A little over a year ago, I was researching the history of my hometown, Warrenton, VA, when I came across this article about Blind Tom. Black History Month is a befitting time to share the story of this extraordinary man who was born blind and autistic, but came to share with the world his phenomenal recall and musical genius.
Thomas Greene Wiggins was born into slavery in 1849 and sold at auction a year later with his parents and two brothers to the Bethune plantation in Columbus, GA. Since Tom was blind, he was thrown into the sale as a freebie. Tom’s only sign of understanding anything was his interest in sounds and the ability to mimic them. According to Barbara Schmidt, she wrote in Archangels Unaware that General Bethune told Tom’s mother that her son had as much intelligence as the family dog and began teaching Tom animal commands like “sit” and “stand.” One day before Tom was six years old, he astounded the family by reproducing the sequence of chords from memory exactly as he had heard the Bethunes’ musically talented children play them.
Tom was eight years old when he played at his first public concert in Columbus. The Athens Southern Watchman described his performance as the “most remarkable ever witnessed, one that would put to blush many a professor of music.”
When Madam Bethune died in 1858, Tom became a hired-out slave musician and was exhibited in southern and pro-slavery states as the “Musical Prodigy of the Age: a Plantation Negro Boy.” So enthralled was William Knabe, famous piano manufacturer, when he heard this musical prodigy play, he presented the 10-year-old slave with a grand piano in 1860 engraved, “a tribute to a genius.” By this age, Tom had also composed Oliver Galop and Virginia Polka. In 1861, Tom performed in Washington, DC, for the first Japanese diplomats to visit the United States.
This talented protégé could imitate a song, recite poetry in multiple languages, duplicate orations, and reproduce sounds of nature, machines, and other musical instruments on a piano. By the age of 16, Blind Tom had mastered a repertoire of complex musical works by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg.
Unbelievably, Tom’s concerts also benefitted the Confederacy. One surviving account of his performance at Camp Magnum appeared in the North Carolina Fayetteville Observer in May 1862:
“The blind negro Tom has been performing here to a crowded house…. He performs many pieces of his own conception — one, his “Battle of Manassas,” may be called picturesque and sublime, a true conception of unaided, blind musical genius…. This poor blind boy is cursed with but little of human nature; he seems to be an unconscious agent acting as he is acted on, and his mind a vacant receptacle where Nature’s stores her jewels to recall them at her pleasure.”
The Bethunes’ greed grew with Tom’s success. His parents were conned into signing an indenture agreement in May 1864 for Tom’s services for five years. The agreement was legally challenged by Tabbs Gross, a Black entertainment promoter, who claimed Bethune accepted his down payment toward an agreed upon $20,000 in gold for possession of Blind Tom. Gross said Bethune changed his mind without returning the down payment. As revealed in Professor Geneva Handy Southall’s first book, Blind Tom, the Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved, the judge allowed Bethune to keep Tom in a neo-chattel relationship (July 1865), thereby giving this ex-slave owner the authority to re-enslave his slaves — the Emancipation Proclamation be damned, which had been issued by President Lincoln in January 1863.
According to AfriClassical.com, the editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1865 even questioned the inhumane decision. “Why is Tom compelled to support the Bethunes by the talents of what [Bethune] would have us believe, an idiot?” It’s obvious that Bethune made a conscious decision to exploit Tom as an “idiot” who possessed unusual creativity, extraordinary memory, and an exceptional gift for music, all in order to continuously sell Tom’s talents for money.
In 1868, the Bethunes moved to Warrenton, VA, and two years later the son John Bethune had the indentureship agreement negated and himself appointed as Tom’s legal guardian. Tom was 21 years old and the Bethunes were realizing $50,000 annually from his concerts.
Blind Tom captured Mark Twain’s attention while he was traveling across country on his own lecture tour and writing for the Alta, a San Francisco newspaper. Twain reported that he attended Tom’s concert three nights in succession. His first-hand account of Tom’s performance sums it up superbly:
“He lorded it over the emotions of his 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; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis.”
Being Blind Tom’s custodian was a commodity. When John was accidentally killed in a train accident, his ex-wife, along with Tom’s mother, sued for custody of Tom and won. Finally, after 37 years in Bethunes’ possession since the days of slavery, he had to turn custody over in 1887. The Bethunes made an estimated fortune of $750,000 by exploiting the marvelously gifted pianist and composer, while Blind Tom lived and died penniless, and his mother and siblings lived in poverty.
Tom was 59 when he died in 1908. Kentucky newspaper editor, Henry Watterson, wrote one of the most touching tributes to Tom when news spread of his death:
“What was he? Whence came he, and wherefore? That there was a soul there, be sure, imprisoned, chained in that little black bosom, released at last.”
An autistic savant, musical prodigy is gone, but his spirit lives on through pianist John Davis, who helped revive Wiggins’ story by recording John Davis Plays Blind Tom. Davis said, “He left these pieces of music that are beautifully written, pieces of a certain style, and that to me, is ultimately going to be his legacy.”