Updated: Apr 13, 2022
The world's most educated horse was Jim Key, born in 1889, he could count to thirty, could add and subtract, move the hands of a clock to tell the correct time, knew the alphabet, and would select letters from his special board to spell words and common names. He once beat sixth graders in a spelling contest as he was the only one who could correctly spell words like "constitution" "physics" and the name "Issac."
He could answer yes or no to questions, would express political opinions -- and insisted he was a democrat -- even when meeting Republican Presidents.
Jim could write his first name on a chalk board, but didn't much like the taste of chalk, so preferred to place his letters on his special board.
Jim Key was mahogany bay, a deep brown, with a black mane and very long black tail which reached almost to the ground. He was a large Arabian-Hambletonian mix at 16 hands. Jim Key loved to delight audiences and was an amazing comedic performer who demonstrated inexplicable improvised feats.
During one performance when President Roosevelt's daughter, Alice was in the audience, he "predicted" her future fiance by spelling out her entire married name, even though at the time Alice wasn't even engaged to the gentleman.
Jim Key dazzled and amazed an estimated 10 million people who came to see him at the world's fairs and exhibitions. And just as impressive was his person, Doc Key who taught him everything.
Dr. William Key was born a slave, in Shelbyville, Tennessee (most likely in 1833). The wife of his master taught him to read alongside her two children, even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read or write. Even as a child, William Key showed extraordinary abilities to heal and tame all animals and was often sent to neighboring plantations to doctor sick or injured animals. He was able to train horses, mules, ponies, dogs, roosters, goats and other animals to perform amazing tricks. As a free man, he had a colorful life, escaping death at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan, captured during the civil war and accused of being a spy for the north, and many other brilliant life-saving strategies, including winning his freedom from captivity in a high stakes poker game with white officers.
As an adult, Doc Key rescued a former prized Arabian horse, Lauretta, who had been badly abused by multiple circuses. Lauretta's owners laughed at him when he offered to buy the “broken down” horse, Lauretta, for $40. But Doc Key nursed her back to health. Lauretta, rumored to have been stolen from an Arabian prince, then sold to a BT Barnum's circus for $50,000, was then passed down to lesser circuses where she was mistreated and abused. Doc Key nursed her back to health and thought she would give birth to a champion race horse. But when she gave birth to Jim Key, he was a colt with crooked, spindly legs who could barely walk.
Everyone told him he should put the young horse out of his misery. But as a self-trained veterinarian, Doc Key used Keystone, a liniment he had created, and other healing methods, including letting the crippled horse sleep next to him in his house. Jim Key healed into a very strong and elegant horse. The bond and the love between them were very strong, and Jim Key followed the Doc around like a dog.
Doc Key began to realize that Jim Key was beginning to outsmart him, finding apples hidden in a drawer and closing the door after he finished helping himself. He seemed to understand so much that Doc Key decided to train him. HIs wife had discovered that Jim Key would nod yes if asked if he wanted an apple, and that inspired Doc Key to begin patient and kind training with learning the alphabet with letters laced in sugar at first. All though their lives together, Doc Key valued Jim Key's feelings and always asked his horse’s opinions on a variety of subjects, including when he wanted a vacation, when he wanted to return to performing, and when it was time to retire. Jim Key's opinions often surprised him.
Jim Key starting learning through imitation. As a still crippled colt, he would watch Doc Key's dog and soon could do all the tricks the dog could do. This showed Doc he was no ordinary horse. Using teaching methods of kindness, patience, and persistence, Doc Key realized he had a star on his hands.
For the first few years, the Doc had a medicine show where he would present Jim Key as he sold his “miracle cure” liniment which worked on people as well as animals.
When people saw the horse perform, they would try to bid hundreds of dollars to buy him. As soon as The Doc pronounced, “Sold!” Jim would put on a display of illness and lameness, and appeared to be at death’s door. The sale was immediately canceled! Then Doc would treat him with Keystone liniment and the horse would immediately spring back to life.
Doc Key and Jim key had their own customized railroad car for travelling, and a Broadway show in New York City called The Scholar and the Model Office Boy and regularly received standing ovations. The consummate performer, Jim Key would "ham it up" even more for appreciative audiences, and would often pick one woman in the audience with whom to flirt, smiling, swishing his tail and prancing for just her.
Many famous guests came to see him, including Booker T. Washington, composer John Philip Sousa, William Taft and President Mckinley. Jim Key would correctly answer questions from the audience and perform amazing feats of intelligence.
There were many accusations of it all being a hoax, but no one was ever able to prove that. Doc Key invited a team of Harvard professors to test the horse. They tested him for hours without the Doc being present and couldn’t find any evidence of the horse being cued -- as a horse named Clever Hans had inadvertently been. They announced their conclusions, that Jim Key was highly educated.
To further prove Jim Key really thought out his own answers, Doc Key was happy to have reporters test Jim Key without him being present, but asked them to have an apple in their pocket.
One reporter, who was at first convinced that the horse was hypnotized by the doctor, came and interviewed Jim Key. The horse spelled out all the correct answers with his letter board, and the reporter exited without giving Jim Key the apple he was expecting.
The reporter left a believer, but when Doc Key asked his horse how it went, Jim Key spelled out the word “fruitless.”
At a time when it was believed that horses couldn't feel pain, and were routinely whipped and mistreated, 25,000 horses died each year in the streets of New York City from abuse and overwork, it was time to change the minds of men!
Jim Key did more to educate the public than any human could do. It was just the beginning of the humane movement and educating the public that animals needed to be better cared for. In a newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution on December 23, 1898 in a story called a Tribute to Jim Key, the author wrote: "It is hoped that those who have met Jim Key will have carried away with them a kinder regard toward animals and will go forth resolved to whatever may be in their power for the care of our...friends."
A portion of the proceeds of Jim Key's shows went to the nascent Humane Societies. Jim Key was changing the current perception about animals. It was undeniable that Jim Key was a sentient being. He was an ambassador for not only horse intelligence but provided living proof of an animal’s potential inner life and the need to treat animals humanely.
As a result of seeing a horse trained by kindness, over two million children signed the above pledge to be kind to animals.
Jim Key opened the eyes of the world. He had emotions, thoughts, and opinions. His relationship with Doc Key was the stuff that dreams are made of. Please spread this story to anyone you think might enjoy it. His memory lives on!
Thank you Doc Key and sweet Jim Key! You are masters in the art of human-animal communication. You inspire me every day.
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection
Here is a promotional booklet The Story of Beautiful Jim Key, written at the time by Albert Rogers if you would like to learn more.
In some locations, schools were closed to allow children to see special performances of Jim Key. Doc Key insisted that audiences could not be "whites only."
This book, Beautiful Jim Key - The Lost History of the World's Smartest Horse by Mim Eichler Rivas tells the story of Doc and his horse in the historical context of the end of slavery, the civil war, and other significant events of the times. It documents his performing career and has many interesting facts.
There are at least three children's books written about Beautiful Jim Key. Step Right Up - How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness -- is beautifully illustrated and one I read to students in our HAC classes as his story lives on, continuing to inspire a new generation about kindness to animals.
Beautiful Jim Key, you will not be forgotten.
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