Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World


For close to a century, a majestic chapter of American history has been buried in an obscure grave in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Beautiful Jim Key, the onetime ugly duckling of a scrub colt that became one of the most heralded and beloved heroes of his day, was famous neither for his beauty nor his speed but instead for his exceptional intelligence. Said to have an I.Q. equivalent to that of a human sixth-grader, Jim exploded on to the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, ...

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For close to a century, a majestic chapter of American history has been buried in an obscure grave in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Beautiful Jim Key, the onetime ugly duckling of a scrub colt that became one of the most heralded and beloved heroes of his day, was famous neither for his beauty nor his speed but instead for his exceptional intelligence. Said to have an I.Q. equivalent to that of a human sixth-grader, Jim exploded on to the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, spell, do mathematics, tell time, sort mail, cite biblical passages, and debate politics.

For the next nine years, Jim performed in nationwide expositions and world's fairs to wildly receptive crowds, smashing box-office records, overcoming hurdles of prejudice and skepticism, all the while winning rapturous praise from the press and leaders such as President McKinley, Booker T. Washington, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

In this breathtaking saga, Jim's astonishing journey is coupled with that of his trainer and best friend, Dr. William Key, a self-taught veterinarian, former slave, Civil War veteran, prominent African-American entrepreneur, and one of the most renowned horse whisperers of his time — a man who shunned all force in the training of horses, instead relying on kindness and patience.

Masterful storyteller and bestselling author Mim Eichler Rivas at long last gives two cultural icons their due, not only unraveling the mystery of their disappearance but examining how, thanks to the rare and intimate relationship between horse and man that was championed by promoter and humane activist Albert R. Rogers, a dramatic shift took place in the public mind that made kindness to animals a cornerstone of modern civilization and helped launch the animal rights movement. Unveiled against the backdrop of American history, Beautiful Jim Key is their incredible tale.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the days before television, movies and even radio, World's Fairs and other annual expositions were among America's most popular forms of mass entertainment. From 1897 to 1912, one of their largest draws-attracting tens of thousands of wildly enthusiastic fans daily-was a horse. Beautiful Jim Key, whose owner, Dr. William Key, "taught [him] by kindness," could, according to awed contemporary accounts unearthed by longtime ghostwriter/collaborator Rivas (Finding Fish), add, subtract, spell, cite Bible passages and pluck silver dollars from the bottom of a barrel without drinking the water. Impressive as those feats were, though, they're just one part of this captivating, if occasionally fussy, literary excavation of lost Americana. There is the remarkable life of Dr. Key: born a slave, he was a Union sympathizer in the Civil War even as he saved the lives of his owner's Confederate sons. He was a self-taught veterinarian of great renown, a polished peddler of patent medicine and the man who transformed a bay stallion crippled at birth into "the smartest horse who ever lived." Rivas shows how the intimate bond between horse and man prompted hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to pledge "always to be kind to animals" and propelled the growth of animal-rights and anti-cruelty groups. The world was smaller at the turn of the 20th century; this book's compelling claim that one horse and one man changed it is not, in context, overly brazen. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Elizabeth Kaplan. (Feb. 1) Forecast: Animal lovers, horse fanciers, Civil War buffs and fans of Seabiscuit (the horse, the book and the film): there are a number of distinct audiences for this fine book, and a PBS documentary should help spread the word. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
While looking for a new story, Rivas, ghostwriter for Antwone Fisher's best-seller Finding Fish, discovered an amazing one in her own home state. In Shelbyville, TN, in 1889, Dr. William Key-a former slave, self-taught veterinarian, and shrewd businessman-bred a valuable Arabian mare from the Barnum and Bailey Circus with a Hambletonian, expecting a trotting race winner. Instead, a crippled, sickly colt was born and soon orphaned when the mare died. Dr. Key named it Jim after a town drunk and Key after himself, and having discovered the horse's intelligence, taught him tricks and then numbers and the entire alphabet. Jim also learned to spell and do simple arithmetic. Together, Jim Key and Dr. Key became very influential through their many public performances in furthering the cause of humane treatment for animals and even better treatment of children. While skeptics might note that the facts supporting the horse's ability to read and do math came from advertising pamphlets, the book remains valuable for its well-researched, little-known history of middle Tennessee, the state's role in the Civil War, and Dr. Key as a former slave. Librarians should note that Jim Key's story is being made into a PBS documentary. Highly recommended for all public libraries.-Patsy Gray, Huntsville P.L., AL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Charming tale of a forgotten American celebrity: Beautiful Jim Key, the amazingly intelligent horse. At the turn of the century, the four-footed superstar was touring the country, giving exhibitions of his astounding mental acuity and wooing the ladies with his Tennessee charm. State fairs, agricultural exhibitions, even the Broadway stage: Jim Key graced them all, giving demonstrations of his abilities to spell, do arithmetic, act, and fetch a silver dollar from the bottom of a clear glass bucket full of water. Countless reporters tried to debunk the horse's extraordinary talents, but none succeeded. His owner, the self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, would even allow the horse to be interviewed when the Doc was out of the room; Jim always came up with answers. Doc Key was a character in his own right, a freed slave with a fascinating history, and ghostwriter/coauthor Rivas (in her first solo effort) brings her two protagonists vividly to life: the disappointingly spindly colt and the man with a will of iron, and patience to match, make a compelling pair. The story of Doc and Jim Key expands to encompass the political and social character of Tennessee, the Civil War-Doc spent much of it protecting the two sons of his master, who'd enlisted with the Rebels-race relations, the quality of American entertainment, and the fledgling humane-society movement (Doc Key consented to Jim's touring schedule in part to bring awareness to the cause of kindness to animals, a tough sell in a time when not even kindness to humans was formalized through any government agency). Rivas conjures up convincing scenes of a world gone by, and, though the telling lags a bit in the middle, Doc and Jim are solikable, and tragedy so assured (all horses must die), that the reader sticks around. Just might be the bottled lightning that was Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit. Agent: Elizabeth Kaplan/Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060567033
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/2005
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

Mim Eichler Rivas is the author of the acclaimed Beautiful Jim Key, as well as the coauthor of more than eighteen books, including The Pursuit of Happyness and Finding Fish with Antwone Fisher.

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First Chapter

Beautiful Jim Key
The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World

Chapter One


Saturday, April 30, 1904.
The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Opening Day.

Miss Alice Roosevelt parted the seas of fairgoers as she paused to smooth her skirt, making sure, as she always did, that it had just the right swing. With her gaze fixed ahead at her destination, the unusual Silver Horseshoe Building, the President's daughter continued along the Pike, the exposition's mile-long amusement area. Gone was her trademark expression of boredom. On her way to preside at an Opening Day performance given by the smartest horse in the world, Alice appeared to be positively delighted.

Neither Alice nor her escort, Ohio congressman Nicholas Longworth, had yet to witness the horse in action, but they had certainly read his press and heard enough claims about the Celebrated Educated Arabian-Hambletonian to understand why he was expected to be the top draw on the Pike.

This stretch of marketplaces and attractions, she could see, didn't have the expansive grandeur of the rest of the fair. Architecturally, there was no comparison. Thus far, the Pike was an unfinished hodgepodge, while the main exhibit areas seemed to be perfectly realized visions. They radiated in avenues and plazas to provide spectacular views of the main Festival Hall -- one part Louis Quatorze and three parts fairyland -- along with the euphoric Cascade Gardens pumping ninety thousand gallons of water per minute into geysers and fountains that spilled over plunging falls lit by green glass steps, offsetting the futuristic fantasy of the Palace of Electricity, which turned megawattage into visual evidence that the planners had truly outdone themselves.

Earlier that day, exposition president David Francis had welcomed the first flanks of what would total 200,000 Opening Day visitors. The weather itself was miraculous. It had been cold and stormy for weeks in St. Louis, with black skies and oppressive winds almost causing Francis and fellow officials to delay the date of the opening. After they decided to take the risk and open, rain or shine, the city nervously awoke at dawn that Saturday to a pale fog. By early morning, the sun broke through, sending the temperature and humidity rising, and basking the World's Fair in a jubilant golden mist.

Alice Roosevelt and Congressman Longworth were on hand to listen as John Philip Sousa and his band played "Louisiana" while simultaneously, back in Washington, D.C., in the East Room of the White House, Alice's father, President Theodore Roosevelt, was joined by an assembly of ambassadors and ministers from around the globe, his cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court, president pro tern of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House. The President was then handed a golden key, which he ceremoniously turned to trigger a telegraphic transmission that moments later in St. Louis unleashed the electricity required to raise and unfurl flags of all nations, thus starting the machinery of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

"Open ye gates!" shouted David Francis, after the cries of the crowd had subsided. "Swing wide ye portals! Enter herein ye sons of men! Learn the lesson here taught and gather from it inspiration for still greater accomplishments!"

Trumpeting the fair's themes of progress and education, Francis made no apologies for the unfinished construction of the Pike. Rather, he promoted the manner in which he and fellow planners had looked for a way to elevate the carnival atmosphere associated with amusement and midway areas by envisioning it as a "living color page of the world." Anything foreign or different was a go: food, beverages, rides, shows, souvenirs, creatures, and humans. But ironically, as the months ahead would prove, for all its otherness, the Pike became the soul of the Exposition, the mingling and mixing pot that was becoming America. It was the meeting place of the fair, to be immortalized in song and film, where the nation responded to the call to "Meet Me in St. Louis."

The mile-long Pike was so called in tribute to its trek across time and space that reached at its zenith the stratosphere of the North Pole (but only took twenty minutes to climb), echoed by the dominating snowcapped Alpine peaks at the avenue's eastern border. As an unmistakable precursor to Disneyland's Matterhorn, the Alpine heights were complete with medieval castles, peasants singing Tyrolean folk songs, a mammoth cyclorama enclosed within the mountains' caves, and a heart-racing tram ride up the slopes, on which the Piker (any visitor to the Pike) could observe the lay of the land.

Even though construction hadn't been completed by Opening Day, Alice and her escort and most of the 200,000 fairgoers who poured onto the Pike at noon, could see the magical domain shaping up. Due west of the Alpine Heights was the Irish Village with the Blarney Stone Theatre, Irish dancing maidens, and the Great Dublin Army Band playing Celtic music, while an adjacent concession, Under and Over the Sea, used lights and scenery to evoke the Jules Verne-inspired experience of a submarine ride to Paris with a return by airship. This was still considered futuristic, even though five months earlier at Kitty Hawk the Wright Brothers had taken their machine-powered Flyer on her maiden voyage.

Below France, the Streets of Seville were so painstakingly recreated by Mrs. Hattie McCall Travis, the only female concessionaire on the Pike, that the massive undertaking was reported to have killed her before completion. Next came the Hagenback Animal Paradise with a glamorous assortment of animals to rival any of P. T. Barnum's menageries, displayed not behind bars but simply with mosquito netting to separate spectators and animals. From there, the Piker could travel toward Mysterious Asia, past the wares and snake charmers in the Taj Mahal marketplace, under the carved and gilded gateway to the Japanese gardens, through the Chinese Village, into the Moorish Palace with its wax museum display of anthropological history, to Cairo and Constantinople, amid roaming elephants, monkeys, camels, and donkeys ...

Beautiful Jim Key
The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World
. Copyright © by Mim Rivas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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