William Key possessed two talents. The first was mastery of the game of poker, and the second was horse whispering and animal healing abilities. When he was at a crossroads in his life, both gifts came in handy. While one saved his life, the other provided him with unimaginable riches.
According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, when he was captured as a prisoner of war by enemy forces while attempting to save a man of African descent, it was his skill at poker that saved him. Key, a 19th-century veterinarian and horse trainer born a slave, decided to join his two owners at Fort Donelson during the Civil War. When they arrived at their station, he chose to construct his own bunker out of logs. Fort Bill was the name he gave it.
When the union launched a heavy bombardment, it was Fort Bill that provided shelter and protection to Key’s owners. When Fort Donelson surrendered, Key aided his owners in fleeing Confederate forces led by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
However, Key was unlucky when attempting to move a Black man through enemy lines. His punishment for that crime was death by hanging. However, when officers from the Sixth Indiana Regiment noticed that he was skilled at poker and cooking, they decided to postpone his sentence.
Later, he bought his freedom by exchanging his life for the debt owed to him by the officers from their poker game. He bought his freedom back with $1000 he had sewn between the soles of his shoes after being captured and sentenced to death a second time. He distributed the funds in order to postpone his execution. A day later, he was rescued by Confederate raiders.
His other talent, working with animals, came into play after the Civil War. When Key and his owners returned home after the war, they discovered that the family estate was in disrepair and that its lands were heavily mortgaged. To raise funds, he created a medicine used to treat animals and occasionally humans. He paid off his former owners’ mortgage and paid for their education with the proceeds from the sale of the medicine and earnings from his poker game.
Despite owning a hotel and a wagon, Key prioritized the sale of his medicine, which brought him more money. He promoted his medicine through road shows that included entertainers. He also had his animals perform skits to demonstrate the efficacy of his medicine.
When Key came across a badly bruised Arabian bay named Lauretta at a circus that had folded, his fortunes took a different turn. He informed the owners that he was interested in the horse and purchased it. He partnered Lauretta with Tennessee Volunteer, a Standardbred stallion. Lauretta gave birth to Jim, a colt. Because the colt appeared sickly and wobbled when it walked, Key named it Jim after the town drunk.
He considered giving Jim away, but then decided to nurse him. Key noticed the colt had a special talent one day. It could open the stable gates, pick apples from the drawers, and nod in response to questions.
For seven years, Key put Jim through rigorous training. On the day Jim was displayed to the public, it could spell, write letters and its name on a blackboard, play a hand organ, respond to political questions, and distinguish between coins and make change.
In 1897, Key exhibited Jim at the Tennessee Centennial Exhibition in Nashville. Jim was dubbed “Beautiful Jim Key” by him. Its outstanding performance during the exhibition drew the attention of a wealthy American Humane Association officer, Albert R. Rogers, who proposed giving Key a large sum of money, assuring Jim that he would not be separated from him, and negotiating the right to exhibit Jim nationally.
Jim rose to national prominence after performing in front of a large audience and the New York City press. Key and Jim received favorable publicity during their nine-year tour of major cities and towns.
After performing in front of nearly two million people in 1906, Key and Jim retired to Shelbyville. In 1909, Key passed away.