The story of “Dr.” William “Bill” Key is a remarkable one that flies in the face of politically-correct lies that we have been force-fed over recent decades.
Bill Key was born a slave, had a kind master and a good relationship with his master’s sons. So much so that he joined them when they enlisted in the Confederacy in order to protect them, at one time serving with them as scouts and guides for General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
He had a way with animals, so much so that he taught his horse “Jim Key” how to read, write, do arithmetic, tell time and many other astounding feats.
This is their story:
The April 8, 1908 Minneapolis Star-Tribune carried the story of an event that had, “Drawn as no operatic singer, great actress, wonderful public man or combination.”
What attraction had so much public interest that the paper could make such a claim? It was “Dr.” Bill Key. More specifically it was his horse “Jim Key.”
Jim Key was no ordinary horse and his trainer William Key was no ordinary man.
I first learned of the remarkable story about this man and his amazing horse when I stumbled across a YouTube video published and narrated by David Hoffman.1
In the video, Hoffman states that he first learned about the story when he stumbled upon a pamphlet in a New York bookstore when he was younger. The pamphlet, which cost him the 25 cents and led him from New York to Tennessee to investigate the story, a story in which his investigation was confirmed.
Scouring through newspaper archives, I too, found information to confirm the story was true. One paper in particular was the aforementioned Minneapolis Star-Tribune of April 8, 1908 which gives a detailed account of “Dr.” Bill Key’s life.
According to the paper:
“William Key was born in Winchester, Tenn. , 65 years ago, and was named after his master John W. Key, a well-known planter of Shelbyville, Tenn.
In his earlier years he had a great fondness for the animals. Ever kind to them and ever a poor dog or worried cat, was he the defender of at the old plantation.”2
The article, in its biography of Bill, states that whenever a horse or mule was to be broken, people called on Bill Key to do the job because he had a way with animals and managed to complete the job using kindness instead of force.
It is said that Bill Key was born into slavery but was fortunate enough to have a kind master. When the war broke out, Bill joined his masters two sons when they enlisted in the Confederate Army, mustering into the Festerville Guards under the command of a Captain Webb, because he wanted to protect them, this he did successfully, helping them escape to Confederate lines after the fall of Fort Donaldson.
They Keys (including Bill) then served under General Nathan Bedford Forrest acting as scouts and guides.
Part of Bill Key’s remarkable story is that while he joined the Confederate Army to protect his young masters, he would often help young slaves escape to freedom.
It was during one of these endeavors that he was caught by Union forces who suspected him of being a spy.
At this time the paper relays a rather humorous story that occurred after Bill was captured:
“He says: I told the Yanks that I was tired of the rebels and wanted to be free, but they called in some Union men that lived at my home and they said that I was the worst rebel in the South.”3
Union authorities wanted to hold Bill Key until his young masters could be caught , at which time they would all be hung together.
Bill Key states that he stayed in Union captivity for six weeks during which time a General Nagles said that he needed a cook, some of the men knowing of Bill Key relayed to the General that Bill was “the best cook in the country.”
Soon General Nagles and Captain Prather sent for Bill, who had heard that Prather was a good poker player. Bill Key then states:
“I had never seen a man that could beat me, so I went in with Captain Prather and in six weeks , I owned everything he had.”
But , as the saying goes, easy come, easy go.
Shiloh , Tennessee Bill Key was captured again. A lawyer tha knew Bill told him if he would pay him $1000, which was all of the money he had won playing poker. Bill paid the money but the case kept getting delayed and before the trial could take place the Confederates captured the town and let Bill go.
Upon returning to Tennessee after the war, Bill Key found his master’s tanyard and farm destroyed, it is said that at this time Bill went to work and within a few years time, had the money to pay off his former master’s mortgage of $5000.00/
Bill Key had developed a liniment for horses that was well known and in high demand and he became very wealthy selling the product.
This however leads to the second part of Bill Key’s amazing story. Key states:
“I had a liniment that I called Keystone Liniment and everybody wanted it, so that started me into the medicine business. I used to travel around the country with a minstrel band to attack a crowd, and then sell my medicine. One day a man told me that a circus was going to sell out. I bought some of their horses. Lauretta, the Arabian mother of Jim was one of them.
A few years later beautiful Jim Key was foaled.”4
Bill Key became very attached to his horse Jim and related that his wife was worried he was spending too much time with him. One day she was eating an apple and asked Jim if he wanted a piece. Jim nodded his head up and down. From that point on “Dr.” William Key began training Jim using apples.
Some of the amazing feats that Bill Key trained Jim to do are as follows:
Open and close desk drawers.
Count up to 30.
Learned the alphabet.
Learned basic addition and subtraction.
Bill and “Jim” Key found massive success while touring in the North. Bill even built Jim his own house in New Jersey. During the winter they always returned home to Shelbyville, Tennessee.
An article about the death of “Dr.” William Key found at barnmice.com states:
“As Jim Key’s training progressed and the horse was able to perform more and more incredible feats, word of his talents spread quickly. In 1897, Jim Key and Dr. William Key performed for President William McKinley, and Jim Key was presented as an educated horse. In
addition to reading and writing, Jim Key could also sort mail, use a telephone, and even tell time. The pair garnered great attention from the press, and the press quickly altered Jim Key’s name to the more memorable Beautiful Jim Key.
Jim Key performed with Dr. William Key from 1897 to 1906. The pair performed for millions of audience members, and Jim Key became an American household name. Promotional materials, like postcards, buttons, and photos, were produced in bulk. During every performance, Dr. William Key promoted kindness to animals and spoke out against animal cruelty. Audience members were encouraged to support humane animal groups, and children pledged to be kind to animals.
With Jim Key’s success, Dr. William Key became famous. After his death on October 18, 1909 at the age of 76, he was mourned by many. Jim Key later died in 1912.”6
1.“The Smartest Horse That Ever Lived” , David Hoffman YouTube video found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pACXxtbvVA&t=35s
2.Minneapolis Star-Tribune, April 8, 1906.
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