Born into slavery, Thomas Wiggins “Blind Tom”, was a musical prodigy who became a touring phenomenon in the 1800’s, playing his own compositions and improvising on the piano. During the 19th century, he was one of the best-known American performing pianists and one of the best-known African-American musicians.
Thomas Greene Wiggins was born on the Wiley Edward Jones plantation in Harris County, Georgia on May 25, 1849. He came into the world blind and autistic. He was sold in 1850 along with his enslaved parents, Charity and Domingo “Mingo” Wiggins, to a Columbus, Georgia lawyer, General James Neil Bethune, who was also an editor of a newspaper.
Thomas Wiggins was blind so therefore he could not perform work normally demanded of slaves. Because of this, he was left to play and explore the Bethune plantation.
General James N. Bethune and Blind Tom.
As a child, Tom began to echo the sounds around him. If he was left alone in the cabin, Tom was known to drum on pots and pans or dragging chairs across the floor in an attempt to make any kind of noise.
By the age of four, Tom was able to repeat conversations up to ten minutes in length but was barely able to adequately communicate his own needs, resorting to grunts and gestures. Soon after, he showed an interest in the piano after hearing the instrument played by Bethune’s daughters.
By age five Tom reportedly had composed his first tune, The Rain Storm, after a torrential downpour on a tin roof. With his skills recognized by General Bethune, Tom was permitted to live in a room attached to the family house, equipped with a piano.
One of his Neighbor Otto Spahr, reminiscing about Tom in the Atlanta Constitution in 1908, had this to say: “Tom seemed to have but two motives in life: the gratification of his appetite and his passion for music. I don’t think I exaggerate when I state that he made the piano go for twelve hours out of twenty-four.”
Over time, Bethune began hiring out Wiggins under the stage name ‘Blind Tom,’ starting at the age of eight, to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who toured him extensively in the US, performing as often as four times a day and earning Oliver and Bethune up to $100,000 a year, an enormous sum at the time, making Blind Tom one of the most highly compensated pianist of the nineteenth century”.
Eventually, General Bethune’s family amassed a fortune estimated at $750,000 through Blind Tom. Sadly, nearly all of it went to his owners and their heirs.
Oliver marketed Tom as a “Barnum-style freak” advertising the transformation from animal to artist. In the media, Tom was frequently compared to a bear, baboon, or mastiff.
During their tours, Bethune hired professional musicians to play for Tom, who could then faithfully reproduce their performances, often after a single listening. Eventually he learned a reported 7,000 pieces of music, including hymns, popular songs, waltzes, and classical repertoire.
In 1860, Blind Tom performed at the White House before President James Buchanan; he was the first African-American to give a command performance at the White House.
Mark Twain attended many of Blind Tom’s performances over several decades and chronicled the proceedings, calling the boy an ‘angel’ with a talent that could only come from supernatural forces.
Tom later toured the South with Bethune or accompanied by hired managers, though their travels and bookings were sometimes hampered by the North-South hostilities which were drawing the nation towards Civil War.
It is said that Tom’s talents benefited the Confederacy during the Civil War. His most famous song, “The Battle of Manassas”, is the story of the Confederate Army’s 1861 victory at the Battle of Bull Run. As a result of this, many black newspapers refused to celebrate him, pointing out that he served to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-American individuals and that he was only a source of profit for slaveholders.
Sadly, as a blind autistic slave, Tom was unaware of the world around him and was unable to take care of himself.
A heartening turn in his life came in the mid-1880s, when Gen. Bethune’s son John, who was Wiggins’s guardian and primary exploiter, died in an accident leaving behind his wife Eliza Bethune and Tom.
Shortly after the death of Wiggins’ guardian, his wife, Eliza Bethune, found out that John had left her out of his will. Furious, she went to court to wrest the money-making machine ‘Wiggins’ from the Bethune family and gain guardianship—a suit supported by Wiggins’s mother. Eliza won.
After her court win, Eliza arranged for Tom to appear on the popular vaudeville circuit, starting with Brooklyn’s Orpheum Theater. He spent almost a year performing in vaudeville, before his health began to deteriorate. It is believed he suffered a partial stroke in December 1904, which ended his public performing career.
Following his partial paralysis, Wiggins kept out of public view, though neighbors could hear him play his piano at all hours of the day and night. Tom suffered a major stroke again in April 1908, and died the following June at the age of 59. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.
Lengthy obituaries appeared in newspapers around the country, but it was generally left to Black newspapers to highlight that Thomas Wiggins, the marvelously gifted pianist and composer, was exploited throughout his life.
His life story is a heart-rending tale of talent both celebrated and exploited. Despite earning a fortune for his owners and managers, he lived and died penniless, as did his mother and siblings.