Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. A forgotten musical genius.
On July 19th 1908, The “St. Helena Star” was one of many newspapers informing the world of the death of Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a famous African American pianist, in Hoboken, New Jersey. At the time of his death, Wiggins was known around the world for his remarkable musical talents as a pianist and a composer. Who was this forgotten prodigy of the 19th century?
Thomas “Tom” Wiggins entered the world on May 25th 1849 on the plantation of Wiley Edward Jones in Harris County, Georgia. He was one of several children born to slaves Mingo and Charity Wiggins. Thomas was blind from birth and suffered from mental disabilities. Jones refused to take care of Tom because he considered him “useless” as a slave and threatened to get rid of him. Tom’s mother intervened and persuaded Jones to sell Tom and her family to General James Neal Bethune, an attorney and newspaper editor, in 1850. It was in Bethune’s home, 5-year-old Tom first showed a remarkable gift for music despite his physical and mental disabilities.
Bethune’s daughters used to practice songs on the piano and Tom would sneak in the room after they were done and play exactly what he heard by ear. When Bethune discovered Tom’s remarkable musical ability, He had his family teach him how to play the piano and “hired” out Tom to go on a worldwide tour with promoter Perry Oliver beginning in 1860 while he was still a slave.
Oliver promoted Tom in ways no different than legendary showmen P.T. Barnum, who first gained fame in the 1830s by touring the country with an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth he claimed was the 161-year-old wet nurse of George Washington. Joice was described as an “animated mummy” and “her fingers more resemble the claws of a bird of prey than human appendages” according to one writer in “The Republican Farmer and Democrat Journal” newspaper in 1835. Tom wasn’t immune to the same descriptions in contemporary newspapers that described him as something beyond human, an idiot, an empty vessel where musical beauty pored out to entertain audiences. Many African Americans who became part of sideshows were often seen as exotic and inhuman. Modern historians now believe Tom may have been an autistic savant. Accounts describing his behavior resembled people on the autistic spectrum who showed extraordinary abilities in one domain. He was known to jump in the air on one leg, clap his hands vigorously and laugh and talk to himself when not playing music.
FAME AND EXPLOITATION
Tom published his first musical composition, “ The Battle of Manassas” in 1862 when he was only 13 years old. Tom’s fame spread so rapidly that U.S. President James Buchanan invited him to perform at the White House becoming the first African American to do so. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that abolished slavery, Bethune didn’t want to lose his cash cow and convinced Tom’s parents to indenture their son to him on May 30, 1864 in Georgia in exchange for paying them $500 a year. Although Tom was technically free from legal slavery, he remained under the care of his former slave owner unable to grasp the predicament he was in.
Bethune made over $100,000 in one year touring all over the world with Tom after the Civil War, a significant amount of money during that time. Tom continued to marvel crowds wherever he performed. Audiences were amazed at his remarkable ability to recognize musical notes and play songs he only heard once by ear. He was a gifted mimic who imitated speeches and the sounds of trains. After Bethune’s death in 1884, Bethune’s son was made the legal guardian of Tom after being judged incompetent to manage his own affairs. Tom remained in what I call “de facto slavery “for the rest of his life. He moved to New York in his later years and was said to be confined in an apartment building. Neighbors would often hear the sounds of a piano playing and see someone bring food to the room without exactly seeing who was there. One wonders what Tom may have felt despite his mental disabilities. He had to have experienced anguish, sadness and frustration.
Unfortunately, we don’t know Tom’s thoughts. The fragments of his life tell more about the people around him and the ones who exploited him for profit more than the story of the man himself.