William Key, nineteenth-century veterinarian and horse trainer, was born a slave in Winchester and took the name of his owner, William Key, a Shelbyville planter and entrepreneur. As a child he demonstrated a remarkable talent for working with horses and mules. Key read veterinary texts and experimented with animal remedies until he became a successful veterinarian and equine dentist. Known as Dr. Key, he also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Key accompanied his master's two sons to Fort Donelson. There he constructed his own shelter, a log-covered dugout known as Fort Bill, in which he took refuge and offered protection to his masters during Union bombardment. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key helped his masters escape to Confederate forces commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest. After the battle of Stones River, the Sixth Indiana regiment captured Key as he tried to smuggle another black man through Union lines. He was sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed when it was learned that he was a good cook and poker player. Playing poker with Union officers, Key purchased his release in exchange for their gambling debts. Captured and sentenced to hang on another occasion, Key purchased a delay of execution with one thousand dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe. Confederate raiders liberated him the next day.
After the war Dr. Key and his former masters found the family estate in ruins. The elder William Key had died, leaving the family lands heavily mortgaged. Key developed and marketed Keystone Liniment for various animal and human ailments. With proceeds from gambling winnings and Keystone Liniment sales, he quickly paid off the mortgage for his former masters and subsequently underwrote their education.
Key owned a hotel and wagon shop, but the liniment business became so profitable, he promoted it across the South. He organized a traveling minstrel and medicine show, at which his animals performed skits to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of his medications. While in Tupelo, Mississippi, Key bought a badly abused Arabian bay, Lauretta, from a defunct circus. He nursed the mare back to health and bred her to Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion. She produced a colt so sickly that Key considered having it destroyed. Instead, he named it Jim, after the town drunk, who had a similarly wobbly gait. Key nursed the colt to good health, but otherwise ignored it until he noticed that the animal let itself out of gates, opened drawers to retrieve apples, and responded with affirmative and negative nods to questions. Key put Jim on a rigorous training routine that lasted for seven years. When finally exhibited, Jim could spell, distinguish among coins and make change, write letters and his name on a blackboard, identify playing cards, play a hand organ, and respond to political inquiries, among other amazing feats.
Key first exhibited “Beautiful Jim Key” at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial exhibition in Nashville. Albert R. Rogers, a wealthy officer of the American Humane Association, witnessed the performance and was especially gratified that Key's training methods consisted entirely of positive rewards for performance. Rogers negotiated the right to exhibit the horse nationally, advanced Key a large sum of money, and promised that Jim would not be separated from Key as long as either lived. Key, Beautiful Jim, and grooms Sam and Stanley Davis of Shelbyville, traveled to the Rogers estate in New Jersey where, for several months, Key prepared Beautiful Jim for his New York City debut. In August 1897 Beautiful Jim amazed viewers and the New York City press and quickly became a celebrity.
For nine years, Key, Rogers, and Beautiful Jim toured major cities east of the Rocky Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of children received Jim Key Band of Mercy cards by pledging to be kind to animals, and local humane societies received sizable shares of admission sales. In 1906, after appearing before almost two million spectators, Key and Beautiful Jim retired to Shelbyville, where Key lived comfortably until his death in 1909.