Last August, during the Celebration, Kate Canady saw me on the grounds and came up to me to ask me if I would speak about Beautiful Jim Key at a meeting of the AEDC Women’s Club.
Kate’s husband, Brent, is a retired Navy captain; they’ve settled back in his home town of Shelbyville since his retirement, and Kate has gotten active in the AEDC club, which is associated with Arnold Engineering Development Complex, an Air Force (and Navy) research facility over in Coffee and Franklin counties. Kate said she wanted a to share a good Bedford County-related program with her fellow club members. It had just been announced that Morgan Freeman has agreed to play William Key in a movie adaptation of the story, and Kate thought this would make the program all the more interesting to her friends.
My first reaction was to turn her down – I’m no expert, just a newspaper reporter who’s happened to write a few stories about Beautiful Jim Key, quoting heavily from the real expert on the topic, author Mim Eichler Rivas. The ideal would be if they could get Mim to speak to them – but Mim lives in sunny Southern California, where she’s a successful author and her husband Victor is a busy actor.
I tried to think of someone else I could refer to Kate to do a BJK program and couldn’t come up with anyone. I told her I’d do it, but I was going to clearly present myself as an interested amateur, not an expert.
Kate got back to me later to tell me I’d been scheduled as the program for April. I’ll be speaking this coming Tuesday.
I’ve been making some notes on my program today. I’ve been re-reading Mim’s book, of course. I also ordered a copy of one version of Albert Rogers’ often-revised promotional booklet about the horse, and scanned the state library and archives’ web site for photos I could download. I meant to try to get someone to show me William Key’s grave at Willow Mount Cemetery, so I could take a photo of it, but I never got the chance. I do have photos of the marker at Beautiful Jim Key’s gravesite south of town.
If you’ve never heard the story, Beautiful Jim Key was perhaps the most famous horse in America at the turn of the 20th Century. William Key, a former slave who made a fortune selling patent medicine, taught the horse (an Arabian-Hambletonian) to spell, do math problems, respond to audience questions, and so on. Skeptics assumed (and still do today) that this was trickery, that somehow William Key was doing the spelling, secretly indicating to the horse which letter tile to pick up at a particular time. But a team of Harvard professors could find no evidence of such subterfuge. If it was a trick, it was a good one. Mim does not believe it was a trick.
A promoter named Albert Rogers – equal parts showman and idealist — hooked up with William Key and his horse and promoted them in appearances around the country. (The movie is still trying to nail down its financing, but Clive Owen has agreed to play Albert Rogers opposite Morgan Freeman.) The appearances stressed William Key’s gentle training methods (today we would call him a “horse whisperer”) and often raised money to launch or support some sort of local humane association in that city. Millions of children and adults joined the “Jim Key Band of Mercy,” a fan club, by signing a pledge to be kind to animals.
The horse’s successes were bracketed by two great World’s Fair-type events. Jim Key performed for President William McKinley at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897, and then was seen by millions at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, the fair memorialized in the song “Meet Me In St. Louis.” Mim opens the book with the story of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then-president Teddy Roosevelt, seeing the horse at the fair in St. Louis. William Key asked Jim to spell Alice’s name, and the horse mistakenly – but prophetically – appended the last name of her escort and future husband, Nicholas Longworth.
I enjoy talking about this often-overlooked piece of Bedford County history. I hope I can do it justice on Tuesday.