Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins – New Georgia Encyclopedia
One of the most famous American artists of the 19th century, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins was an African-American musician and composer. Blind from birth and born into slavery, Wiggins became famous for his piano virtuosity. Although he was not diagnosed at the time, it is likely that he also had autism.
Thomas Greene Wiggins was born near Columbus on May 25, 1849 to Charity and Domingo Wiggins, a couple enslaved by Wiley Jones. After discovering the child was blind, Jones refused to feed or clothe him. Wiggins’ mother intervened to save his life, and several months later Wiggins, his two older siblings, and his parents were auctioned off to General James Bethune, a Columbus lawyer. The Bethune family had seven musically gifted children who played the piano or sang, and Wiggins was there, delighted, while the children practiced. Soon he began to reproduce the music he heard on the keyboard, and Bethune realized that this young slave boy was a musical prodigy. Piano lessons were given to him, and Wiggins’ abilities soon surpassed those of his teachers. Bethune recognized his talent as a potential source of income, and Wiggins was hired at the age of nine or ten by a traveling showman named Perry Oliver. Wiggins’ demanding touring schedule often included four performances a day, and as he grew into a big man his graceful precision astounded audiences.
From his earliest years, “Blind Tom”, as he became known, could imitate many types of sounds, from bird calls to trains, with unbridled, uninhibited enthusiasm. In time, he would incorporate such effects into his musical works, imitating wind and rain, for example, and claiming that the sounds of nature taught him melodies. Blind Tom became so famous that US President James Buchanan invited him to Washington, DC, and he became the first African-American musician to perform at the White House. While on tour, he crossed paths with writer Mark Twain, who was himself on a speaking tour. Twain was so fascinated by Wiggins’ remarkable abilities that he attended three consecutive performances in 1869.
Blind Tom performances invariably contained a challenge, in which an audience member was brought onto the stage to play the most difficult piece of music they could. Blind Tom stood there, wringing his hands and doing improbable one-foot leaps in the air, anticipating the challenge and naming each note as it was played. He then took the piano back and played the piece back exactly as he heard it, flaws and all. He could also play different pieces of music with each hand while singing a third, all in different keys.
In 1861, Blind Tom was on tour in New York when Georgia seceded from the Union. He and his manager returned to the South, and his manager scheduled a number of events that would raise money for the Confederate cause. Inspired by what he heard about the war, fifteen-year-old Wiggins composed his most famous piece, “The Battle of Manassas”, a song evoking the sounds of battle interspersed with train noises and whistles, which Wiggins created himself. A biographer wrote that Blind Tom’s “perfect pitch, hypersensitive clarity, bouncy vocal chords, lack of inhibition, and total immersion in the world of sound allowed him to recreate a battlefield” harum-scarum “not like the others”. Much of the proceeds from his concerts during this period went to aid sick and injured Confederate soldiers.
Wiggins’ lack of emotional development, coupled with extraordinary musical ability, made him ideal for exploitation. After the Civil War (1861-1865), Bethune’s son John took over management of Blind Tom, and he used Wiggins’ considerable income to support his own extravagant lifestyle. This continued guardianship of Blind Tom by the Bethune family after emancipation has led some to refer to Wiggins as “the last slave”. For several years John Bethune and Blind Tom toured the United States together. Bethune hired a manager to tour with Wiggins during seasons when he was unavailable, but Bethune continued to tour with Wiggins until Bethune’s death in 1884. A series of messy court cases transferred care of Blind Tom to Bethune’s estranged wife, Eliza, in 1887. In an effort to take control of Wiggins’ income, Eliza Bethune persuaded her mother to formally cede all rights to her, and Wiggins moved in with Bethune when she moved to New York. For several years, Charity Wiggins also lived with her son in the New York home of Bethune.
Blind Tom’s final years were spent cooped up in Eliza Bethune’s house in Hoboken, New Jersey, which had been purchased with Wiggins’ earnings. He died of a stroke on June 13, 1908, at the age of fifty-nine. There is, however, considerable debate about his burial place. Initially, he was buried in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, although some argued at the time that the body buried there was not Blind Tom’s. Others believe that Wiggins was first buried there, but was later exhumed and reinterred near his birthplace in Columbus. Today, two plaques, one in Brooklyn and another in Columbus, mark Blind Tom’s possible resting places.
The story of Blind Tom became the subject of great interest at the turn of the 21st century. Articles about him have appeared in periodicals such as New Yorker and the American Oxford, and in 1999 pianist John Davis made a new recording of fourteen of Blind Tom’s original pieces. In 2002, the 7 Stages Theater in Atlanta produced a play based on Wiggins’ life titled Hush: Composer Blind Tom Wiggins. Columbus State University has a small collection of original Blind Tom sheet music.