A 1904 advertisement invited the public to see Beautiful Jim Key at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Price of admission was 15 cents, a fair amount considering visitors would get to see a horse who, according to the ad, “ Reads, Writes, Spells, Counts, Figures, Changes Money Using a National Cash Register, Even Gives Bible Quotations.”
Jim Key was a stallion foaled in Shelbyville in 1889. He was owned by a former slave known as “Dr.” William Key, a self-trained veterinarian. The horse was purported to have the IQ of a human sixth grader and could tell time, sort mail, use a telephone and more. He and his owner became renowned in 1897 and performed across the country.
Jim Key was billed as the “smartest horse in the world” and was valued at one million dollars. He spelled his name using alphabet blocks and solve math problems using numbered blocks. On October 4, 1897, the Pittsburg Press published an article on the horse’s performance: “‘Beautiful Jim Key,’ the educated horse, has captured the hearts of all who have seen him at the Pittsburg exposition…One of his most remarkable tricks is to get a silver dollar from the cash register, which he opens with his teeth, drop the dollar into a glass jar filled with six gallons of water, ad then at the request of this trainer he picks the dollar our without drinking a single drop of water…Jim is giving exhibitions every day this week and no one should fail to see him, for he is a wonder in every sense of the term.”
“Doc” Key was born a slave in 1833 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and moved to Shelbyville at the age of five. He was known early on for his “horse whispering” capabilities. He would later follow his master’s son to the Civil War to protect them.
After the war, Doc opened a hospital for horses in Shelbyville. He formed a special bond with Beautiful Jim Key when the foal’s dam died, and the foal refused to leave Doc’s side. Doc fed the horse by hand. He trained Jim Key and, after several years of touring, Doc was one of the most recognized African-Americans of his time. He would insist on giving special performances for black audiences at a discount and he convinced planners of the World’s Fair in Charleston, South Carolina, to have a day exclusively for black audiences.
Jim Key had a huge impact on popular culture at the time. As many as two million children joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy and signed the accompanying pledge: “I promise always to be kind to animals and other sentient being.” Key died in 1909, three years before his beloved horse. He is buried in Willow Mount Cemetery. The remains of the horse were moved from Key’s property in 1967 to a field three miles south of the Shelbyville courthouse on Highway 130.