The Beautiful Jim Key Collection (1885 – [1897-1907] – 1933) showcases the accomplishments of Dr. William Key, the African-American veterinarian and "horse whisperer" from Shelbyville, Tennessee, who partnered with A. R. Rogers to promote the special talents of the horse, Beautiful Jim Key. This online collection is comprised of selections from two scrapbooks, which in their entirety include photographs, tickets, letters, programs, broadsides, flyers, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera related to Jim Key’s extensive travels around the country.

This collection documents the emerging humane movement for animals in the United States. Jim Key’s travels with Dr. William Key and his promoter A. R. Rogers were especially important in that they reached children, and taught a new generation the importance of kindness toward animals. What is remarkable is the fact that Jim Key’s constant companion, Dr. William Key, was an African American from the Jim Crow South who was able to impress thousands of Americans, both Southern and Northern, with his unusual gift for working with horses. His methods involved patience and kindness rather than force; he was ahead of his time in embracing restraint and gentleness in his management of equine training.

Rogers discovered Dr. Key and his talented horse at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. They established a long-lasting business partnership by which Rogers handled promotional matters and bookings, and Dr. Key trained and cared for Jim Key. Their relationship and life story is carefully documented in Mim Eichler Rivas’ book, Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World. Rivas consulted the Beautiful Jim Key Collection as she conducted her research.

Key performed for nine years around the country, demonstrating his many talents. Famous Americans, including President McKinley, Booker T. Washington, and President Roosevelt’s flamboyant daughter, Alice, all personally witnessed Jim Key’s remarkable skills. Scientists searched in vain for evidence of fraud, but no one was ever able to prove that Dr. Key was unfairly helping his horse complete the tasks he was performing. Instead, they found Jim Key to be charming, intelligent, and highly skilled.

Rogers and Dr. Key embraced the ethos of the humane movement and were able to get thousands of children to sign the Jim Key Pledge, "I promise always to be kind to animals." Various "Bands of Mercy" were established throughout the United States, which promoted kindness to animals. The Bands of Mercy came under the umbrella of the American Humane Education Society, which was overseen by George Angell and the MSPCA. Rogers and Key were eventually able to establish alliances with humane societies throughout the country, although Rogers had a falling out with one national group in his later years.

In addition to revealing the extraordinary life of an ex-slave who traveled around the country with his gifted horse, this collection offers a unique blend of Tennessee history and turn-of-the-century popular culture. The underlying theme of kindness to animals was a cause that had recently emerged in American society not long after the Civil War, with the founding of the ASPCA in 1866 by Henry Bergh in New York City, and creation of the MSPCA in 1868 by Angell in Boston. Horses were the focus of much of the early advocacy efforts. Thousands of them were ill-treated as they served as the backbone of the nation’s transportation industry. This remained the case until the development of the automobile. The humane movement is in many cases poorly documented, so this collection will help preserve the history of the movement.

  • Lee, Essie Mott. The Man who Educated a Horse (A Pioneer in Humane Education). Bloomington, Indiana: Essie Mott Lee, 2002.
  • McCully, Emily Arnold. Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2010
  • Rivas, Mim Eichler. Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man who Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005.