Blind Tom Wiggins: The African-American Piano Prodigy

Blind Tom, as he was called, was an African American musical piano prodigy born on 24 May 1849 on a plantation owed by Wiley Edward Jones in Harris County, Georgia, to Charity and Domingo “Mingo” Wiggins. From birth Thomas Wiggins was blind* and in 1850, when he was three, he was sold with his enslaved parents to a Georgia lawyer named General James Neil Bethune, “the first [newspaper] editor in the south to openly advocate secession.”[1]

Blind Tom at 10 years old.

Blind Tom at 10 years old. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Bethune renamed Wiggins to either Thomas Greene Bethune or Thomas Wiggins Bethune, depending on the source. Because Wiggins was unable to perform the normal work demanded of a slave, he had no economic worth and Bethune thought of killing him. Instead Bethune left Wiggins to his own devices and so he began to explore the plantation.

He then became fascinated by sounds and began to echo the noises he heard. He was known to repeat accurately the crowing of a rooster and the singing of a bird. When left alone, he beat on pots and pans or dragged chairs across the floor attempting to make noise. By the age of four, Wiggins was able to repeat conversations up to ten minutes long but could only use grunts and gestures to communicate his own needs.

Around this same time, Wiggins heard Bethune’s daughter playing the piano and showed interest in it. He soon was able to play by ear and by age five had composed his first tune, “The Rainstorm.” In fact, his interests in music and sounds resulted in him creating numerous musical pieces over the years:

“‘The Rainstorm,’ … ‘Cyclone Galop,’ ‘Voice of the Waves,’ ‘Water in the Moonlight,’ and ‘Daylight’ all grew out of Tom’s documented fascination with the sounds of nature. The hypnotic ostinato of mechanical devices, yet another of Tom’s obsessions, was realized musically by him in both ‘Sewing Song: Imitation of a Sewing Machine’ and ‘Battle of Manassas,’ Wiggins’s signature piece. Based on a firsthand account of one of Bethune’s sons of that important Confederate victory, ‘Manassas’ employed tone clusters and mouthed effects, materials not adopted again by composers until the twentieth century.”[2]

Blind Tom in 1861.

Blind Tom in 1861. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After realizing that Wiggins had unusual talent, General Bethune allowed him to live in an attached room off his house and provided a piano for him to play. He became so attached to it, he had to be dragged away at bedtime. In fact, people said that he would have played twenty four hours a day if permitted. Bethune also soon realized that Wiggins could be financially valuable, a ‘cash cow’ so to speak. So, he therefore had his daughter instruct him, but it didn’t take long before he eclipsed her abilities and Bethune sought more talented instructors for Wiggins.

“Tom’s acute ear, phenomenal auditory memory, and natural keyboard facility allowed him to assimilate the repertoire they favored so quickly that in 1857** Bethune produced a debut for the eight-year-old at Columbus’s Temperance Hall that led to numerous other concerts around the state of Georgia.”[3]

Wiggins then began to appear under the name of “Blind Tom” and besides touring he also began producing sheet music resulting in him selling over $100,000 of it prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Of course, most this money went straight into Bethune’s pockets, but Blind Tom’s reputation as a musical marvel grew rapidly. This resulted in him obtaining an invitation to give a command performance for President James Buchanan at the White House in 1860.

James Buchanan taken between 1850 and 1868. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the Civil War broke out, Bethune found it difficult to travel north so he booked performances for Blind Tom throughout the south. According to authors H.L. Gates and E.B Higginbotham this had an unexpected advantage for the southern states as it aided the finances of the “Confederate war machine.” Moreover, Bethune figured out other ways to ensure that he was the one who gained the profit from Blind Tom’s musical abilities:

“In response to Abraham Lincolns’ 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the general persuaded Wiggins’s parents to sign an indenture agreement in 1864. This arrangement bound their son to his former owner for the next five years in exchange for ‘a good home and subsistence and $500 a year’ for the parents and ‘$20 per month and two percent of the net proceeds’ for Tom.”[4]

Blind Tom with General Behtune.

Blind Tom with General Bethune. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for General Bethune, when the Confederates lost and surrendered in 1865, his guardianship of Blind Tom was challenged by Tabbs Gross, a former slave turned show business promoter who is often identified as “the Barnum of the African Race.” The trial was of national interest and lasted six days. When the verdict was declared on 26 June 1865 it was controversial because Blind Tom was left in Bethune’s care.

Wiggins always referred to himself in the third person, even when on stage. He also applauded himself when the audience did. In addition, he was noted to be hyperactive, something that Mark Twain, the famous American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer, once observed while seeing him traveling by train in 1868. He wrote of Wiggins:

“What a wild state he was in! clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a row and a racket like everything going to pieces, whooping through tunnels running over cows — Heavens! I thought , will this devil never run his viewless express of the track and give us a rest?”[5]

When people saw Blind Tom perform, they thought he was somehow tricking them, and were always astonished. They found it difficult to believe that he could be so skilled. This resulted in the audience regularly challenging him to repeat some new and uncirculated composition. Of course, Wiggins was easily able to comply, and thus, the “audience challenge” soon became a regular part of his act. Moreover, when Twain once saw him in concert, he could not help comment:

“If ever there was an inspired idiot, this is the individual. He lorded it over the emotions of the audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams … and now and then he threw in queer imitation of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles and groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silent into tempests of laughter.”[6]

Mark Twain of 7 February 1871. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Newspapers also regularly reported on his appearance with one particularly praiseworthy article stating on 27 September 1865:

“Many professors of music of great eminence have been ready, after listening to him, to declare that they would never touch the piano again. What he has done in public in the way of playing the most difficult pieces after hearing them but once, and with a perfection that years of practice could not usually apply, is known to all the lovers of music in this city.

The secret of this wonderful power is the most perfect ear for the harmonies of sound every observed, – ‘only this, and nothing more.’ To him every thing is music. Discords do not seem to disturb him; but his ear catches every harmony, and his whole being seems entranced and controlled by it. Let him stand with his back to a piano, and any number of chords be struck, and he will instantly tell every note sounded, showing that he has been able to discriminate, and his memory to retain distinctly and perfectly, each sound. The phrenologists say that memory is in proportion to clearness and strength of the impression produced at first; and this must be the case with him. … He has been blind from birth; and it would seem here, as often observed before, that, by a compensative law of our being, in proportion as one sense is defective, the expenditure of vital energy thus saved is absorbed by some other sense. Probably all our sensations are the result of vibrations; and the pulsations of light that usually enter and give all their exquisite pleasure through the eye-ball are in his case compensated for by the pulsations of sound, which strike on an ear possessed of nerves of double delicacy and vital energy from the absorption and concentration of two senses in one.

‘Blind Tom’ is not, however, the senseless being that most imagine him, but rather like one completely guided and governed by this one sense alone. … But his performances in music show how the highest results of art and study are most easily reached by this lad in his one-sided culture and development, — that of the ear alone. It is with him a sort of inspiration.”[7]

The same year numerous scientists were asked to give their opinions about Blind Tom and his extraordinary musical abilities. One group of more than eight scientists offered the following assessment:

“Dear Sir, — The undersigned desire to express to you their thanks for the opportunity afford to them of hearing and seeing the wonderful performances of your protégé, the blind boy pianist, Tom. They find it impossible to account for these immense results upon any hypothesis growing out of the known laws of art and science.

In the numerous tests to which Tom was subjected in our presence, or by us, he invariably came off triumphant. Whether in deciding the pitch or component parts of chords the most difficult and dissonant; whether in repeating with correctness and precision any pieces, written or impromptu, played to him for the first and only time; whether in his improvisations or performances of compositions by Thalberg, Gottschalk, Verdi, and others; in fact, under every form of musical examination — and the experiments are too numerous to mention or enumerate, — he showed a power and capacity ranking him among the most wonderful phenomena recorded in musical history.”[8]

Following these assessments, Wiggins began to tour in Great Britain. The British were eager to see him as there never would be a wax figure of him displayed at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum so the only way they could see him was live. His tour showed that there was just as much excitement about him in Great Britain as there had been in the U.S. This was demonstrated by the British newspaper advertisements that appeared regularly stating in all capitals, “BLIND TOM IS COMING! BLIND TOM, THE INEXPLICABLE PHENOMENON!” After he was there for a time, the Yorkshire Gazette declared:

“The wondrous Negro Boy PIANIST, from America, whose recent Performance at the St. James’s Egyptian Halls, London, have elicited the warmest encominums from both the Press and the Public, will have the distinguished honour for giving his truly marvellous Entertainments as above. Nothing like it has ever been witnessed by living man.[9]

About the time that Wiggins’ indentured contract was due to expire, General Bethune got creative and pulled another stunt to ensure that he would maintain control of Blind Tom. Wiggins’ father had died and although his mother Charity was alive, she was living in another state when Bethune moved to Virginia. The General then found a probate judge in that state to agree to declare Blind Tom incompetent and to name Bethune’s son, John, his new guardian.

Blind Tom seated in 1880.

Blind Tom seated in 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

John then moved to New York with Wiggins in in 1875 and married Eliza Stutzbach. Eliza owned a boardinghouse and that is where they all settled. Supposedly, however, after the separation from the elder Bethune, Blind Tom was so upset that he instituted a “self-imposed semiretirement.” More problems developed when John decided he was unhappy in his marriage to Eliza and instituted annulment proceedings. However, before they were finalized, he was killed while boarding a moving train.

In the meantime, Wiggins’ mother Charity learned what had happened. She began to try to obtain guardianship over her son even though it likely meant that he would be turned over to the custody of Eliza, which is exactly what happened on 30 July 1887. The outcome of the judge’s decision was published in the Atlanta Constitution and stated:

“Judge Bond, setting in the United States district court, today decided that Thomas Wiggins, known all over the world as “Blind Tom,” the pianist, shall be delivered on or before August 16th, into the custody of Mrs. Eliza Bethune, who represents Charity Wiggins, the mother of Blind Tom, and that James N. Bethune, who has had charge of him, shall, at the same time pay over to Mrs. Bethune the sum of $7,000 for past services. The case has been in the courts for several years and has attracted considerable attention from the fact that Blind Tom has been held as chattel by the Bethune’s ever since his musical genius made him valuable. Suit was brought in the interest of his mother to regain possession of him.”[10]  

Under Eliza’s guardianship Wiggins gave fewer performances and then on 13 February 1895, General Bethune died after being critical ill for some time. In the meantime, Wiggins continued to produce new musical compositions with most of these funds being funneled to Eliza.

Because Wiggins’ performances were sporadic, rumors began to circulate that he was dead. One such story that gained traction happened in 1903 and came from a “very anonymous correspondent” who claimed to have been an eyewitness to Blind Tom’s burial. According to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle whose editor received the letter from this anonymous source:

“I know for a positive fact that the original ‘Blind Tom’ was a victim of the Johnstown flood, having played the night before that horrible calamity at a church entertainment in the town. Being a resident of Johnstown at the time and a survivor I was one of the party of rescuers who identified ‘Blind Tom’ whose real name was Thomas Wiggins, and as such he was buried. The inscription on his tombstone in the Johnstone cemetery will prove this.”[11]  

The article went on to state that despite this claim, Percy G. Williams, a manager of the Orpheum, had already engaged Blind Tom and that he had heard the rumors that Blind Tom was dead. However, Williams claimed that the dead person was not Wiggins as he was slated to appear that very week and that Williams would offer $1000 to charity if anyone could prove he was not the real Blind Tom. It was then maintained:

“It stands to reasons there could never be two such men. Blind Tom never had an equal. He is a human phonograph. He can duplicate any sound he has ever heard.”[12]

Bind Tom in 1880.

Blind Tom in 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of course, the $1,000 dollars was never paid because Wiggins was still alive. Eliza then arranged for Blind Tom to appear on a popular vaudeville circuit, and throughout 1903 he performed until his health deteriorated and he suffered a stroke around 1904, which ended his performances altogether.

Eliza had remarried and when her husband died, she relocated with Wiggins to Hoboken, New Jersey. It was there in April of 1908 that he suffered a major stroke and died a month later. He was 59. Wiggins was buried in an unmarked grave in the Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.***

After his death, numerous newspaper articles were written to honor him. Many articles noted that he was a “loss to his race.” Reports also stated that although he was a musical success, he was a huge financial failure as all the money he earned went to someone else. Nonetheless, there was one eulogy for Wiggins written by Henry Watterson, director of the Louisville Courier-Journal, that stood out:

“I cannot trust myself to write of him as I feel. It is as if some trusty, well-loved mastiff-mute but affectionate — closely associated with the dead and gone — had been suddenly recalled to be as suddenly taken away. The wires that flash his death lighten a picture gallery for me of the old, familiar faces. What was he? Whence came he? Was he the prince of the fairy tale held by the wicked Enchantress; nor any Beauty — not even the heaven-born Maid of Melody — to release him? Blind, deformed, and black — as black even as Erebus — idiocy, the idiocy of a mysterious, perpetual frenzy, the sole companion of his waking visions and his dreams — whence came he, and was he, and wherefore? That there was a soul there, be sure, imprisoned, chained, in that little black bosom, released at last; gone to the angels, not to imitate the seraph-songs of heaven, but to join the Choirs Invisible forever and forever.”[13]


*Although Wiggins had been blind as a child, it seemed that as he grew, he gained some limited sight.
**There are conflicting accounts as to whether this was his first performance or not.
***His grave was finally marked in 2002.

References:

  • [1] H. L. Gates and E. B. Higginbotham, African American Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 84.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 85.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] H. L. Gates, and E. B. Higginbotham. 2004, p. 85.
  • [5] A. Calhoun, St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street (W. W. Norton, 2015), kindle.
  • [6] “Musical Savant’s Odd Story Brought to Stage,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 3, 2002, https://www.newspapers.com/image/422672577/?terms=blind%2Btom, p. L4.
  • [7] J. M. Trotter, Music and Some Highly Musical People (Boston: Johnson Reprint, 1881), p. 150–51.
  • [8] Ibid, p. 149–50.
  • [9] Yorkshire Gazette, “Blind Tom is Coming!,” October 20, 1866, p. 6.
  • [10] The Atlanta Constitution, “Blind Tom,” July 31, 1887, p. 5.
  • [11] “’Blind Tom’ is an Issue: Did He Die at Johnstown?”,” December 27, 1903, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 16.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The New York Age, “Blind Tom,” July 2, 1908, p. 6.

Google+ Comments

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Comment