William Key, the African-American veterinarian who made wealth from exhibiting a horse  

Stephen Nartey January 09, 2023
William Key/Photo credit: Ottawa Humane Society

William Key had two gifts. One was mastery over the game of poker and the other was having horse whispering and animal healing skills. Both gifts came in handy when he was at a crossroads in his life. While one saved his life, the other brought him unimaginable wealth.

When he was captured as a prisoner of war by enemy forces while trying to save a man of African descent, it was his skill at the poker that came to his rescue, according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia. This was during the Civil War when Key, a 19th-century veterinarian and horse trainer born a slave, decided to join his two owners at Fort Donelson. When they arrived at their station, he opted to build his own bunker made of logs. He called it Fort Bill.

When there was heavy bombardment from the union, it was Fort Bill that provided refuge and protection to Key’s owners. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key saved his owners by helping them escape to Confederate forces being led by Nathan Bedford Forrest.

But Key got unlucky when he was trying to move a Black man through enemy lines. His sentence for that offense was death by hanging. But when officers of the Sixth Indiana regiment noticed that he was good at poker and cooking, they postponed his sentence.

He bought his freedom later by exchanging his life for the debt owed to him by the officers from the game of poker they played. He purchased his freedom once again with $1000 dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe after he was captured and sentenced at another time to hang. He gave out the money to delay his execution. He was rescued by Confederate raiders a day later.

His other gift, which is his work with animals, came to play after the Civil War. When Key and his owners returned home after the war, they found the family estate in bad shape and its lands heavily mortgaged. To raise funds, he developed a medicine for treating animals and sometimes humans. With the profits from the sale of the medicine and earnings from his poker game, he paid off the mortgage of his former owners and underwrote their education.

Though Key owned a hotel and wagon, he prioritized the sale of his medicine which brought him more revenue. He used road shows which comprised entertainers to promote his medicine. He also made his animals perform skits to exhibit how effective his medicine was.

Key’s fortunes took a different twist when he came across a badly bruised Arabian bay called Lauretta at a circus that had folded up. He told the owners he was interested in the horse and bought it. He placed Lauretta and Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion, in the same stable. Lauretta gave birth to a colt he named Jim. Key named the colt Jim after the town drunk because it appeared sickly and wobbled when it walked.

He considered giving Jim away but on second thought, he decided to nurse it. One day, Key noticed the colt had a special gift. It was able to open the gates of the stable, pick apples from the drawers and nodded to questions.

Key placed Jim on a rigorous training routine for seven years. On the day Jim was exhibited to the public, it could spell, write letters and its name on a blackboard, play a hand organ, respond to political inquiries and differentiate among coins and make a change.  

Key in 1897 placed Jim on an exhibition at the Tennessee Centennial exhibition in Nashville. He named Jim “Beautiful Jim Key”. Its exemplary display during the exhibition attracted a wealthy officer of the American Humane Association, Albert R. Rogers, who proposed to give Key a huge sum of money, assured Jim would not be separated from him, and negotiated the right to exhibit Jim nationally.

Jim became a national celebrity after it performed before a large audience and the New York City press. Key and Jim enjoyed good publicity over a nine-year period where they toured major cities and towns.

Key and Jim retired to Shelbyville after making an appearance before almost two million spectators in 1906. Key passed away in 1909.

Last Edited by:seo zimamedia Updated: January 15, 2023


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