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Non-Fiction Review – Beautiful Jim Key

Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse
by Mim E. Rivas

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo

I’ve been reading the novel “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell.  Now, you may or may not know that Black Beauty was published in England in 1877, and is the story of a beautiful, proud horse who leads a life filled with kindness and cruelty.  It’s told from the horse’s viewpoint and is a dramatic look into how horses were treated in the late 1800’s.  In fact, this novel was instrumental in changing people’s viewpoints about animal cruelty and really helped start the movement to create humane societies, first in Great Britain and then here in the U.S.

I mention this because I have a book I’d like to recommend  which tells the story of yet another horse that captured the hearts and imagination of millions of people.  The title is “Beautiful Jim Key: the lost history of a horse and a man who changed the world” by Mim Eichler Rivas.  This is a true story of a bit of lost Americana, and if you enjoyed the story of Seabiscuit, you will love the story of Beautiful Jim Key.

Dr. William Key was born a slave, a veteran of the Civil War, a self-taught veterinarian.  He took a scrawny, crippled bay colt and turned him into “one of the most heralded and beloved heroes of his day.”  Beautiful Jim Key was said to have an I.Q. equivalent to that of a sixth-grade child.  “Jim exploded onto the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, spell, do mathematics, tell time, sort mail, cite Biblical passages, and even debate politics.”  [He was a Democrat, by the way, and told President William McKinley, the current Republican president, that he did NOT vote for him.]

Dr. Key believed in training animals with kindness and patience in a time when the norm was to treat animals as inanimate objects with no feelings, using force and intimidation to train them.  Beautiful Jim’s talents so impressed the public of his day that from 1897 until his death in 1912, he performed in expositions and world fairs to receptive, adoring crowds, smashing all box office records of the day.  His talents and his touching relationship with his master and trainer literally shifted public consciousness; animal welfare was suddenly an important topic throughout society.  In less than three years, over 300,000 children signed the Beautiful Jim Key Pledge, which stated “I promise always to be kind to animals.”  That number would swell to over half a million before Jim was through.

Rivas brings back to life a fascinating bit of our social and cultural history that was all but forgotten.  She shows us, with her words and with photographs, how one man and one remarkable horse did, in fact, change our world for the better.  Animals lovers everywhere will love the story of Beautiful Jim Key.




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One Response to “Non-Fiction Review – Beautiful Jim Key”

  1. Karl Pearson says:

    Incidentally, this horse was actually Republican. The Republicans in the North freed the slaves, and blacks were almost universally Republican.

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