Jim Key is quite an understatement!  The horse traveled in private train cars, drank purified water and ate hay that was fit for a star of his caliber. He also had quite an entourage!  He traveled with Dr. Key, two grooms, a veterinarian and Monk, a former stray dog that served as the horse’s companion and bodyguard. Monk had Jim Key’s back, in the most literal sense. The dog actually liked to stand on the horse’s back!

Beautiful Jim Key

Animal organizations took note of the excellent treatment Beautiful Jim received, and activists that might normally picket animal acts instead presented Dr. Key and Jim with awards! William Key was the first African American recipient of MSPCA’S Humanitarian Gold Medal, and Beautiful Jim Key was the first non-human recipient of multiple humane and literacy awards. Two million children joined the “Jim Key Band of Mercy” and signed his pledge. The pledge simply stated, “I promise to be kind to animals.” That’s a mighty fine pledge!

Wonderful Jim KeyIt is interesting that a disadvantaged man like Dr. Key and a handicapped horse like Beautiful Jim were able to change the way the world thought about training and caring for animals.  And that they accomplished it quietly, and by example, makes them very special heroes for the cause, in my book!

Out of Obscurity

Beautiful Jim KeyFame is a fickle beast and, while Beautiful Jim Key and Dr. William Key were hot stuff at the turn of the century, they were almost completely forgotten in the decades that followed. That’s another reason I am about to bust a gut over the upcoming movie! If, like me, you can’t wait until Morgan Freeman works his onscreen movie magic, you might want to check out the book that served as the basis for the screenplay, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World, by Mim Eichler Rivas.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

18 Replies to “Beautiful Jim Key: The Horse That Changed the World”

    1. Hi Paul, what Dr. Key accomplished in his lifetime is humbling, especially when you consider the obstacles he had to overcome. And you’re right. . .Morgan Freeman is perfect for the part! Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Thanks Anita for the story of ‘Jim’, I didn’t know – Another wonderful horse story is about ‘Reckless’, the army horse. And we also need to remember all of the other horses who work serving our country many years ago. along side our brave men.

  2. I can’t wait until the movie comes out. Do you know how it is coming along – have they started shooting yet?
    Thanks for your great write-up – I’m sharing!

  3. Hi. I am Albert Rigers great great granddaughter. I am so thrilled about this movie. I heard my grandfather often tell the story about Jim Key. We are trying to get his wonderful memorial in Shellbyville restored.

  4. Love the story, read the book. I went to the burial site in Shelbyville, TN.
    and took pictures. I live in Lewisburg, TN, about 26 miles west of Shelbyville, TN. Lot’s of people never has hear the story. I told about it at a Black History Program a few years ago. Can’t wait to see the movie.

  5. So happy you are following this story. As a horse owner who is involved with equine welfare issues, I feel this movie could accomplish so much at raising awareness about kinder treatment of horses. More importantly, the issue needs to be raised in Tennessee–home of the big lick Tennessee Walking Horse, the most abused breed of horse in the U.S. How timely that a move about treating a horse kindly could raise awareness a century later.

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