Study Guide

The Bad Men in Black Beauty

By Anna Sewell

The Bad Men

Reuben Smith, Nicholas Skinner

There are ignorant, clueless people, and then there are people who are just no good. There are plenty of awful men (and women) in this story—petty thieves, entitled aristocrats, cruel owners who whip their horses. We'll look at the worst of those. But this book also shows us that even people with the best intentions can act in evil ways if they fall prey to addictions or desperate conditions.

Reuben Smith

So why is seemingly lovely Reuben Smith included in the "bad men" category? Beauty genuinely likes him, and not only that, gives him high praise for knowing horses backward and forward. "No one more thoroughly understood his business than he did […] he was gentle and very clever in his management of horses, and could doctor them almost as well as a farrier" (25.1), Beauty says. Not only that, everyone likes Reuben. He seems like a great guy. So what's the deal?

Well, Reuben Smith has a problem: He's an alcoholic. And this little problem turns out to be one big thing that ruins the lives of many people—and one horse. So we're including him here as one of the baddies because his decision to ride Beauty home when he's totally wasted is the turning point in Beauty's life. It all goes downhill from there for our heroic horse.

Smith rides Beauty back to Earlshall at night, and asks him to go full speed in the dark. Beauty gets a stone in his foot, but Smith doesn't notice. "If Smith had been in his right senses, he would have been sensible of something wrong in my pace, but he was too madly drunk to notice anything" (25.7), Beauty says. His hoof splits in half down to the quick, and he stumbles and falls, throwing Smith to his death.

Beauty's fall is so bad that it tears up his knees, ending his life as a handsome carriage horse. But things are even worse for Reuben's wife and six little children, who are forced to go live at a workhouse. (Don't drink, kids.)

Nicholas Skinner

In contrast to Reuben Smith's good nature, but tragic addiction, there's nothing good about Nicholas Skinner. Of all the masters Beauty has, Skinner is by far the worst. He is Disney-villain terrifying: "He had black eyes and a hooked nose, his mouth was as full of teeth as a bulldog's, and his voice was as harsh as the grinding of cart wheels over gravel stones" (47.1), Beauty describes.

His terribleness is way more than skin deep, too. Skinner owns a cab company, and he drives the men and horses so hard that Beauty wishes he were dead. It's under Skinner's watch that Beauty finally collapses while pulling a carriage, almost worked to death.

Skinner barely appears in the book, but he makes a big impression. He tells the farrier looking after Beauty that he plans to work his horses until they're worn out, and then sell them (unless they die first). Skinner's one redeeming trait is that he's not stupid. Hoping to get as much money out of Beauty as possible, he actually follows the farrier's advice and allows Beauty to recover before selling him at a horse fair. It's a narrow escape from the most evil of masters.

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