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Blind Tom Wiggins, an African American composer and pianist, was born on this date in 1849.
From Columbus, GA., Tom was born with a condition that today's doctors might diagnose with the politically correct term "autistic savant,” one of only about 100 cases recorded in medical history. James Bethune of Columbus, Georgia purchased Tom’s father, Domingo Wiggins, a field slave, and his mother Charity Greene at auction when Tom was an infant. Because he was the blind (disabled) sickly "pickaninny," and no labor potential, he was thrown into the sale as a no-cost extra. Though Tom's parents were married, the prevailing custom of the time dictated that female slaves and their children retain the names of their owners; hence the name Thomas Greene Bethune. Bethune was a veteran of the Mexican War, a practicing lawyer, and a newspaper editor at the Columbus Times.
For the first several years of his life, Tom's only sign of human intelligence was his interest in sounds and an uncanny ability to mimic them. Charity was allowed to bring Tom with her to the main house where she worked for the Bethune family—a family of seven musically talented children who overflowed their home with singing and piano playing. When the Bethune children practiced their piano lessons, Tom listened. Once given access to the keyboard, Tom astounded the family. With his small hands and fingers, he was able to reproduce the sequence of chords from his memory exactly as he had heard them played. By age of six, Tom had started improvising on the piano and creating his own musical compositions. He would claim that the wind, or the rain, or the birds had taught him the melody. Even though a local music teacher told Bethune that Tom's musical abilities were beyond comprehension and his best course of action was simply to let him hear fine playing, Bethune provided Tom with various music instructors.
One of Tom's music teachers later reported that Tom could learn skills in a few hours that required other musicians years to perfect. In October 1857, "Blind Tom" performed before a large audience that had difficulty comprehending how a blind idiotic slave child could master the piano keyboard. Slaves with musical talent meant income for their owners, and in 1858, James Bethune "hired out" Tom to concert promoter Perry Oliver for a period of several years. It has been estimated that Bethune pocketed $15,000 from the arrangement and that Perry Oliver made profits amounting to $50,000. Tom, now age nine, was separated from his family and exhibited throughout hundreds of cities on a rigorous four-shows-per-day schedule. Not only could Tom perform world classics, he would overwhelm his audiences by turning his back to the piano and giving an exact repetition a reversal of the keys the left and right hands played.
Musicians in the audience were invited to challenge Tom to a musical duel. Tom could successfully reproduce on the keyboard any piece of music a challenger would first perform. And taking that feat one step further, he could play a perfect bass accompaniment to the treble played by someone seated beside him the first time as he played it. Tom would often push the other performer aside and repeat the entire composition alone. When audiences applauded, Tom followed suit impersonating the sounds of approval.
One of the earliest concert reviews published in the Baltimore Sun on June 27, 1860, announced to its readers that Tom was a phenomenon in the musical world, "thrusting all our conceptions of the science to the wall and informing us that there is a musical world of which we know nothing." A command performance before President Buchanan at the White House drew further attention and the press referred to him as the greatest pianist of the age, whose skills surpassed Mozart. In January 1861, Perry Oliver and Tom were in New York when news broke of Georgia's secession from the Union. Canceling further New York engagements, Perry Oliver and Tom beat a hasty retreat and Tom's talents would be used in the South giving concerts for Confederate soldiers and raising money for the Southern cause.
After the Battle of Manassas, Tom and his manager were confined in Nashville for several months and after hearing the battle discussed for several weeks, Tom sat down at the piano and produced a composition incorporating melodies representing the Union Army, the Confederate Army, and Confederate and Union leaders Beauregard and McDowell. The composition became a popular signature piece and a favorite with concert audiences in the South. In 1862, the General Bethune took up managing and traveling with Tom, always attempting to keep far south of the Union army lines and out of the line of fire. Noted writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis kept word of Blind Tom alive in the North and fascinated readers of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly with a report of Tom's abilities.
Foreseeing that the South would soon fall to Union domination, General Bethune arranged for Domingo and Charity to sign a contract giving him management of Tom until he reached the age of 21. Tom would receive food, shelter, musical instruction, and an allowance of $20 a month. The surviving parents were to receive $500 a year plus food and shelter. Bethune would retain over 90 percent of the remaining profits from Tom's performances. conservative estimates place that amount at $18,000 a year. After the War’s end, Tom was dispatched upon another tour, which included appearances in major cities of the Northern states. One of the first in New Albany, IN, became a monumental news event.
Tabbs Gross, a Negro entertainment promoter sometimes described as the nation's Black P. T. Barnum, came forward, claiming Bethune had accepted his down payment toward an agreed upon $20,000 in gold for possession of Blind Tom. He further claimed Bethune later changed his mind without returning his full payment. The Bethune entourage, with Tom in tow, hastily exited New Albany and fled to Ohio. Tabbs Gross and his lawyer pursued the Bethunes into Ohio and the civil case for ownership of Blind Tom's services came to court in Cincinnati with a flurry of newspaper attention lasting well over a week during July 1865. In this case, of a Black man pitted against a White man for possession of a Negro youngster, the judge rendered the decision in favor of Bethune.
On July 30, 1887, a federal court ordered General Bethune to surrender Tom at Arlington, VA, into the hands of Charity and the General’s former daughter-in-law, Eliza Bethune. Newspapers reported Tom, disappointed and grief stricken at the thought of having to leave Virginia and the old General, was threatening to "fight them all." On the date of surrender, General Bethune's son, James, brought Tom to the courtroom. The family, which had made a fortune estimated at $750,000 at the hands of Blind Tom, gave possession of him over to his mother, Charity, a mother he hardly knew. Tom, who brought with him nothing more than his wardrobe and a silver flute, offered no resistance when he boarded the train to leave Virginia for New York and a home with Eliza.
One month later, Tom was again on the concert stage showing no signs of emotional trauma from his latest custody battle. Now a source of income for Eliza who promoted him as "the last slave set free by order of the Supreme Court of the United States," Tom's performances continued throughout the United States and Canada. He now performed under his father's surname as Thomas Greene Wiggins. With the exception of his brief reunion with Charity, who soon returned to Georgia, nothing else had changed. Tom spent the remainder of his life in the care of Eliza, continuing his performances, concerts, and vaudeville acts until 1904.
His last days were spent in seclusion playing the piano and holding imaginary receptions. Tom died at age 59 on June 13, 1908, at Eliza's home in Hoboken. Mystery surrounds Blind Tom's final resting place. Some historians related that in a final victory for custody of Tom 20 years after his death, Fannie Bethune, the youngest surviving daughter of James Bethune, received permission to move Tom's body back to his old home in Georgia. They give his final resting place as the old Westmoreland Plantation just outside of Columbus, GA, where a historical marker has been erected.
Musician John Davis, who released a CD of Tom's music in January 2000, claims that an examination of cemetery records at Evergreens Cemetery in New York indicates the body was never moved from its original unmarked grave. Thus, controversy surrounding Blind Tom continues into the 21st century.
Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer:
Geneval Handy Southall
Scarecrow Press (2002)